1Exposure in its double meaning lies at the heart of the cinematographic experience: without lighting, there could be no “moving images”: if nothing were exposed to our gaze as moviegoers, and if we were not exposed to images, there would be no viewing at all. In contrast to this structural reality of exposure, overexposure is immediately perceived as an anomaly in filmic enunciation, and is thus immediately “significant.” When realistically motivated, it simultaneously functions as a metaphor for intense forms of exposure and revelation: used “objectively”, it connotes the other in terms of the magical, the transcendent, the other-worldly; used “subjectively”, it connotes altered states of consciousness (dreams, coma, madness). At its most extreme, it consists in exposing both the characters and the viewers to light as an actual source of, and metaphorical expression for, searing pain. If such films deliberately make gazing unbearable, sustained overexposure in contemporary film can also function on a more metafilmic level, drawing our attention to the blind spot within our gaze. In a contemporary spin on the baroque allegory of life-as-dream and of life-as-stage, and in a play on the mise en abyme of illusion, overexposure thus simultaneously reveals illusion and blinds us to it, perhaps pointing to the core of the moviegoer’s desire.
- 1 Jacques Aumont thus concludes his study of light(ing) in film: “Light is a raw, immediate, minimal (...)
2Although the most striking forms of overexposure may be the brutal contrast between darkness and light — in night scenes staging moonlight, headlights, flashlights, the light-house beacon, or a spaceship descending — overexposure does not require stark contrasts between light and dark. It can appear in realistic daylight scenes, in the form of the tabloid photographer’s camera flash, a star stepping into the spotlight, the brilliant whiteness of a hospital corridor, sunshine at noon, reflections off snow… and, however convincingly it may be integrated to the storyline, it never simply “denotes” light — it necessarily connotes as well1. First, because we experience film as a sensory reality, so that the glare reflected off the iceberg, or the brilliant haze of the spaceship descending do not affect our gaze in the same way; second, because different forms of light come imbued with a cultural history (centuries of religious depictions of haloes affect our perception of radiance in film); third, because they are caught in filmic intertextuality (the dentist’s overhead light has taken on new meanings since John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man ); and finally, because each specific use of overexposure is to be understood in its own immediate narrative context.
3Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia (2002), for instance, opens on a literal flight into overexposure: the view from an airplane above the ice fields of Alaska. The opening credits force viewers to connect the glare coming off the icebergs with disturbing images of bright-red blood falling on the stark white fibers of a piece of clothing. The glare of the ice, the whiteness of the fabric, and the overexposure of the credits that appear too brightly only to erase themselves in fadeout can immediately be connected to the title, and to the insomnia caused by the relentless midnight sun. Although we are conditioned from the very start to think of overexposure as literal and visual, and although the plot does revolve around a sleepless detective, cruelly named Dormer, who fears being exposed in an internal investigation while he himself tracks a perverse killer, overexposure is in fact displaced metonymically and symbolically within the film. Metonymically, from sight to sound, in the police station scenes, where the nauseating over-amplification of sounds as well as the dizzying camera movements suggest Dormer’s exhaustion and his rawness as he increasingly feels (en)trapped. It is this other, symbolic, meaning of “exposure” that director Christopher Nolan brings to the fore, by showing that nothing — not even light — is what it seems: when Dormer feels so tormented by the midnight sun that he piles up pillows against the blinds on his window, feeling that light is still spilling into his room, we are as shocked as he is when the hotel manager switches on the electric light and suddenly forces us to squint, belatedly making it obvious that what we took to be the white glare of the midnight sun was merely the ghostly projection of the detective’s haunted conscience, and that the room was in fact dark enough.
- 2 Blindness (2008) by Fernando Meirelles, starring Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, attempted to ada (...)
- 3 See Aumont 41-46, on the play on “lumen/numen” in film, in particular in the work of Ingmar Bergma (...)
4While some film-makers have played with the idea of using overexposure as the driving force of their film, it is impossible to literally saturate a film with light, since there would be nothing to see2, and since the director risks alienating the audience doubly: through the physical discomfort provoked by blinding light, and through the destruction of filmic illusion that too frequent a use of the same artifice necessarily entails. One example is Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), which plays on the radiance of the alien starships blinding earthly characters and viewers alike, since the electric lights go out on earth wherever the spaceship descends, explicitly connecting overexposure, danger, and mesmerizing Otherness. By playing on various mythologies — are the otherworldly beings impossible to gaze upon because they are divine3 or, conversely, because they are medusa-like? — Spielberg makes dazzling light a “sign” of the Other’s superior, but ambivalent presence. The repeated use of the technique, however, too obviously aims at deferring the encounter of the third kind (contact) to the very last scene of the film, in a completely linear narrative of revelation.
Fig. 1: Blinding UFO lights in Close Encounters of the Third Kind
5The double-bind the film does not manage to resolve is that, while the systematic use of overexposure rapidly becomes too predictable, the long-delayed discovery of the extra-terrestrials’ silhouettes in hazy backlighting in the last scene of the film is something of a disappointment too: suddenly they seem too defined, too naïvely present, and even François Truffaut’s awed gaze cannot quite create the mimetic desire Spielberg undoubtedly expected. In the later extraterrestrial fable E.T (1982), Spielberg more successfully limits “magical” overexposure to E.T.’s luminous finger, which evokes both the twinkling stars he has come from, and the wands of fairy tales (it is, indeed, endowed with miraculous powers).
Fig 2: E.T.’s magical finger.
6This is also a tongue-in-cheek reflexive image of the magic touch Spielberg brings to science-fiction films in his deliberate recasting of the extraterrestrial Other as a diminutive — literally, and symbolically, in the initials “E.T.” — and lovable being, against a history of Hollywood’s casting the alien as hostile — a tradition Ridley Scott’s 1979 instant classic of the same name was about to breathe new life into. In both Close Encounters and E.T., overexposure functions as a sign that the extraterrestrial presence brings humanity a form of illumination; and while, in the eponymous film, E.T. goes home on his own, in Close Encounters, much as in the recent ecological-apocalyptic thriller The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), a “chosen” human leaves life on Earth for a better place — in what may be space travel, but also echoes popular language’s euphemisms for death.
- 4 “Film only gives [the audiovisual data one perceives] in effigy, inaccessible from the outset, in (...)
7Death, indeed, looms large behind overexposure as a signifier in film. If, as Christian Metz points out, cinema is a presence-in-absence in which we acutely perceive things that are only present in ghost form4, and in an endless mirroring of the concrete and the figurative — the screen is our mirror, the gaze is like a camera, and the necessary apparatus to film and to screen a movie is itself made of reflectors, mirrors, lighting, etc. (Metz 1977, 72) — overexposure is the ultimate heightening of this “presence-in-absence,” and films that use overexposure to show the dead, or life beyond death, play doubly upon ghosting. Alan Ball’s cult series Six Feet Under (HBO, 2001-2005), which revolves around the Fisher funeral parlor and family home, systematically codifies overexposure as meaning death: with two exceptions, each episode throughout the entire five seasons begins with the death of an anonymous character. The cut from this prologue to the main storyline (the Fisher family’s lives) is always a slow-motion fade-to-white, and a rising camera movement, that seems to mimic the soul ascending from the body, ending with a white screen, upon which the character’s name and dates of birth and death appear, in epitaph-like form.
Fig. 3: Six Feet Under Season 2 Episode 3
Fig. 4: Six Feet Under Season 2 Episode 3
Fig. 5: Six Feet Under Season 2 Episode 3
- 5 Aumont (47) thinks of this use of white light as an inversion of the usual codes for death in West (...)
8This imaging of death through a bright white light combines popular representations of celestial light with the more metafilmic idea of blindsiding the viewer (the character who dies is often not the one we expect to). As for the white screen, it symbolizes that death is both an ending and — at least for the viewers — a window onto something else, since the deceased character enters the Fisher family’s funeral-parlor, and the next episode of the main narrative begins: the Fishers live above their funeral parlor, so that death is brought home on different levels of the text, to them, and to us, in each episode. The fact that an unknown character’s death is a “pre/text” and “paratext” to each filmic “chapter” of the story, as Véronique Bui has analyzed (Bui, 143), construes overexposure as a form of visual death and a glazing of one’s gaze as the screen turns white5. It also suggests that although fade-to-white is followed by the continuation of the Fishers’ lives, and that our gaze continues where the departed’s own gaze has gone forever blank, the unknown other from the paratext is our double. From this angle, the opening credits, which stage a body wheeled along corridors towards a bright light, hooked onto an I.V. drip, and made up in a funeral home, with a close-up of its beautiful glazed gaze, perhaps mirror us as viewers, hooked onto the show, wheeled into the lethal prologue of the narrative, our eyes glazed over as our screen becomes a window, opening upon the flood of light that is death… or another, parallel, life.
- 6 In Vadim Perelman’s 2007 adaptation of The Life Before Her Eyes, in a crucial flashback to the eve (...)
9In ghost films, the window explicitly opens both ways. Overexposure as heightened presence and simultaneous de-realization of the character onscreen is most apt to suggest the feeling of the magical return of the lost loved one. Keith Gordon’s Waking the Dead (2000) is an emblematic example, although the overexposed image of the embracing lovers that served as poster for the hit romantic drama Ghost (1990) is probably the best-remembered icon of overexposure as expression of love beyond death, and of light beyond darkness. Even if the ultimate ghost film, Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (2001) plays on the impossibility of overexposure, and reflexively keeps us in the dark because disclosure would literally kill not only the photosensitive children but the film itself, most romantic ghost stories bathe ghosts in overexposure from their very first appearance on screen. This double symbolization of presence and absence that the combination of overexposed images and fade-to-white allows is the hallmark of films of haunting, but also, of tales of derealization, or dematerialization, such as time travel. These various significations can be combined: Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006) for instance, is a tale of enduring love, and of a man haunted by the loss of his wife, across centuries and space, which plays on the contrast between the darkness, and the overexposed, shimmering images of the fountain of eternal life and of the beloved6.
10The technique is used ironically in the series Desperate Housewives and has been since its debut in 2004, since each recap — “previously on Desperate Housewives” — narrated by the all-knowing ghost, Mary Alice, systematically fades to white, in a symbolic staging of viewer memory (the seconds of overexposure marking the gap between last week’s episode and this week’s), and in a tongue-in-cheek “highlighting” of the melodramatic aspects of the series as soap opera. The ironic excess in this technique combined with the ironic third person voice-over is part of the series’ satirical edge (Hoffmann 2009). The multi-faceted use of overexposure on multiple levels (from the most straightforward to the most ironic) is emphasized from the pilot of the series, where overexposure functions as code during the initial fifteen minutes. While Mary Alice narrates her last day on earth, which she spent performing her duties as a perfect housewife, she is seen dressed in light colors and bathed in warm light; tones one associates with laundry commercials, particularly those for fabric softeners. This use of overexposure is quickly shown to be ironic, deliberately referring to the artifice of “domestic perfection” as represented both in advertising, and in soap operas themselves, as emphasized by Mary Alice’s turning on the washing machine, in a wink to the origins of the term soap opera, and by her reflexive comment that she spent her day “polishing the routine of [her] life until it gleamed with perfection.” This bright beginning sets us up for the shock that follows: after having retrieved the afternoon mail, Mary Alice shoots herself. In an illustration of the multiple symbolic meanings of overexposure, the threat of being exposed by the person who has sent her an anonymous “I KNOW WHAT YOU DID” letter is revealed to be the cause of her suicide; and, on another level, the overexposed lighting of the initial scenes belatedly reads as the sign that Mary Alice was speaking to us from beyond the grave, having been turned into a ghost, or bright angel, by the time her narrative begins (Hoffmann 28-29) — thus reinforcing readings of the visual subtext of overexposure as signifying death and/or the afterlife7.
- 8 Which explains why this technique is systematically used in French TV commercials: ads generally e (...)
- 9 In Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), the Hybrid — part machine, part human — tha (...)
- 10 In the series Lost, time travel is codified as an intense white flash accompanied by fade-to-white (...)
11Because the overexposure of images often signals death or life beyond death, its paroxysm and saturated limit — the blinding white screen — often functions as a sign of the catastrophic made visible. Indeed, if overexposure in fade-to-white is often experienced as a mere form of cinematic “punctuation” by viewers, when protracted and combined with a flash of light, it turns hypnotic8, making it particularly attuned to a shock-and-awe aesthetic. It thus unsurprisingly appears in disaster films like Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996), where the shining white screen also “signifies” against the shadow cast by the hostile alien presence in a classic visual pun on the forces of light versus those of darkness; but it also functions syntactically, combined with jump, fast, or smash cutting, as an image of speed, and finally acts as a metaphor of impending disaster. This is also the case in such TV series as The Lost Room (2006), Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)9, Heroes (2006-2010) or Lost (2004-2010)10, whose very core is time-travel and catastrophe (either past, present, or yet to be averted).
- 11 It is also a remediation of the events of 9/11. Television series, like other cultural forms, seek (...)
12Even when fade to white and the overexposed white screen seem used simply out of convenience, in the TV series Heroes, for instance, where this technique allows a cut from any of the subplots to any other at any time, and can occur twenty times per episode, the symbolic meaning of the technique constantly overrides its purely syntagmatic use. Indeed, Heroes Season 1 is predicated on the fact that a nuclear explosion is to devastate NYC, and that the various characters (heroes in the double meaning of the term) possess specific superpowers to prevent this apocalypse. The recurring flash of the empty white screen thus acts as a subconscious reminder of the impending explosion itself, while warning us that the blank space that separates the various subplots is, in fact, a connecting space between them — that all subplots must converge in the final scene, given that one of the heroes, a “pre-cognizant” artist, has seen it in drugged trances and depicted it in his paintings. Overexposure thus functions as a symbol of the visionary artist’s powers too, since his eyes turn a milky white as he paints — a reflexive image not merely of inspired creation, but of viewer reception: revelations of what is to unfold remain blinding, so as not to spoil the suspense11. The impending explosion is depicted in each episode’s opening credits, in an image of explosion and eclipse, both, that then morphs into a dilated pupil.
Fig 6 Credits sequence of Heroes (earth, sun eclipse, eye, atomic explosion)
Fig.7 : Credits sequence of Heroes (earth, sun eclipse, eye, atomic explosion)
Fig.8 : Credits sequence of Heroes (earth, sun eclipse, eye, atomic explosion)
- 12 One can of course also read this sequence as a double allusion to the series’ creator, first in th (...)
- 13 In this specific instance, it would be hard to use Bolter and Grusin’s term “remediation” (1999) s (...)
13This pupil is also reflected in the graphics of the DVD box, which emphasize the “O” of “heroes” in hologram form, as the omega of meaning to be revealed, or the eye through which we enter the story12. Overexposure in fade-to-white thus connects the sci-fi themes and the viewing experience: whatever happens will be reflected upon our eyes, as episode 1.23 reflexively materializes, when images we have already seen speed by in an accelerated “animation process” on the villain’s whitened pupil in a morphing of paintings, comic strips, and sequences from the previous episodes — this whitened eye acting, within this intermediality13 as an inset double not of the camera, but of the movie screen.
Fig. 9: Screen captures from Heroes, Season 1 Episode 23
Fig.10: Screen captures from Heroes, Season 1 Episode 23
- 14 Scorsese’s adaptation of Shutter Island (2010) plays on this ambiguity. Not only does the film beg (...)
14For what do we see, in overexposure? If science fiction, disaster, or ghost narratives would have us take overexposure as the sign we are crossing over into another, but objective, reality, is overexposure not, in other filmic genres, the sign of altered, contaminated, or deranged vision? Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Invasion (2007) — a remake of the cult 1956 and 1978 Invasion of the Bodysnatchers films — plays on this ambiguity, when an alien virus infects human beings and renders them emotionless: overexposure translates exposure to the virus and possession by the aliens, but also translates the fear that the heroine (played by Nicole Kidman) and we the viewers are slipping into paranoia. If contemporary thriller or film noir plays on overexposure as literally permitting, and symbolically encoding intermittent and/or blinding revelation, the use of lightning in thrillers is particularly loaded, playing on the psychological meaning of overexposure when characters fear being disclosed and shattered if light strikes their subconscious. Thrillers revolving around amnesia or dissociative identity disorder in particular call for this visual pun on illumination: memory flashes portrayed as the lumination of disturbed and ill memories within. From the “black hole” of amnesia to the flash of consciousness, the truth then appears, in a moment of trauma for both character and viewer, quite often, in an association of overexposure and madness revealed. One example is James Mangold’s Identity (2003): a character we knew as Ed, embodied on screen by John Cusack, is belatedly revealed in the film to be an imaginary self projected by Malcolm, a patient with a serious personality disorder, whose actual physique is Pruitt Taylor Vince’s (short, overweight, bald). The dysmorphic mirror-image of Malcolm-as-he-really-is forms on a window-pane against a backdrop of violent lightning, to emphasize illumination as trauma for Malcolm, and for us too, since we begin to understand, in that flash, that none of what we have seen so far in the film was as it seemed. Within this dialectic of the real and unreal in insanity, overexposure is most often associated to other cinematic techniques, such as the hard cut or jump cut which can aptly imitate the disjointed syntax of dreams or delirium, and translate a split sense of reality or self14.
15A case in point is the subjective representation of schizophrenia in Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001), which, as its title indicates, blurs the boundaries between genius and madness. Focalization through the mathematician, whom we take to be cracking secret codes that he sees emerging from a matrix of numbers, make us believe that overexposure is used as the literal translation of brilliance; viewers familiar with Jodie Foster’s Little Man Tate (1991), in which the child genius similarly sees overexposed numbers as he performs incredibly complex mental calculations, will automatically read the scene this way.
Fig. 11: Screen capture from A Beautiful Mind (2001)
16When we later discover that these were in fact hallucinations, overexposure returns in a brutal boomerang effect under the form of electric shock treatment, prescribed to rid the genius, played by Russell Crowe, of his visions. Because this medical torture victimizes a character we identify with, exposure to the treatment is made painful for us too: when the doctor directs his flashlight into the hero’s eyes, it shines in ours, and overexposure precludes the sadistic gaze. When the image is blurred and jogged as the character played by Russell Crowe writhes in pain under the shocks, this empathetic vision suggests that we should feel shaken too. To highlight the obscenity of what we are witnessing, a countershot has the hero’s loving wife turn her head away from the windowpane, while we continue to see the shock treatment, through the pane, and the pain of excessive lighting.
Fig.12: Shock treatment in A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001)
Fig.13: Shock treatment in A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001)
17In contrast with these aesthetics of exposure and overexposure, that simultaneously show and screen the obscene, Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for A Dream (2000) hinges on a form of reflexive overexposure to trauma, in what can variously be received as a pornography of pain or as a political response to the violence society daily inflicts on the marginalized, whether they be junkies, convicts, prostitutes, or the elderly insane. The plot revolves around Sara, a Brooklyn widow who becomes hooked on speed pills when she goes on a crash diet, and her son Harry, a heroin addict who dreams of another life with his lover Marion. In the initial dream vision, when the camera moves through a window in the tenement, exploding the frame, luminously opening out onto the jetty and the horizon, overexposure signifies love, freedom, and endless possibility in an overexposed and clean — as opposed to drugged — landscape. At the end of the film, the same sequence is repeated but this time, the dream ends on Marion’s absence, and Harry’s fall through space and darkness into the overexposed reality of shattered dreams and the hospital bed where he lies, amputated of an arm gangrened from drug use. What the film depicts between these two versions of the dream (its birth and its death) is the spiral of addiction and degradation.
18Each time, drug-taking scenes are portrayed through what Darren Aronofsky has called “hip-hop montage” (Stark 2000): a sequence of fast cut images in accelerated motion with both amplified visuals (using macro lenses) and amplified sound effects for normally inaudible realities — for instance, the “gasp” of the drug entering the blood stream. These combined techniques contribute to accelerate our own pulse, make our gaze feel invaded and our senses exposed, as if we were taking a visual “hit” and taking in the drug through our gaze. In the oft-repeated sequence, images flash seductively: the pristine whiteness of the drug, the dollar bill used to snort it, the red blood cells, and most of all, the beautiful eye of the drug-user, dilating at the end of the short, but breath-taking sequence. All the images are aesthetically perfect and, at the start of the story, the sequence always ends on the overexposed fade-to-white of the addict’s subjective vision, as both sound and image are snowed out into a blissfully white screen.
Fig.14: Requiem For a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
Fig.15: Requiem For a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
Fig.16: Requiem For a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
Fig.17: Requiem For a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
19Even the scene in which Marion stands dejectedly before a mirror, nude but for a tank top, after taking the drug, blurs the boundaries of the obscene and the pure, for as she raises her arms in ecstasy while the drug takes effect, the overexposure in fade-to-white seems to play on the multiple meanings of pure as it applies both to the drug and to the young woman, in her beauty and her aspirations, despite the sordid context in which she is filmed. Ambiguously exposed and overexposed in this image is what will unfold: Marion will sell her body for drugs later on, something her exposed genitals, and the phallic presence of the vertical neon light already herald; just as her blurred self-image signals alienation, and its vanishing into whiteness, the ghosting of her youthful beauty.
20For if it initially seems that overexposure transforms the sordid into the sublime, this takes place within a disturbing mirroring that equates overexposure and highs, film and addiction (see O’Hehir 2000). From the director shooting the film, to the snow white image of overexposure — cocaine is known as “snow” — to the pun on “heroin/e”, to the dilated pupil of the drug addict opening like a camera lens (with the amplified sound of the shutter’s movement), to the mirror-image beyond the mirror-image we see (that of the moviegoer as drug addict, and of the film as both dream and as drug), the sustained metaphor runs through the film, and we are made to experience addiction through the excessive repetition of the drug-taking scene. Although the sequence is aesthetically beautiful, it becomes increasingly painful to watch: the more we are exposed to it, the more its beauty dulls from habit, and the greater our anxiety. As Jeff Stark puts it: “Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream is so traumatic, so buzzingly difficult to watch […] that you want to shield your eyes and beg for release. And right at that point, Aronofsky makes it even harder to bear” (Salon.com, Oct 13, 2000)15.
21Overexposure not only takes the form of luminescence, but also, that of extreme close-ups when Harry and Marion lie face to face after a fix, and speak words of love to each other. The split frame and the discrepancy in scale between the two shots within the same frame — one in close-up, the other not — seem to deny the possibility of togetherness even as the dialogue expresses intimacy (“You are beautiful; the most beautiful girl in the world; my dream”, 46’45):
Fig. 18: Requiem for a Dream, split frame embrace
Fig.19: Requiem for a Dream, split frame embrace.
22Similarly, distorted wide-angle views of the characters, as if we were watching them through a peephole, recur at various moments of the film. While this makes them seem particularly vulnerable, it also suggests that viewers are voyeurs, where non-pornographic movie viewing usually requires this to be repressed (this is probably the reason Christian Metz uses the term “scopophile” rather than “voyeur” for the ordinary moviegoer in most of his work).
23In this specific instance, it is impossible not to experience viewing as sadistic, masochistic, and yet, sublimated, in overexposure, into a shared form of martyrdom, as all of the subplots converge in a horrific crescendo towards the requiem sequence proper: the shattering of each of the characters’ dreams, and bodily integrity. As the film crosscuts from one vision of horror to another — Sara undergoes shock treatment; Harry’s arm turns gangrenous and is amputated; Marion performs sexually for an audience of voyeurs — it unites them under the sign of overexposure. We share their subjective vision of the overhead lights in the hospital, of the flashlights marking them out as prey, and we are forced to endure the spikes of electric shock, the whir of the bone-saw, and the gaze of the inset voyeurs. The entire requiem sequence is introduced by two images suggesting that to watch is literally to consume: the first is of a peephole, as Marion stands outside a closed apartment door, waiting to be buzzed in; this shot lasts a few seconds, so that we feel exposed to/by the peephole too long. When the pornographic master of ceremonies opens the door, his mouth fills the entire screen in an extreme close-up as he announces “Showtime!” in a second image connecting obscenity and devouring. The close-ups on the antagonists, whether they be the doctors who amputate Harry or the men in business suits whose gaze rapes Marion, reinforce our identification with the victims, but the shots that expose the victims’ bodies to us, as they are violated and broken, and the construction of this climactic scene as explicitly sexual, against the voyeurs’ background chant (“come, come, come!”) make it obscene as a representation and as an enactment of trauma. Overexposure finally returns as a merciful blanking-out, as all three victims lose consciousness, and the horror is suspended for us too.
24Within Requiem’s dialectics of the exposure of obscenity and the obscenity of exposure, overexposure thus seems to be stripped of its initial magic: if it is first connected to the dream and ethereal bliss, and a wishful sublimation of the sordid, it turns to the unbearable glare of trauma. (The DVD packaging of the film takes this logic one step further: the jacket is a bloodshot eye and its dilated pupil; and the disk itself is held by a central peg which “pierces” the pupil; the connection between seeing and being blinded is thus literalized.) We are thus reminded of the “tactile” nature of “looking,” as Laura Marks puts it — Marks’ assertion that techniques like overexposure “discourage the viewer from distinguishing objects and encourage a relationship to the screen as a whole” (Marks 2000, 172) highlights precisely why traumatic overexposure feels so overwhelming as to be physically painful. The only release, at the end of Requiem, is into the milky-white — subliminally maternal? or blank? — screen; the film ends on all four main characters curling up in fetal position, some in explicit memories of childhood, all seeking refuge in sleep.
- 16 See Camilla Bevilacqua’s synthesis of various theories of film as dream (Bevilacqua 2011, 8-33). O (...)
25If this last use of overexposure plays visually on Hamlet’s celebrated soliloquy (“To die, to sleep; /To sleep: perchance to dream”, III.1, 64-65), as the characters try not to be, films that force us to perceive overexposure as an artifice conversely suggest that perhaps we need to awaken16. While they may first prompt us to open our eyes wide in wonder, they inevitably suggest that we should open them wider, to see certain forms of blinding whiteness, in particular, as a sign of the “unreal.” This is too obvious in avant-garde films like Vincenzo Natali’s Nothing (2003), which plays on the disappearance of the setting itself into the whiteness of the screen (as if the screen were a gigantic landscape of clouds or fog from which the characters could emerge and into which they could disappear), and which takes the de-realization of the illusion inherent to film as far as it can go. In more popular films, such radical debunking is unthinkable; but overexposure as a sign of alienation is a constant. An interesting example is Michael Bay’s The Island (2005). Although the second half of this science-fiction movie is in keeping with the director’s previous action films (Pearl Harbor and Armageddon), the initial half is in many ways dazzling.
- 17 Readers of Shirley Jackson are bound to think of her short story The Lottery; viewers of The Other (...)
26The opening credits unroll against a beautiful seascape; but this turns out to be a dream, which ends in drowning — we cut to the dreamer, Lincoln (Ewan McGregor), as he lies gasping in his pristine white pajamas in an all-white room. The stark-white factory-dorm he inhabits is supposedly a refuge from a contaminated outer world; clone workers like him are kept productive by the hope of winning the lottery that allows the happy few to leave for the Island, a paradise where they live happily ever after17. The fact that Lincoln is having nightmares prompts the doctor to send miniature spy cameras into his eyes to explore his deficient senses, in a triple interfilmic nod to the dentist/sadist in Marathon Man, to the scene in The Matrix (1999) when a literal bug is implanted in Neo’s navel, and especially, to the scene in Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002) when miniature spider-like spies swarm around John Anderton’s vulnerable, bandaged eyes.
Fig. 20: The Island (Michael Bay, 2005)
Fig. 21: The Island (Michael Bay, 2005)
27This onscreen rape of the eye is only one aspect of the rape of the gaze at work in the film. Indeed, Lincoln comes to find out that all of the clones are ultimately bred for organ harvesting should their human “original” fall sick; that the island is an illusion; and that those whose turn has come to go are, quite simply, slaughtered. In a scene in which Michael Crichton’s 1976 thriller Coma meets The Matrix, Lincoln discovers the thousands of suspended clones being brainwashed as he was, by a nonstop flow of televisual images that alternate shots of the island, and textual cues (“obedience”) to ensure that the clones learn docility. This rape of the clones’ gaze through force-fed film of course calls to mind Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and the infamous Ludovico technique (in which the protagonist’s eyes are forcibly kept open to violent images while he receives painful stimuli, in a form of extreme aversion therapy).
Fig. 22: The Island
Fig. 23: The Island
Fig.24: The Island
Fig. 25: A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick, 1971)
28While the staging of the eye as forcibly exposed to a screen necessarily makes our own position as onlookers even more vulnerable, in a mise-en-abyme of exposure, it also suggests that, as we gaze onto this scene of revelation, we are perhaps still being hypnotized by illusion. Despite the hint that we should open our eyes wider, not to absorb new illusion, but to distance ourselves from the power of images, the film proves that this is impossible: as Lincoln flees from the factory, having seen outdoor images only of the sea and of an immense offshore platform, we, like he, necessarily assume that the factory is this offshore construction surrounded by water. As Lincoln runs towards the light at the end of the tunnel, the image of revelation functions reflexively for us too: for a desert, not the sea, lies all around. The puns on “sea” (see) and “Island” — Eye-land, I-land — thus apply to the viewer too: the eye is blind to what it sees, and hungry for projection of the I’s fantasies: the marvelous arch through which we initially entered the film is exposed for what it was: just a dream, no more. Because the film is targeted to a teenage audience, the last pictures nevertheless grant us the wish-fulfillment of a happy end: the heroes reach the magnificent island of the opening credits, in a return to the idea that all images have a real-life reference, beyond the screen.
- 18 The lyrics of the Paul McCartney song were composed specifically for the film.
- 19 All of Aurélie Ledoux’s analysis on contemporary American film as trompe-l’œil, and in particular (...)
- 20 A variation on this idea is explored by the fascinating but short-lived series Awake (2012) by Kyl (...)
29In a more radical turning back of the gaze upon itself, and in an exposure of the moviegoer’s desire — to turn the screen into an endless vanilla sky of delights18 — Cameron Crowe’s remake of Alejandro Amenábar’s Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) plays on the impossibility for viewer and hero alike to determine which of the two lives David Ames is living in Vanilla Sky (2001) is real: in one he is disfigured, in the other, he is not; in one he is living with the brunette, in the other with the blonde. The film cross-cuts from one life to the other, each time the hero falls unconscious or asleep, but each time he opens his eyes —“open your eyes” is the wake-up message on his alarm clock — viewers become more confused. Scenes in his life repeat themselves, with variations; at one late point in the film, all of the people in a busy bar except for the one addressing him seem to freeze, as if they were an unreal backdrop, characters on a suddenly arrested film reel. At this point it becomes clear that what we are watching within the film is a film, in a revelation of trompe-l’œil19. Only in the ultimate scene is the conceit of the film fully revealed: in the traumatic aftermath of his accident, David chose a Life Extension program that made him the director of a never-ending movie: a fantasy life made from his favorite memories and favorite films, and projected as if it were real — as if the accident had never occurred20. Having awakened to the artifice of this dream-life, because of the aforementioned glitches in the program, and given the choice between waking to the reality of loss, or resuming his life-as-film, the hero finally chooses to opt out of the film. In a last play on exposure and overexposure — from the X-ray of the medical reconstruction of his face, to the mask that he wore to hide his deformed appearance, to the unnatural whiteness and brightness in this final scene of revelation — he chooses to confront his fear of heights and the vertigo of real life by jumping off the roof and out of the dream.
30In a visual pun on life as film, his entire life as we have seen it flashes before his eyes, in extremely rapid montage as he free-falls. Then whiteness fills the screen. Just as we think he may be dead, an off-screen voice speaks the words: “Relax, David, open your eyes”; his eye, seen in extreme close-up, opens; and the movie ends.
Fig. 26: Vanilla Sky (Cameron Crowe, 2001)(remake of Open Your Eyes, A. Amenábar)
Fig.27: Vanilla Sky (Cameron Crowe, 2001)(remake of Open Your Eyes, A. Amenábar)
31As a final shot, it exposes the desire in our gaze, which is to see more, to open our eyes, to open them wider to the artifice, but only to be blinded again. Given that “open your eyes” was the first cue of the film itself, the loop is complete: the life-as-dream-and-film continuum is only interrupted, but never ends. Ending the film on a startling extreme close-up of David’s open gaze comes as a shock — for even as we find ourselves “disclosed” by this eye in its disquieting intimacy, almost expecting to see ourselves reflected in it — and even as we hear the injunction to leave the cinema, and to get a life — we simultaneously feel the desire to discern, on this glazed surface, precisely in the spot made starry by overexposure, what it is that this eye sees.
32In an echo of Slavoj Žižek’s Lacanian reading of Hollywood film in Enjoy Your Symptom! (1992), I will conclude that if overexposure seems an almost embarrassingly obvious symbol of cinematographic desire, in its mirroring of the screen itself, of the light that both reveals and blinds, and as an image of discontinuity and of excess, it heightens, rather than shatters the illusion, even as we are made aware of it as artifice. Because it is never merely an artifice to us, since we experience it in the reality of our senses, and since it is almost always metaphorically motivated, associated to the dialectics of the “Other,” either in the fantastic, or in the dynamics of traumatic revelation; in nightmares of disaster or madness, or dreams of time travel and of reunion with those we have lost. The ultimate form of overexposure, the brilliant white screen, can signify the glare of the Apocalypse — Revelation in its double meaning — or a window that opens onto endless horizons and new beginnings, because it is the ultimate representation of the movie screen, and of film itself. It is, if I may borrow Jacques Rancière’s terms, a form of visibility that resists becoming an image (“du visible qui ne fait pas image”, Rancière, 15), and the sum of all images, in their invisibility — the Alpha and the Omega of film, and an infinite promise of more dreams to open our eyes wide/r to.