Cinematography and Crime

by Palle Yourgrau

Where does this strange notion of non-punishable crimes come from?  … Isn’t it high time it were proclaimed that every discernible crime is a punishable one …? —Simone Weil, The Need for Roots

When the finger points at the moon, the idiot looks at the finger. —Confucius

Evgeny Kissin

What Happened at Verbier

At the 10th anniversary of the Verbier Festival and Academy in 1994, in Switzerland, there was an extraordinary performance of Bach’s Concerto for Four Claviers (based on a Vivaldi Concerto for Four Violins), an electrifying piece of Baroque rock n’ roll performed by an insanely gifted group of musicians that included the Russian Evgeny Kissin, who rocked the house, eclipsing even the legendary Martha Argerich.[1] Luckily for us, the performance was captured on film, now available on dvd.  Unluckily, the cinematographer or director[2] was, as usual, a criminal.  What passes for a representation of four pianists playing Bach is in fact, for much of the time, a gallery of four faces of four pianists playing Bach, though fortunately for us, the faces are noble ones, especially the Beethovenian countenance of Argerich-in-winter counterpointed by the seraphic visage of the ever-child-like-Kissin.  Still, every now and then, thanks to a merciful God, actual piano playing emerges on screen as a kind of afterthought, including even passages that musically deserve to be center stage.

Now, what happened in Verbier in 1994 is by no means an anomaly.  It is as common as sand on a beach.  It is, sadly, the norm when cinematographers and directors set out to capture a cultural event or an historic or otherwise important performance in music or ballet, or other artistic venues like figure skating.  There is, to cite another example, a dvd containing performances by four pianists, including Joanna MacGregor and Angela Hewitt, of Bach’s complete Well-Tempered Clavier, where the cinematographer/director puts to shame the crimes committed at Verbier.

Throughout, the cinematographer is as much concerned to film the rooms and walls where the performances are taking place as with the actual playing of Bach. In the opening of the particularly virtuosic Prelude and Fugue No. 21 in B Flat Major of Book I, for example, played by Joanna MacGregor with dazzling, effortless speed (reminiscent of the great Glenn Gould), the viewer does not see MacGregor’s flying fingers at the keyboard until well into the Prelude.[3]  Indeed, for what seems like an endless amount of time, the viewer does not see MacGregor at all.  Instead, he or she is treated to some slow moving camera work detailing the room where MacGregor’s playing.   Eventually, we are allowed to see the pianist actually playing the piano, but when the Fugue commences, so too, once again, does the roving camera work, which wanders over the walls and the attachments on the walls, leaving the pianist behind, though at one point giving the viewer a generous peek inside the piano (a shot familiar to all those who have experienced the recording of pianists).

Even this dubious camera work, however, pales in comparison with the cinematography of the dvd of Bach’s St. John Passion conducted by Karl Richter, which should be given some sort of award for being one the worst recordings of classical music of all time. For an amazingly large part of this powerful performance, all the viewer sees is the artwork on the walls of the church where the performance is being recorded.  (This has to be seen to be believed.[4])  But, as stated earlier, there’s nothing special about the cinematic recording of musical events.  In the wonderful performance by Gillian Murphy and the American Ballet Theater doing Tchaikovsky’s  Swan Lake that is recorded on dvd, note Murphy’s beautiful exit stage right at the end of Act I, on pointe (1 hr, 1 minute, 50 seconds is the exact time on the dvd).  Murphy fades away toward the end of the stage, or so at least I presume.  For the cinematographer chooses to move the camera from Murphy to Angel Corella, who is gazing at her.  The final exit of Gillian Murphy, the completion of the scene, the conclusion of the phrase, is invisible.  We don’t actually see Murphy complete the scene: we see someone else seeing her.  And the same, or almost the same, is true of the dvd recording of Swan Lake with the Kirov Ballet and Julia Makhalina.  True, we do actually see Makhalina complete her exit, but before that the camera switches back and forth between her exiting and her partner seeing her exit.  As with the recording of Murphy, there seems to be a confusion in the cinematography between what we’re seeing and what we’re seeing someone else seeing.  A permissible technique, of course, in the right situation, but impermissible, I suggest, when what is at issue is the recording of a great dancer – Murphy or Makhalina – actually dancing.  In both recordings, the scene has been chopped into pieces that are only reassembled in the mind’s eye of the viewer.

No less is true of the recording of more popular dance productions, like ‘Riverdance’.  In the various visual recordings of this wildly popular Irish dance show, one theme is constant: the camera over and over again focuses not on the dancers dancing but on their faces, or on just their upper bodies, or on just their lower bodies.  The complete dancer, actually dancing, is revealed all too rarely.  Indeed, it is precisely when something special is happening on the stage that the director/cinematographer moves in for the close- up, for emphasis, so that only a part of the complete dancer is visible.  It’s as if a musician, at crucial moments in the score, were to decide, for emphasis, to play especially loudly, or especially fast, or with great rubato, or in a performance of Hamlet, an actor were to make a long pause and then yell out, TO BE OR NOT TO BE!  And just as with what happened in Verbier, there is a special preference when filming dance for a close-up of the face.  Given that a dancer, unlike a pianist, is silent, this gesture is an even greater injustice committed against the artist.

And the exact same crime occurs in the recording of movement on ice, i.e. figure skating, both in competitions and exhibitions, as well as in popular touring shows.[5]  One can bet hard cash in complete confidence that if the skater is about to perform an especially great move, the camera will zoom in on his or her face, or focus entirely on her upper body, or entirely on the lower body, or even just on the skates.  As if that were not enough, the camera will often be drawn back to provide a ‘cosmic’ effect, as if the skater were being filmed from Mars.  Or else the skater will only be seen in his or her reflections in the blue ice.

Etc.  Examples like this could be exhibited ad infinitum.  What, exactly, is going on, here? What we have, to begin with, I suggest, is a failure even to grasp the concept of recording an historic cultural event.   Similar issues, I will soon affirm, arise in the cinematography of feature films, but the issue for the moment is what it means to record a cultural event. In other contexts, one might want to spend camera time setting a mood, or making a social commentary, or highlighting something of personal interest, and so on. But if one is in the business of recording for posterity a concerto or a ballet, then one is obliged to future generations to display the soloist actually playing the concerto, the ballet dancers dancing the ballet.

This doesn’t necessarily mean merely reproducing what the audience present at the event sees and hears, a point made with great force by Glenn Gould, who, as is well known, in addition to his great performances on the piano, has made significant contributions to the theory of musical recording.  On the contrary, the cinematographer is able often to improve greatly our ability to see and hear the performance beyond what a member of the audience, glued to one particular seat and point of view, experiences.  But the point is to reveal more of the performance than the audience experiences, not less.  If the camera lingers just on Martha Argerich’s face, then, whatever its emotional impact on the viewer, the result is that the actual performance, her playing of the piano, becomes, to that extent, invisible.  To be sure, the sound is still there, but if sound were the primary issue, the appropriate medium is an audio cd, not a visual dvd.

So far, I have been making aesthetic and conceptual observations, but I have also, it will be noted,  lingered on the ethical (even political) term, ‘crime’.   For the destruction or obfuscation of part of our cultural heritage, when that heritage is a one-time cultural event of a great historical performance, is no less a crime than the burning of a great painting, or a great art theft.  Yet movies are made (most recently, ‘The Monument Men’) and books written about the great Nazi art theft during WWII, while the crimes of cinematographers go unnoticed.   This reflects a prejudice of our culture, which recognizes crimes of the body – whether the body consists of flesh and blood or oil on canvas – but not crimes of the soul.  When a crime of the soul is at the same time a question of the loss, so to speak, of time – of a one time temporal event – then our culture, which doesn’t know quite what to do with time (except to turn it into space[6]), is all the more oblivious to the reality of our loss.

I mentioned the theories of Glenn Gould about the recording of music, but it is his performances of Bach, Beethoven, Schoenberg, et al., that are the ultimate source of his greatness.  Though he is long dead, luckily, many of his performances are preserved on film.   And luckily, some video recordings do enable us to see the pianist perform his magic.  Unluckily for us, however, too many entertain us with close ups of his face, while his hands remain invisible.  Or vice versa.   See, for example, a recording of a performance by Gould in 1960 of Beethoven’s dramatic ‘Tempest’ Sonata[7].  Only after forty-six seconds have passed are we granted the privilege of seeing Gould’s fingers at work. At three minutes and forty seconds into the sonata, his fingers are lost again (except for those on his ‘conducting’ hand).  They are recovered only at four minutes and forty-eight seconds – i.e. over a minute later — missing some of the most dramatic sequences of the sonata.  Etc. These losses, NB, are permanent.  Glenn Gould is not coming back to make new recordings.  His famous battle cry concerning the ‘non-take-two-ness’ of live concerts shadows him, ironically, after his death, since there is no ‘take-two’ of a misconceived recording session once the performer is dead and buried. These performances, then, are gone forever.

But, hold on, you might reply. Isn’t what is essential the Glenn Gould sound, not the Glenn Gould look?  This reply, however, defeats itself.  If it really were only the sound that matters, why make a visual recording in the first place?  The making of a visual document of a performance by a pianist presupposes, of course, that we are trying to make a visual as well as an acoustical representation of the artist performing at the piano.  If the recording, however, fails, at crucial points, to reveal the pianist actually playing the piano, it has clearly failed to achieve its purpose. A great feat of the human spirit, of our cultural heritage, a performance by Glenn Gould of Beethoven’s ‘Tempest Sonata’, will have been, to a considerable extent, lost for eternity.

‘Ornament and Crime’

Surely, if anything is a crime, this is.  Is it really any different from burning a painting, from setting fire to the Louvre?  Our culture, our free, democratic society prides itself on punishing crimes of the body.  Crimes of the spirit, by contrast, are not only not punished, they are for the most part not even recognized.  Sadly, it seems to be primarily totalitarian regimes, real (The Third Reich; Stalin’s dictatorship) or hypothetical (Plato’s Republic), that acknowledge and punish crimes of culture, crimes of the spirit. This is brought out forcefully by Morgan Meis in ‘When Hitler Was Curator’[8], an insightful and politically incorrect review of the recent exhibit of what the Nazis considered ‘degenerate art’.  Meis quotes Hitler: ‘If some self-styled artist submits trash for the Munich exhibition, then he is a swindler, in which case he should be put in prison; or he is madman, in which case he should be put in an asylum; or he is a degenerate, in which case he must be sent to a concentration camp …’  Meis comments, dryly, that ‘I suspect a number of contemporary curators and museum directors feel roughly the same way Hitler did about artists who “submit trash.”  But what made Hitler, Hitler – and not just your average Museum Director – was that he was willing to go that extra mile.  He did, actually, send artists to prison, the asylum, and the concentration camp.’  If one reads between the (already dangerous) lines of Meis’ review[9], one can discern, I think, the following message. The moral to take away from what Hitler did to artists is not, as is usually thought, that there is no such thing as a crime of the spirit, nor that there is such a thing as a crime that does not deserve punishment (recall our epigraph from Simone Weil).

To speak of crime in the same breath as aesthetics, then, points back to Hitler (as well as Plato), but at the same time it reminds us of Aldolf Loos and his classic essay, ‘Ornament and Crime’.[10]  When I first read this essay by Loos, I was charmed by his ironical suggestion that the use of ornament among the modern, in architecture and design, and also the adornment of one’s body with tattoos, were crimes.  It was disappointing to realize that this was not at all a case of irony or self-conscious hyperbole, nor of an extension of the legal use of this term to the aesthetic.  As an ironic gesture it would have been a clever and suggestive gambit, unmasking the tendency of the art and architecture of his time to mask the failure to find an original style by means of an overlay of imported adjuncts, like applying heavy makeup to an unremarkable face.   Unfortunately, it turns out that Loos swallowed hook line and sinker contemporary accounts of tattoos as quite literally the sign of a degenerate modern, or of a ‘primitive’ ancestor, as has been brought our forcefully by Jimena Canales and Andrew Herscher in ‘Criminal Skins: Tattoos and Modern Architecture in the Work of Adolf Loos’[11].  Loos was buying into an ideology, shared by Freud and Darwin, that in all seriousness associated the contemporary urge to ornament, including the ornament of one’s own body, i.e. the tattoo, with a cultural regression co-ordinate with perversion and crime, a harking back to more ‘primitive’ times and to more ‘primitive’ contemporary cultures.  As Canales and Herscher point out, ‘historians of modernism have ornamentalized and effaced [Loos’] extensive reliance on [nineteenth-century] criminal anthropology.’ (op. cit., 235)

Loos’ association of tattoos with criminality, however, it should be noted, is not entirely out of fashion, even today.  Think only of the recent scandal created by the tattoos of Colin Kaepernick, [sometime] high profile quarterback of the San Francisco 49-ers, whose body is adorned with multiple tattoos.  These tattoos offended David Whitley, who wrote a column in the Sporting News saying that: ‘Kaepernick is going to be a big-time NFL quarterback.  That must make the guys in San Quentin happy.’   Likening quarterbacks to team CEO’s, Whitley added, ‘you don’t want your CEO to look like he just got paroled.’[12] Said Kaepernic, ‘it blows my mind that people still think tattoos are just gang-related, or have negative connotations.’  And as a player for the St. Louis Rams told Kaepernick, ‘I love the fact that … [you’re] basically showing everybody that you have tattoos and are still a good person. I have tattoos and get judged for them.’[13]

Loos was also concerned that ornamented objects cost more, and deprive the poor worker of the ability to be able to afford what he needs.  This evokes memories of Marx’s labor theory of value, and also his idea of ‘alienated labor’, but we needn’t re-litigate Marx’s doctrines to see that there is something to what Loos is saying. To take an example from my own life, I recall trying to buy a friend of mine, a woman, some gloves, only to discover that there appears to be no such thing as simple men’s style leather gloves in women’s sizes. All the women’s gloves, I found, had (to my mind) awful (and ‘unnecessary’) bows, ribbons, sparkles, buckles, etc., and, just as Loos proclaimed, this unnecessary ornament was inevitably accompanied by an unwelcome price tag.  (I ended up buying my friend a simple scarf.)   Not for nothing do several women I know do some of their clothes shopping in men’s stores.

One should not be too hasty, then, to dismiss entirely even what may appear to be Loos’ most outlandish or outdated ideas, whatever may have been his original ideological presuppositions and goals.  Indeed, I would like to develop a line of thought inspired by Loos’s move, though it requires twisting his dubious, heavy-handed anthropological diagnosis into (what I hope will be) an insightful joke (although, a very serious joke).  What may, taken literally, amount to a crude mistake, might, seen ironically, reflect a spark of insight.  I will not, however, follow Loos in insisting that ornament leads to or is a predictor of crime, in the legal sense.  Rather, all too often, ornament itself is the crime, in an aesthetic sense.  The two ideas are somewhat conflated in Loos.  So, too, all too often, in responses to Loos, are the two conceptions of ornament as: a) an essential complement to or component of a piece of art, and b) an inessential addendum.[14] As with Loos, however, I too wish to make both an aesthetic point about a development of contemporary culture and a more general sociological-anthropological assessment of the meaning and significance of this trend.   My subject, however, is not the crimes of ornament but rather the crimes of cinematography (though the two are not entirely unrelated).

A Catalogue of Cinematographic Crimes

I’ve made some opening remarks about the crimes I’m referring to. It’s time to make my thesis more precise and specific, and in another respect, more general.  For the cinematographic practices I wish to indict are not confined to documenting important artistic events or performances, but are shared by mainstream films.  The crimes in the case of the latter do not, of course, directly concern the loss of our cultural heritage, but rather the damaging of our visual, cinematic culture, itself, by misunderstanding or misusing the medium of film, indeed, more generally, by misconstruing or betraying the very idea of representation.   What are these crimes (which, as will become apparent, are closely, indeed, indissolubly related to each other)?

The first we’ve already spoken of: the failure to capture or record historic performances, now gone forever, for example, by representing pianists, though not their actually playing the piano, dancers, though not their dancing, figure skaters, though not their skating, orchestras, though not their actual bowing, blowing, or plucking, etc. The case of figure skating is especially bad, since unlike in music, where there exists at least a canon of commercially available recordings, rarely if ever do there exist commercially available recordings of performances of skating events.  For the most part, live performances shown on TV are all we have, which someone may have recorded on their own.  When the director of the network camera work focuses, then, as usual, on the skater’s face, or on their skates, or on their reflections in the ice, or on the faces of the audience, the performance itself, in its fully integrity, is lost for eternity.  Sasha Cohen will never again perform her amazing short program at the 2002 Olympics.  What the camera has missed in recording her movements is now gone forever.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong in making a film about a great art work, or a great performance, in which the director employs the full resources of his or her cinematographic medium, including close-ups, mood setting shots, strange but revealing angles, etc., so long as there exists in addition a documentation of the event or performance as such.  For example, a film exploring the mysteries of the Mona Lisa could dwell at length just on the elusive smile, or the eyes, or the hands, etc., because in addition to the film, there exists the Mona Lisa itself, which one can view in its entirety in the Louvre, or failing that, in accurate reproductions in books and posters.  In the case of a concert by Martha Argerich, however, unless one was there at the actual event, all that now remains is the documentary.  If it fails to record what actually happened, nothing else is left.  The event, the work of art, is lost, destroyed, no less than if the Mona Lisa were burned and all that was left was the before mentioned film about the Mona Lisa, which provides only partial glimpses of a smile, a pair of eyes, a pair of hands, and perhaps an army of rapt viewers, from which one would have to desperately attempt to reconstruct the painting itself.  One would be left only, so to speak, with the cinematographer’s interpretation of the Mona Lisa, but not the Mona Lisa itself.

Of course, one can ask what it means to record ‘the concert itself’.  Are there privileged angles in which the cameras and microphones should be placed, etc.?  There are certainly, from various artistic perspectives, preferred angles and perspectives, but though some are better than others, none are ‘definitive’.  Shouldn’t we at least try as best we can to recreate what it was like to attend the concert? Absolutely not.   As Glenn Gould used to argue, with great force, one should not presuppose that “the” correct representation of a concert is the one that best captures what a member of the audience would have experienced.  With modern cinematographic and audio techniques, we can do much better than that (just as we can for a baseball game, revealing much that those in a large stadium containing tens of thousands of fans, trapped, each, in his or her individual seat, could not possibly have experienced).  We are trying to capture what the musician was trying to say, not to reproduce what the audience actually experienced. In this regard, Glenn Gould himself has indicated his preference for the ‘analytical’ perspective provided by judicious ‘close miking’.  Reacting, thus, to the famous recording of Sviatoslav Richter’s performance of Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ in Sofia, Bulgaria, Gould comments that, ‘Richter’s superbly lucid playing is sabotaged by some obsequious miking which permits us, at best, a top-of-the-gods half-earful.’[15]

Nevertheless, though there may be, as Gould suggests, better or worse placing of microphones in the recording of a concert, there remains a categorical difference between competing techniques in audio recordings designed to represent the event by capturing every note that was actually played, and video recordings of a concert that for vast stretches of time, utterly fail to record, visually, what the artist was actually doing.  There is all the difference in the world between a representation of a concert in which one has a chance at least to see Martha Argerich actually playing Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G (even if the camera angles chosen by the director are not ‘ideal’), and one where – as in a visual recording of a performance of the concerto with Claudia Abbado in 1969[16] — one sees, during the second movement, for seemingly endless stretches of time, only select woodwinds, while Argerich herself, playing her heart out, remains invisible.

Second, and relatedly, there is a tendency, both in documentaries of performances and in feature length films, to focus on parts of people, vs the whole person.  As emphasized earlier, too often the camera focuses on Margerich’s face, then on her hands, then back to her face, etc.. Only rarely are we treated to a shot of Argerich-entire, the complete Martha Argerich.  Cinematographers appear thus to be some sort of neo-Kantians, demanding of their viewers a kind of synthesis reminiscent of the ancient master from Königsberg in order to re-assemble the mere parts of persons they’ve been fed by the cinematographer.[17]  What is striking about this crime is that it characterizes, equally – if not more so — the cinematography of pornography.  Whereas a great deal of attention has been spent attending to the morality of pornography, especially the question of violence toward and degradation of women, almost no attention, to my knowledge, has been paid to the fact that the disassembling of whole persons, necessitating a neo-Kantian reassembly or synthesis, of cultural documentarians is indistinguishable from the practice of pornographers.   The similarity is so great, in fact, that one begins to suspect that the directors of cultural documentaries spend their spare time moonlighting as pornographers.  (This would explain a lot.)

Whereas nothing, it would seem, could be simpler than photographing people having sex, pornographers, it seems (and no less, ‘straight’ directors filming their R rated sex scenes), delight in filming parts of people – the face, then the legs, the genitals, then back to the face, etc..  Women may or may not be exploited in pornography (this is a discussion for another time), but what is rarely mentioned is that the woman, in her entirety, is largely invisible in this genre.  Only if the viewers of pornography are successful and well-practiced neo-Kantians will they be able to reassemble in their mind’s eye the actual, whole woman the camera is viewing.  And there is still more to it than this, since, in addition to their part-wise photographical representation, women in that genre frequently have all their bodily hair removed, their breasts artificially ‘enhanced’, their bodies covered with tattoos [shades of Loos], their noses, navels, and nipples pierced by an assortment of steel rings or pins, their faces and bodies plastered with heavy makeup, their voices replaced by artificial dubbing.  Why real women are employed at all in pornography, under such conditions, is a mystery.

As we said, nothing would seem to be simpler, in principle, than the concept of filming people having sex, just as nothing would seem to be simpler than the concept of filming Martha Argerich performing a concerto.  In principle, the goal in the one case is eroticism, in the other, a display of musical genius at work.  What gets in the way in both cases, I suggest, is ideology.  In both cases, the cinematographer or director has formed a pre-conception of what his or her role is in the recording of an event that relates only distantly to the actual activities they are in the business of recording.  They conceive of it as their task, their duty, to offer up to the viewer ‘the essence’ of what they are about to reveal, the essence being, in their eyes, constituted by ‘the best parts’.

Which bring us to the third crime.  In tandem with a focus on parts vs. wholes, there is a tendency to focus only on the ‘best parts’.   For directors of cultural documentaries, the “best parts” are often the faces, or the finger tips of the musicians, the feet of the dancers or skaters, etc.. For pornographers (of straight sex), naturally, the best parts of women are the breasts, or the lips, or the genitalia, etc., which become, detached from their owners, the true stars of pornographic films.  This fetishism of ‘the best part’ is not a trivial mistake.  It represents a misunderstanding that is at once natural and irresistible, and at the same time indicative of a philosophically deep confusion.  Wittgenstein puts his finger on it:  ‘Raisins may be the best part of a cake,’ he writes,  ‘but a bag of raisins is not better than a cake … A cake – that isn’t, as it were, thinned out raisins.’[18] This is an amazingly perceptive remark.  Kids, for whom not raisins but icing is the best part of a cake, discover the force of Wittgenstein’s observation the hard way. Skipping the cake and going straight for a plate full of icing, they discover too late, results only in a frustrating belly-ache and deep moral confusion.  How can it be, they wonder, that icing can be the best part of a cake and yet to skip the cake entirely and go straight for a plate full of icing leads not to fulfillment but to belly-ache?  What kind of a world are we living in?  What kind of a God would do this to us?

And yet adults are no less susceptible to this confusion than are their children.  If you turn just to the best part of your favorite novel, or symphony, or meal, or romantic relationship and try to eliminate the rest, the results will never fail to disappoint.  Supposing the ‘best part’ of the Mona Lisa is her famous smile, of what aesthetic value is her smile alone?   A smile is not a woman, even though, in a particular case, it might be her ‘best part’. What good is a smile without a face? And the same goes for music.  You might get a special thrill from the high notes achieved by The Queen of the Night in Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’, but playing just those notes is no substitute for the actual opera, or even the individual melodies.  The best part, after all, remains just a part, and even the most important part of a whole attains its significance only as part of the whole.

Which is not to say, however, that one should never ‘edit’ a great work of art if one believes it has not been sufficiently edited by its creator.  For my part, I routinely edit or re-record ballets, partitas, preludes, etc., omitting sections I consider unsuccessful.  Is one obliged, for example, to take all the repeats indicated in the score for Bach’s Goldberg Variations?  In the great recordings by Glenn Gould, the repeats are omitted, and to my ears, the result is convincing.  The same is true of his recordings of Bach’s Partitas.  When I find another fine recording of Bach which includes the repeats, I re-record, if possible, eliminating the repeats. My aesthetic taste or judgment in such matters, like Gould’s, may be questioned, but I do not plead guilty to the charge of taking the part for the whole.  Rather, I, like Gould, am attempting to assemble a more perfect whole.  Are not Gould and I, however, guilty, nevertheless, of a moral failing, betraying the wishes of the composer and the performer (a charge that has in fact not infrequently been leveled at Glenn Gould)?  No.  The composer and the performer do have a right to have their name attached only to the piece or performance they actually composed or played.  But there is no right of anyone to have the notes they composed, or the performance they rendered, forever unaltered, under someone else’s name, so long as full credit is given to the original author whose work is being revised.[19]  Ethics and aesthetics are indeed intricately connected, as I am clearly maintaining in this essay, but one must get the interrelationship right.[20]

One must also not fail to neglect the fact that co-ordinate with the tendency to focus on the best part is perverse attachment of many cinematographers to the close-up, which also destroys the integrity, indeed, the meaning, of the whole. (In a just world, each unnecessary close up would earn the director a heavy fine.)   Of course, like other cinematographic techniques, the close-up has its proper place, but it is not its proper place to assist in the crime of excessive attachment to “the best part”, which attempts to substitute a part for the whole.  Once again, this is a crime cultural documentarians share with pornographers, more evidence, as it were, that they are in bed with one another.  And, once again, there is a conceptual confusion taking place.  A microscope or a telescope can reveal what is invisible to the naked eye.  But a close-up of two pairs of lips kissing, or of the lips of a trumpet player, do not reveal hidden truths (about kissing or trumpet playing) that would otherwise be invisible.   You simply cannot reveal, visually, the soul of a musician, no matter how tight the close-up, and you cannot uncover the heart of eroticism no matter how close the camera gets to bodily parts.

Nor can one reveal the essence of speed by slowing it down.  Yet, in another attempt to focus on “the best part”, cinematographers routinely resort to the device of slow motion, kin to the technique of the close-up.  Precisely when the action reaches a climax, when things are most intense, when motion is of the essence, the director, paradoxically, will slow things down to a snail’s pace.  In how many films about horse racing does the director switch to slow motion to record the race down the final stretch?  Just to take just one example, think of the dramatic race to victory at the conclusion of the highly regarded film, “Sea Biscuit”. In a film devoted to speed, the climactic scene is filmed in slow motion!   Once again, we see a misguided attempt to make ‘the best part’ stand apart, to reveal its true nature, at the expense of destroying the very meaning of the action.  The same with the great gunfight scenes in Westerns.  In how many films of the legendary Gunfight at the OK Corral does not the director or cinematographer slow down the action so that the quick-draw artists with six-guns move with the speed of molasses?  When Butch and Sundance, in ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’, serving as payroll guards in South America, are forced to draw down on some nasty bandits, the director not only films the violent scene in slow motion, he slows down the audio, so that even the sound of the scene is heard in slow-distortion.

And pornographers, naturally, follow suit.  In how many of their films do they not slow down the climax scene to a snail’s pace?  This is so patently absurd, that, as suggested before, it can only be explained by the dominance of sheer ideology over what the eyes see, the heart feels.  ‘This is the crucial scene,’ one hears the director saying to him or herself.  ‘I must do something special to highlight it, to draw attention to it, to focus the viewer’s attention.  I need a close-up, I need to get up tight in the performer or actor’s face, and then to slow things down, so that every split second can be lingered over.’  That in the process, the scene is thereby distorted, indeed, turned inside out – that what is essentially fast and intense, becomes slow and placid — is not a fact that can compete with the dominance of ideology, with the succumbing by the director to a sense of self-importance.  ‘Leave the bloody thing alone!’ was a common cry of Wittgenstein’s when people kept fussing with things they were fixing or setting up or arranging, people who suffered from the feeling that it is always better to do more, that their fingerprints should be evident.  Wittgenstein’s cry should be tattooed onto the arms of every cinematographer.

Which brings us to the fourth (and final[21]) crime: a tendency among directors, too often, to pay excessive attention the reaction to an event, in contrast to the event itself.  We have already drawn attention to Gillian Murphy’s beautiful exit scene at the end of a performance of ‘Swan Lake’, where the camera breaks up the exit into pieces in order to catch her partner watching her leave the stage.  And the same with the same scene we alluded to in a famous recording of the Kirov Ballet.  In both cases, not only is the ‘mirror’, so to speak, substituted for the thing itself, the ‘integrity of the phrase’, the ‘unity of the gesture’, so important to an artistic performance, is destroyed.  And, once again, the same is true of all too many scenes in feature films. I will mention only the scene in ‘All the King’s Men’ where the famous figure skater Nicole Bobek entertains Sean Penn with some sexy skating.  Of course, we do need to see Sean Penn watching Nicole Bobek, but at the same time, once it is established that he is caught up in watching, or leering, at her, we need to see Nicole Bobek actually doing her sexy skate.  But no, unless we are neo-Kantians with a powerful capacity for synthesis, we’re out of luck, since the cinematographer cuts from Bobek to Penn, from Penn to Bobek, from Bobek to Penn, …,  every second or two, so that we never actually see what Penn is supposed to be seeing.  In a scene that lasts approximately a minute and thirteen seconds, a rough count reveals thirteen shifts back and fourth from Bobek to Penn.[22]

And need I point out that moving from feature films to pornography, the exact same phenomenon occurs: at the very moment of climax, the camera shifts from the action itself to a close up of the man’s face. That even in a genre dedicated to showing the un-showable, to representing one of our most primitive, naked desires, the cinematographer shifts the camera from the climax of the action to the actor’s response to it, to his mirroring of his own actions, indicates that something deep in the nature of contemporary cinematography is being revealed here, a kind of withdrawal from, or insecurity about ‘the thing itself’, a need to reinforce its reality by recording our recording of it — not a Husserlian phenomenologist’s ‘return to the phenomena’, but rather a kind of Berkeleyan phenomenalist’s retreat to ‘ideas in the mind’.  Thus, the openness to things themselves that is one of the glorious possibilities of the technique of video recording is neutered by the cinematographer’s ontological insecurity before the nakedness of reality, even when, as in the case of the pornographer, the reality is nakedness itself.  In contrast, then, to Laura Mulvey’s emphasis in her classic essay, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’[23], on ‘… a woman’s to-be-looked-at-ness …’ in cinema and the transfixing effect of the male gaze, I am drawing attention to the paradoxical quasi-invisibility of women in pornography and the attendant to-be-looked-at-ness of the man gazing at the woman in the very climax of the erotic scene.     

                                                           Why Plato Banished the Artists

This final crime of substituting one’s psychological reaction to an event for the event itself reminds one of what Simone Weil said in ‘Morality and Literature’[24] about the literature of the twentieth century, that it is “essentially psychological.” (p. 168)  It is psychological because it ‘consists in describing states of the soul by displaying them all on the same plane without any discrimination of value.’  Without wishing to take exception to this characterization, my point here is about cinematography, not literature, and the ‘psychologism’ to which I am drawing attention, though it also relates to the states of the soul, consists in the substitution of states of the soul, or of the mind, for the reality it mirrors that is a characteristic disorder of much contemporary cinematography, whether in cultural documentaries or feature films.  With Weil, I take artists, whether writers or cinematographers, to have moral responsibilities as custodians of the beautiful, and hence, of our souls.  Weil was not joking when she wrote (in 1941), in ‘The Responsibility of Writers’ (op. cit.), that ‘I believe in the responsibility of writers of recent years for the disaster of our time.  By that, I don’t only mean the defeat of France; the disaster of our time extends much further.’  (p. 166)  As custodians of the beautiful, artists are not absolved from moral responsibility.  There is no such thing as a free pass that excuses you from the burdens of morality, artist or not. ‘Art for art’s sake’, as Simone Weil insisted, excuses nothing.[25]

Loos, too, believed, in his own way, that there is no separating aesthetics from ethics, as did Plato, of course, who (in)famously ‘banished the artists’ from his Republic.  As serious students of Plato understand, this was not because he undervalued art but rather because he held beauty in such high esteem. As Iris Murdoch put it in The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists[26], ‘Plato wants to cut art off from beauty, because he regards beauty as too serious a matter to be commandeered by art.’  (p. 17)  One can sympathize with Plato without being so discourteous to artists, and in any case, Plato was speaking only of his ‘ideal’ Republic, and what exactly that means is, and always has been, highly debated.  Rousseau, famously, in his Letter to M. D’Alembert on the Theater[27], took Plato seriously, indeed, and Glenn Gould’s musicological Platonism was matched by his Platonic desire to see art, as such, eventually ‘phased out’ due to (what he took to be) its deleterious moral effects.  One need not go so far as these thinkers, of course, in order to agree that there is a moral burden born by the arts, and that crimes of the soul are no less a moral danger than those of the body.  Weil’s provocative suggestion that crimes of the soul, in contrast to those of the body, should not be excused from punishment should likewise not be dismissed out of hand, in spite of the uncomfortable association with totalitarianism.

I have spoken of both cultural historians, documentarians of historic cultural events, as well as cinematographers of feature films, and both have moral responsibilities[28], though they differ.  Documentarians have a duty to preserve our cultural past, and one cannot emphasize too strongly how great a duty this is.  As Simone Weil puts it in The Need for Roots: A Prelude to A Declaration of Duties Toward Mankind (p. 49), ‘… we possess no other life, no other living sap, than the treasures stored up from the past and digested, assimilated and created afresh by us. Of all the soul’s needs, none is more vital than this one of the past.’  And yet, thanks to the handiwork of cinematographers, much of the spiritual treasure represented by great performances of Glenn Gould, Martha Argerich, et al., are now lost to us forever.  That the burning of books and paintings is universally condemned, while silence presides over the losses due to the failures of cinematographers says much about the moral level attained by contemporary culture.

Directors and cinematographers, in turn, of feature films have a moral responsibility not to betray the possibilities provided them by the technologies of their chosen art form.  As citizens, of course, they are free to do as they choose, but as creators and purveyors of art, they are no less morally responsible than writers, about whom Weil has written so forcefully.  ‘It is impossible,’ she wrote, ‘for literature to be exempted from the categories of good and evil to which all human activities are referred.’[29]  This is as true for fictional narratives as for those (supposedly) based on fact, for fictional feature films as much as for cultural documentaries.  Indeed, as Weil points out, ‘… the substance of our life is almost exclusively composed of fiction.’[30]  One can dispute or amend the catalogue of cinematographic crimes I have outlined.  It makes no pretense to completeness.  What I cannot, however, agree is subject to dispute is the category I have attempted to uncover in creating such a list.  Adolf Loos was onto something, whatever his outdated presuppositions about tattoos, criminals, and ‘primitive’ cultures and peoples when he wrote ‘Ornament and Crime’, and I hope I, in turn, have succeeded in pointing to something real, something of moral as well as aesthetic significance, in the matter of cinematography and crime.

* * *

[1] For the record, the other pianists are the conductor, James Levine, and Mikhail Pletnev.  The orchestra includes, among others, Gidon Kremer and Mischa Maisky.  In other words, a who’s who of musicians, all around.  You can find the performance on youtube:

[2] Throughout, I will speak indifferently of cinematographers and directors, intending by either expression the person responsible for whom or what the camera is pointed at during the filming of an event or the making of movie.

[3] Check it out on youtube:

[4] You can see it on youtube:

[5] If someone objects to my mentioning figure skating in the same breadth as a performance by Martha Argerich, I, in turn, must render my objection to this objection.  This is not the place however, to make a case – which I’m prepared to make – that a great figure skater, like Sasha Cohen, Angelika Krylova, Margarita Drobiazko, or Ekaterina Gordeeva, et al., is a great artist in the fullest sense of the term, no less than a ballet dancer or a concert pianist.   Recall the famous quote that Ginger Rogers did everything her partner, Fred Astaire, did, only backwards, in high heels.  Figure skaters, in turn, in particular, ice dancers, do everything ball room dancers do, backwards and forwards, only flying on a quarter inch thick steel blade across an acre of blue ice.  Gillian Murphy may fly through the air beautifully in ‘Swan Lake’, but unlike Sasha Cohen in her performance to music from Tchaikovsky’s ballet, she gets to land on solid ground, not, like Cohen, after twisting around three times in mid air, on slippery ice.

[6] See Palle Yourgrau, ‘When Time Turned Into Space’,

[7] You can see it on youtube:


[9] Meis reminds us of what Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for The New Yorker, wrote in his review of the exhibit, that ‘further complicating matters, not all the “degenerate” artists were first-rate, or even very good …’, whereas some paintings admired by Hitler are actually quite good. ‘This breaks down,’ comments Meis, ‘the boundaries between us (the right thinking people), and them (the inscrutably evil Nazis).’

[10] In Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays, transl. by M. Mitchell, Ariadne Press, Riverside,


[11] Architectural History, 48: 2005, 235 – 256.


[13] If one recalls the traditional Jewish proscription against tattoos, once again we see that Loos is not alone in finding something problematic about this custom. This is not the place to enter into the complex question of tattoos in Judaism, but it is well to recall, for example  ‘You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.’ (Leviticus 19:28)  Recall also that Maimonides himself says: ‘This was a custom among the pagans who marked themselves for idolatry …’  (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry 12:11).  Yet, as is often pointed out, what of God himself ‘marking’ men’s flesh via circumcision?  See Elaine Scary, The Body in Pain, Oxford University Press, New York, New York, 1987.

Is the prohibition an example of God’s jealousy (of his own ‘brand’)?  Aaron Demsky of Bar-Ilan University, in ‘Writing’ (Encyclopedia Judaica), cites other references: ‘See, I have engraved You on the palms of my hands …’ (Isaiah 49:16), and ‘… is a sign on every man’s hand that all men may know his doings.’ (Job 37:7).

[14] When Canales and Herscher, op cit., p. 236, say that Loos failed to ‘consider … ornament as it had traditionally been understood as an inherent feature of any artistic work’, they are clearly focusing on conception b), ornament as an inessential addendum.   As is well known, Loos had no objections to ornament in conception a) in its ‘proper place’, i.e. in a style and in a tradition where it was organically connected to a work of art, and thus contributed to its value, rather than, as he believed, in much of the architecture and crafts in his time as in his city (Vienna), where it masked its true value.

[15] “The Prospects of Recording”, p. 334 in Tim Page, ed., The Glenn Gould Reader, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1984.

[16] As recorded on youtube:

[17] Or, to change the metaphor, perhaps cinematographers suffer from Picasso-envy, and wish to share in the glory of disassembling their subjects into little cubes which they delight in rearranging as suits their fancy.  A commendable ideal in art, but a deplorable goal if the aim is to preserve for history a cultural event.

[18] Culture and Value, 66e.  Wittgenstein was comparing his aphorisms with those of Karl Kraus, but his point stands on its own and generalizes.  Indeed, it can be seen as in effect a sly critique of Plato’s theory of Forms (of which Wittgenstein elsewhere offer explicit critiques), whether or not Wittgenstein intended it as such.  The Form of x represents for Plato not just the “idea” of x but the ideal x, or the perfection of x.  One might wonder, however, whether this is an adequate substitute for x, itself. As Leo Strauss has noted about the Form of Bed in The Republic, an actual, ordinary bed is much better for sleeping purposes.  As Strauss says, ‘… while it is obviously reasonable to say that a perfect circle or perfect justice transcends everything which can be seen, it is hard to say that a perfect bed is something on which no man can ever rest …’  (‘On Plato’s Republic’, in The City and Man, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1964, p. 120)  The conclusion Strauss draws from this example, I agree with, namely that a) Plato did not really intend to extend his theory of Forms to artifacts like beds, in spite of his rhetorical claims in The Republic, and that b) only for certain values of x – such as justice – does the ideal x, or the Idea of x, the Form of x, represent the ultimate reality we seek.

[19] Think, for example, of the famous Bach-Busoni transcriptions for piano.

[20] But isn’t the Platonic Form of x, in effect, the ‘best part’ of x, and if so, are we here casting aspersions on Plato’s philosophy?  Indeed, hinted at earlier, wasn’t Wittgenstein, a great opponent of Plato, or at least of Platonism, in effect, whether intentionally or not, providing in his raisins vs. cakes analogy a powerful argument against the Theory of Forms?  This is a large and difficult question.  Here, we can only attempt the beginnings of an answer.  To begin with, the relationship of the Form of x to x is not the same as that of part to whole.  On the contrary, when there is a Form of x, for Plato, the Form represents, as it were, the “real” x. Even the term, “essence”, is not strong enough, here.  For the essence of x is still no substitute for x itself (the essence of a cake may be its recipe, but you can’t eat a recipe), whereas the Form, for Plato, is.  (Which implies, obviously, that for Plato there is no Form for chocolate cake, just as, we suggested earlier, there is no Form for artifacts like beds.)  If one grasps, for example, the Form of Beauty, there is nothing one is missing vis a vis what is beautiful, including seeing beautiful paintings, like the Mona Lisa, though for human beings, there is no doubt no substitute for viewing paintings like the Mona Lisa to assist us in trying to grasp the Form of Beauty.

Still, Plato, like Socrates, seems to believe that the soul is our best part.  Does that mean that only the soul really matters?   Just this question Aristotle famously struggles with in Bk 10, Chapter 7 of the Nichomachean Ethics: ‘If happiness is activity in accordance with excellence, it is reasonable that it should be in accordance with the highest excellence; and this will be the best thing in us … [and] this activity is contemplative. … But such a life would be too high for man; for it is not in so far as he is a man that he will live so, but in so far as something divine is present in him …’ (J. L. Ackrill, ed., A New Aristotle Reader, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 1988; emphasis added)  By contrast, for Plato, it seems, the soul is not simply our best part.  In a deep sense, it is what we ‘really are’.  But isn’t that the role reserved for Forms?  This brings us to another difficult question in Platonic interpretation, which I can’t go into here.

[21] ‘Final’, only because no attempt is made here to provide a complete list.  Stopping at four is more or less arbitrary.  I could go on indefinitely with such a list.

[22] Here’s the scene on youtube:

[23] Screen, 16, no. 3, 1975,  ppg. 6 – 18.

[24] In On Science, Necessity, and the Love of God, Ed. and Transl. by Richard Rees, Oxford University Press, London, 1968.

[25] ‘There is … no reason,’ wrote Weil, ‘for placing such books … as André Gide’s Caves du Vatican [in which the hero shoves someone off a train just to accomplish a pure, unmotivated act, a scene that had a practical affect on young people’s lives] … behind the inviolable barrier of art for art’s sake, and sending to prison a young fellow who pushes somebody off a train in motion.’  (The Need for Roots, Ark Paperbacks, London and New York, 1952, Transl, A. F. Wills,  p. 24) To be sure, there are distinguished intellectuals like Susan Sontag who, though they admire Simone Weil’s exemplary stoic life, are suspicious of these extreme ideas of hers.  For a defense of Weil’s ideas that goes against the tide, see Palle Yourgrau, Simone Weil, Reaktion Books: ‘Critical Lives’, London, 2011.

[26] Viking, New York, 1990.

[27] Transl. Allan Bloom, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 1968.

[28] I have also, of course, spoken of pornographers.  Do they too have moral responsibilities?  Of course.  As I said earlier, no one gets a free pass on the burdens of morality.  But I’m not speaking here of the much debated issue of whether pornography as such does violence to and degrades women, nor of its encouraging a pervasive tendency of men toward dominance, a ‘will to power’, if you will.  (Indeed, many art forms encourage this deplorable tendency.  See Norman Lebrecht, The Maestro Myth: Great Conductors in Pursuit of Power, Citadel Press, New York, New York, 2001)  I am talking of crimes against sex, itself, something of enormous importance, needless to say, to humankind.  To mimic what Iris Murdoch said about Plato on beauty, one could say that sex is too important a phenomenon to be left in the hands of pornographers, or cinematographers, more generally.  The fact that pornography, as such (as opposed to its constitutional mishandling by “the professionals”) is generally held in such low repute, I suggest, is itself a crime against the human condition.

[29] ‘Morality and Literature’, op. cit., p. 161.

[30] Op. cit., p. 161.

* * *

Palle Yourgrau is the Harry A. Wolfson Professor of Philosophy at Brandeis University. He is the author of Gödel Meets Einstein: Time Travel in the Gödel Universe (Open Court), A World Without Time: The Forgotten Legacy of Gödel and Einstein (Basic Books; translated into 9 languages), Simone Weil (Reaktion Books, UK), and (most recently), Death and Nonexistence (Oxford University Press).  He rarely gives public lectures, and even more rarely, travels. This summer, however, he traveled to Vienna to give a keynote lecture at the University of Vienna at a conference —  “Gödel’s Legacy: Does Future Lie in the Past?” — celebrating Einstein’s relativity and Gödel’s contributions to relativity (and “time travel”).