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Affect and the Objects of Robert Croma’s Web Cinema
affect and the objects
of Robert Croma’s
I’ve written 5000 words, another 2 or 3000 to go to get this figured out.
The web specific short films of Robert Croma. They matter because they’re worth writing about and
there is a lack of writing about this sort of work. That’s a small ‘h’ hermeneutics. They also make some
propositions that are worth speculating about and with.
I want to get the ‘slow’ out of the way up front. These films rely on an implicitly slow method of
observing, recording and crafting. They are also slow because they routinely use forms of slow motion.
They are also slow because, certainly for the best ones, you need to watch and wait for what they want
to show. (They are the antithesis of YouTube’s attention economy.)
Their explicit slowness is, I think, the least interesting thing to say about these films. I’m more interested
in how they relate to affect, and to what I want to describe as their flatness, and how these two terms,
affect and flatness, then provide ways to think about slowness.
In Cinema One Deleuze contrasts the early history of cinema as a particular type of image making
in relation to other sorts of image making such as painting and photography. For Deleuze the
cinematic apparatus offers a ‘scientific’ machine vision where the lens and film substrate is indifferent
to that which it records. You point, shoot, it films. Here ‘I’ as camera person may not be indifferent to
what I film, but the machine in itself doesn’t care, and so is an indifferently automatic procedure.
This is the “any instant whatever” where science’s empirical objectivity, the imperative to observe
is repeated within the mechanical
apparatus of the film camera. Twenty four frames a second, no matter what is in front of it. Each
moment, for the recording machine, is the same as the previous, and will be the same as the next.
They are, in relation to each other, produced through a procedure of ‘flatness’ (what Deleuze calls
‘equidistant points’), and so are unlike an album of snapshots or a folio of drawings, and no matter
what a human interlocutor may make of them, the film images form a series where any one is, in
itself, equal to the others.
Deleuze recognises that the film camera is in itself indifferent to what is recorded. This indifference is
unlike painting, where the time and effort to make means that what is painted is always in some sense
posed and that what is sought is the expression or representation of something quintessential about
that which has been painted.
Similarly, the earlier history of the photograph inherits these qualities through its use of the pose —
modelled for example on particular forms of portraiture — and of course reinforced by the slowness of
early photography where a subject literally had to be held still to allow for a photograph to be taken.
In these cases the pose is outside of the everyday. The pose is not informal, quotidian happenstance
but carefully staged and framed to express and signify import, to document and demonstrate that the
posed subject expresses some essence, and reaches outside to tie the photograph into an imaginary
grander history of other such poses.
The concept of the ‘pose’ requires that there is an ideal form which expresses the essence of a
moment, event, thing and that this posing appears just so, yet in fact is deeply staged, reflecting a
Platonic ideality that is always fallen in the relation between pose, image, and the world.
The pose then presents itself as a privileged moment outside of any actual moment, yet within this
moment of the pose is the idea that this is a moment that matters because it is of and outside of the
time of the everyday. This is not the economy of film and the camera’s disregard of what it records,
means that within the flatness of these any–instant–whatevers arises the possibility of a privileged
instant. This is the accidentally recorded moment that, as a consequence of an indifferent recording, is
not only captured but able to be replayed, reviewed, and rewatched.
(I am thinking for example of one sequence in de Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief” where the father and
son run across a road. The boy takes a tumble, all helter skelter akimbo and though I don’t know the
way he falls is not with that second guessing of the staged fall, but he ran as asked across the road and
the film has caught the accident, and de Sica has kept it.) These accidental moments are privileged not
because they are the pose, but because they are unveiled through the indifference of their recording as
a moment or point that becomes a peak because of the flatness of their surrounds.
For Deleuze, following Bergson, the cinema begins or arises within a sensory motor economy of
action and reaction. The world is made up of things that act and react on other things in a multiplicity of
ways. In this sea of action and reaction most relations and events are automatic to the extent that they
follow what we can call the laws of nature (of physics, chemistry and so on). In these cases the relation
of action and reaction is unconsidered, it just happens (think the relation of ice in a glass of water and
the relations between ice, water, glass, air, temperature gradients and so on). However, there is a
special case of action and reaction where an interval exists between action and reaction where this
interval becomes a gap so that the reaction that may happen is no longer automatic, but is now subject
to choice. In this context there become possible reactions in response to action. This interval, what
Bergson describes as a “living image” is used by Deleuze to produce the tripartite basic schema of
cinema’s movement image, which is made up of perception, affect, and action images.
The first are those shots where we see what is to be noticed, the second is where a decision is to be
made, and the third is where we see the consequence of that decision realised as an action. We see
the gun, we see the hero and the villain seeing each other see the gun, we see both race to get it —
notice, decide, do. In this constellation affect becomes not only the need for a decision, but becomes
enlarged as that interval where decision is foregrounded, and more specifically where the action
undertaken in response to perception, that is the action decided upon, is inadequate or insufficient in
relation to what has been noticed.
Here affect is a remainder, that which action in acting fails to dispel. For example, I see a snake and
leap, yet still feel fear and anxiety even when now obviously safe, as the perception of danger is not
resolved by the merely physical action of my leap. This excess becomes and is affect, and is why
emotion becomes attached to these events as emotion becomes defined as a perception that cannot
be realised through a motor action.
Or perhaps not so much indecision but, where a film is dominated by the affect image it concentrates
on the inadequacy or insufficiency of decision in the light of the action required, or the action of what
This is the regime of the movement image, where Bergsonian duration is realised via these three
varieties of the movement image. Within this schema affect, that which lies between perception and
action, is an interruption to movement and action and has the capacity to suspect movement into the
slowness of duration.
In Alien Phenomenology Ian Bogost appropriates the term ‘ontography’ as a particular method to
name, describe and inscribe the density of the world. His is a method that participates in the recent turn
towards what is I think ironically and with complete deadpan humour described as Object Orientated
Ontology. This is a theory that, in a crude nutshell, argues that much of philosophy and critical theory
has offered a Ptolemaic view of the world (what Meillassoux describes as ‘correlationism’). OOO, in its
turn, offers itself as a Copernican revolution, where the human as an orientating, intending, or
originating site is shifted aside to grant object hood in its own right to everything else. Here all things
have relations between themselves, and these relations are of the same qualitative scale as relations
between the human and the world, or between human and human.
In this reconception of objects and their relations Bogost proposes ontography as a way to approach
this thickness of things by creating what are catalogues of such things and their connecting and
disconnecting into different objects or units. Here objects rule, but an object is never a single discrete
thing but a constellation, and as one constellation may connect or engage with another it too becomes
a new object or unit in itself. (For me this appears to be not very distant from my understanding of
Deleuze’s Bergson and the ways in which all things have facets or orientations which may or may not
become addressed to the facets of other things.)
This is easy to understand using cinema as an example. We have a unit, called a shot. The shot is a
thing in its own right, perfectly whole. However, we can and do join one shot to another and this now
forms a new object called a sequence, and is for all intents and purposes a new thing (this is what
Christian Metz outlines, using different terms and methodologies, in Section Three of Film Language).
This sequence can in turn be joined to other sequences to make a film, which in turn is also its own
object. Similarly, there can be parts of a film that can be reprised in different ways to make new objects.
For example, the “I could have been a contender” speech made by Brando in Kazan’s 1954 On the
Waterfront is quoted in Scorsese’s Raging Bull and Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. As Bogost
describes, ontography “is a practice of exploding the innards of things — be they words, intersections,
shopping malls or creatures. This “explosion” can be as figurative or literal as you like, but it must
above all reveal the hidden density of a unit.” (Loc 1297.)
Here the world is resolutely flat as there is no hierarchy or privilege within or between these objects.
There is the Brando plus De Niro plus Wahlberg object. This flatness, like the web and hypertext, lets
things be equidistant from each other, and in this flatness we make peaks and valleys with what we will.
These films are not narrative. They are too directly observational and fragmentary to offer a story. This
is a strength indicating a self confidence that they matter for themselves without needing the flimsy or
filigree of a tale, and that the world offers things worth noticing of themselves if we wait, watch, or better
yet, just see.
(This latter point is almost straight from Bazin, where his celebration of a particular notion of ‘realism’,
coupled with his Catholicism, offered a vision of film making that became less about the imposition of a will
upon the world (of the screen, the camera, the story) than the revealing of what is immanently there, an
ethics of looking to find what is there, already.)
I can, of course, create narratives about these films. Wondering who they are, why they are there, what
they may be thinking, doing, and even what happens next. However, these are outside of the films,
applied retrospectively to perhaps solidify what is fluid, and unnecessary to each of the works in
themselves. They are, narratologically, offering description, not narrative, those moments in a story where
causation and drive is suspended to simply describe, where story time pauses so that, for instance, a
sequence of shots might characterise and contextualise a location (the opening of Allen’s Manhatten, what
Metz in his canonical taxonomy calls a ‘descriptive syntagma’).
So we get description, small grained, partial, fragmentary yet clearly of the world, and in many of these
a privileged instant reveals itself. At this moment the small film folds out of itself into ever larger sets of
possible relations. Neither are they lyrical, their happenstance and accidental everydayness and
ordinariness suggests they avoid the subjective declaration that lyric relies upon. These are films that
spend their energy not in telling us how Croma feels, but render visible things through an assemblage of
place, stuff, lens, camera, Croma, software, and the web. [Qoute about assemblage here]
They are, in Bogost’s terms, ontographic.
Croma’s films are ontographic. I’m not sure if this helps us think about the films, or ontography, or
both?). In the density of their brief moments expanded through observation, recording, slow motion,
and post produced effects, they reveal in their slowness the thickness and density of the world. The
films seem to participate as an object that is not quite indifferent to the world — they do not form a
surveillance project — but neither are they directed or uttered in the way of fiction and much art. Each
film is its own object, and while there is some seriality by virtue of being in a video blog each is its own
refrain without needing another.
The iteration present is not an outside procedural apparatus prompting each film, their method is not
calculable in any sort of way, yet each is the expression of a particular and specific method of making.
Each is exquisitely personal yet in a manner that looks out, not in, so there is little that I can say about
Robert Croma from watching the films, though there is perhaps a great deal that I can imagine I can
say about the world.
The films explode what they view, through this mechanics of slowness, demonstrating the flatness of
the relations between the parts viewed within. In a work such as Connection at Passy it is Croma plus
camera plus lens plus one stranger plus one stranger plus the metro plus a platform plus a train plus a
digital file plus post produced mattes plus time, and the film brings these into relation where all are what
they are. It is flat, and this flatness slow.
In digital making it can be hard to avoid the cool. The pleasures and seductions of not only what the
digital now allows us as makers, but also the celebrations of technology itself. In Croma’s films there is
instead a digital flatness, a post–analogue field where there is no discrimination between the ideality of
the moment of recording and the later application of effects in post production via software systems and
algorithms that work upon what has been recorded. This flatness sees the image file as an object that
extends equally from the camera as digital source through to post produced effects, compression and
online delivery, where while it is a linear flow of steps each carries the same force in the final film. None
seems to matter more than another, one isn’t merely the precondition or prelude for the other, yet
neither are they their sum. This is an affirmation of the small, the slow, and of a particular affective
ethics of making. Each matters, in its own right for itself — hence the care of the observation as well as
the craft of the effects, and the design of the blog — and also in relation and concert with each other.
Yet not. For the effects applied in post production are orientated towards a heightened mode of
digital mise–en–scene to reframe attention upon what is seen and now found. These effects become a
secondary framing that creates spatial relations, even dividing a single frame into parts through the use
of blur and mattes that serve to make and produce what the film is about. The films now become
painterly, which contributes to their lyricism, where the ordinary everyday becomes grounds for the
figuring of a digital carefully crafted ‘painting’. This is not the application of industrial digital practice to
clean up or repair. Here there is the presence of voice, of small steps and the careful application of
effects to bits and pieces, bibs and bobs. The scale, always, is small, minor, sketch like, that is realised
under the auspices of the hand made, the slow, a digital craft practice.
These are small films, realised literally in their scale as web specific video, and aesthetically in terms
of what and how is filmed. Here smallness expresses a quality of speed as a slowness arising from
framing the observed and observable. It is a practice that arises from the local — from the technically
immediate to hand and what is nearby. This extends from not only filming what is phenomenally near,
but includes the use of simple technologies such as a digital camera, available light, a small suite of
post production tools and the Web. These are films that don’t feel obliged to say, merely show. They
don’t shout, they do. You need to wait for each one to unfurl itself, sometimes arriving at that distinct
moment, its privileged instant, sometimes not, and in their own way approaching a still life or even the
miniature more than the boldness of the large, finished and self confidently closed work.
Hence the individual films, and the collection as an ongoing and expanding whole, become a
manifold of the slow. There is the patience of their collecting, the digital craft of their composing after
the fact of their capture, their reliance upon the local, the call they make to the viewer to wait, and to
observe while waiting
, patiently and slowly, their physical scale, and finally in the
quiet claim they make indirectly, of the world and of us. This is a post personal cinema.