"In Praise of Blur"
by Martine Beugnet and Richard Misek
Inspired by Martine Beugnet’s monograph L’Attrait du flou (Liège: Yellow Now, 2017), "In Praise of Blur" provides a respite from the visual precision of the high definition image. By treating blur as a potential, it counters the teleological discourse that typically accompanies each new capture format – from HD, through 4K, and beyond.
The video originally comprised a voice-over written by Martine Beugnet and images collaged by Richard Misek. Over the course of its development, this dialogue between word and image became incorporated into the voice-over itself: RM responded to MB’s text with reflections on the process of working with blurred images, and MB responded in turn with reflections on the relationship between text and image in audiovisual film criticism. The decision was finally taken, for aesthetic reasons, to remove this reflexive dialogue from the body of the video. However, for those with a methodological interest in essayistic video-making, the final hybrid text appears below, and provides something of an archaeology of the video’s production. For those more interested in blur itself, feel free just to watch the video.
MB: In his writings from the 1920s onwards, the theorist and filmmaker Jean Epstein stressed the need to cultivate what he called cinema’s Photogénie: its inclination towards indeterminacy and flux. ‘Cinema’, he wrote, ‘is… a machine for the detection and representation of movement, that is, of the variation of all relations in space and time… the fluidity of the universe’. In the silent era, film-makers utilised a broad range of techniques to this end: speed, slow-motion, superimposition, filters, montage … and blur. Epstein, Vertov, Dulac, Murnau, and Gance all used blur. So too did Hollywood directors such as Von Sternberg, famous for his ‘soft style’.
The advent of sound cinema progressively marginalised blur. As Dominique Païni notes, ‘the picture had to match the sound. The outlines of the figures had to be as clearly visible as the dialogue were clearly audible.’ Sharp contours were needed to make sounds clearly assignable to identified sources. Blur retained a role, however, as a foil for definition. Anchored by a shot of someone looking, it became a signifier of blurred vision. By extension, it also came to signify the blurring of consciousness, memories, dreams…
With the development of long lenses, Blur’s role as a foil for definition also found expression within shots as well as between them. Narrative cinema loves shallow focus. André Bazin deplored this; he saw it as a form of visual montage internal to the image, ‘“an indirect means of guiding the gaze of the spectator towards that part of the field that the camera has in focus.” Through it, film-makers literally focus our attention on the ‘functional’ or narratively important part of the image. By asserting control over the image, they assert control over the viewer.
But blur is not easily tamed. Because it presides over the appearance and disappearance of figures, it is a powerful way to engage our imagination, to play on our desire to see. Yet the softening of contours also encourages a different type of gaze, as if we were to touch the image with our eyes. So is there perhaps a value to blurred images in and for themselves? Not just as a narrative or compositional ploy, nor as a foil for the precision of the digital image (from HD, through 4K and beyond). But as a subversion of technological standardization, as an expression of a potential – in other words, as a conduit for of our imagination?
RM: So how can a film-maker use blur in and for itself? One way is through Photogénie. Stan Brakhage famously wrote: ‘Imagine an eye… which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of 'Green'?... Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of movement and innumerable gradations of color.’
Experimental films often play out this possibility. They rejuvenate our perception. Blur can contribute to this, but there’s a danger here too. As well as making an image unfamiliar, blur in all its forms – including bokeh, shallow focus, and Gaussian blur – also makes it visually beautiful. Sometimes too beautiful. Unchecked, a film-maker’s aesthetic craving can overwhelm their other intentions. Since the rise of the DSLR, this aesthetic craving has spread to videomakers too. Many enthusiasts now use equipment that Kubrick would have killed for. But they are often not so sure what to do with it. So they film everyday beauty, augment it through different production technologies, and display it online. Blur is the logical extreme of this tendency. It undefines an image, and transforms it back into pure light and colour. Brakhage’s adventure in perception becomes a visual effect.
Is this collage of images also a visual effect? However much I want to use images to reflect on images, mostly I just use them to illustrate my text, to decorate the words. Looking at these bokeh videos, I begin to see a reflection of my own aesthetic craving. And I wonder: if it’s just the words that make this video more interesting than that of a camera buff, why use images at all? Why not just write articles and books? To paraphrase Godard (himself paraphrasing Monet and Marey), why show what can already be imagined?
MB: I think you are too hard on us here, and on images. Moving images never simply illustrate: they resist. So we must start from them – not just use them to compliment our interpretations. Moving images dispute our attempts to “explain them”. Blur, with its many contradictory uses, powerfully exemplifies this. As do video essays. Moving images elude us, and so the dialogue between words and images that a video essay orchestrates is but one of a multitude of possible combinations. Because a video essay’s combination of word and image can never offer a “fixed interpretation”, it makes an ideal form of ekphrasis.
Perhaps, then, the greatest challenge faced by the video essay is not to find new ways of using images to reflect on images (experimental film already provides many models for this). Perhaps, instead, it’s to find new ways of putting words and images into dialogue with each other.