ATTENTION ON ARTIFICE: BAUDRY VERSUS AKERMAN
written by Olivia York
Still photo from Chantal Akerman's From the Other Side (2002).
Jean-Louis Baudry’s 1970 essay “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus” closely examines the camera as an ideological apparatus in relation to the effects it has on a viewer. Baudry’s critique focuses primarily on the artifice of film; he evaluates its ability to bestow intentional spatial sensations and ideological effects on the viewer, which are then passively consumed without realization or acknowledgement. Baudry believes that the relation between vision and the subject is created primarily through the camera’s composition and its projection, as it centers the eye, creates an illusion of movement, and presents the viewer with a false sense of an objective reality. To paraphrase, vision succumbs to the ideological reigns of the subject and its creator/transcendental subject (the camera), and since viewers are unaware of this process, they believe they are in control of the images presented before them. Although many can appreciate Baudry’s ambitious claim, there are countless examples of works within the cinematic world that go against the grain of his statement, one of which being Chantal Akerman’s 2002 documentary, “From the Other Side.” In Akerman’s film, viewers do not passively accept a subject, since Akerman decenters the composition, detaches the film from typical narrative form, and calls attention to the act of filmmaking itself. With these characteristics, viewers are left feeling uninformed, and in turn have a heightened, critical awareness of the artifice of film, thus creating a counterargument to Baudry’s essay.
As previously mentioned, one of Baudry’s key beliefs lies in the perspective of the viewer, which is controlled by the composition of the image. Baudry calls attention to the Renaissance art perspectives, with their emphasis on the “vanishing point” and centering of the subject. He states that “monocular vision […] is what the camera has, calls forth a sort of play of ‘reflection.’” (37) Baudry relates this focused subject to ideology: “It lays out the space of an ideal vision and in this way assures the necessity of a transcendence.” (38) So, he believes that the monocular focus of the subject is an intentional aesthetic and promotes an ideology of idealism; the viewer’s constricted vision is intended to make them feel as though they are in control of the subject, and that this subject lies in an “objective reality,” a reality where all is seen. Akerman’s “From the Other Side” completely denounces this claim, one example being the scene that takes place inside the quaint, American restaurant. The owner, who is the “subject” of this scene, intentionally stands out of the static shot. This automatically snaps the viewer out of the trance of passive compliance—the illusion of an objective reality no longer feels attainable. Viewers are able to identify with the fact that there is a reality outside of the constraints of the frame, and that this reality is one they are unable to control or fully understand. In this moment, Akerman defies Baudry’s belief of ideological transcendence; vision is no longer idealist, objective or omniscient: it is restricted and incomplete, much like the perspectives of the characters who are featured throughout the film.
Additionally, Baudry furthers his claim on intentional idealism by stating that a film’s ideology is implemented through its hidden processes. He believes that a film conceals all efforts of filmmaking, allowing ideology to wash over the viewer undetected. He states that “to the extent that it is cut off from the raw material (‘objective reality’) this product does not allow us to see the transformation which has taken place. […] The scientific base [of the technical nature of optical instruments] assures them a sort of neutrality and avoids their being questioned.” (36) Again, Akerman’s film challenges this claim in the same aforementioned scene, when her place beside the camera is made known through the use of diegetic sound. When she speaks offscreen, we are understanding the fact that this scene is constructed, and that it is directed by the questions she poses. In turn, this allows us to question the “absolute truth” of a film that usually passes by spectators, undetected. The “transcendental subject” is now replaced with the recognition of human authority and direction (Akerman), thus diminishing the sense of an absolute, objective truth that Baudry wholeheartedly supports. On top of Akerman’s identification, the restaurant owner (the scene’s “subject”) speaks up about standing outside of the shot. He is literally calling out the positioning of the camera, identifying the systemic filmmaking operations that are in place. These instances allow viewers to heighten their awareness of the filmmaking process, enabling them to critique their own position as passive viewers. What they see—or don’t see—is out of their control, so their relationship with the screen’s subject is now laced with skepticism. This shift opposes Baudry on two levels: it argues against his claim of the filmmaking processes remaining unknown to its viewers, while also defying his notion of a viewer feeling in control of an “objective reality.” The filmmaking processes are often called to the viewer’s attention in “From the Other Side,” whether it’s through the reflection of the filmmakers’ movements on a TV screen during an interview, the shadows of their stationed camera on a moving car while passing civilians, or the prominent but unseen voice of Akerman behind the camera. In any case, these moments defy a sense of viewer-prone idealism and allow spectators to question the filmmaker’s (and their own) position within the realm of truth.
While it is clear that Akerman’s film defies Baudry’s idea of idealist transcendence, it is unfair to blindly support the thought of her film lacking any sense of ideology altogether. Akerman’s work may have ideological undertones, but still, they are in no way attempting to create a sense of idealism or authoritative transcendence, as Baudry suggests. In fact, it is quite the opposite. If anything, “From the Other Side” is calling attention to the restrictions we have, not only through our physical sight as viewers of the film, but with our perspectives as civilians in our present-day society. Many individuals in America and Mexico have a limited understanding of the reality of these issues; stories of migration and border crossings are multifarious, complicated, inconsistent and untold. Akerman may be purposefully acknowledging these facts by decentering subjects, detaching from typical narrative form, and by calling attention to the structures set in place that are often overlooked in the event of passive compliance and ignorant assumption. In turn, artifice is called to attention: the artifice of filmmaking, and the artifice of our societal affairs.