One of the most beautiful and touching declaration of love – from a woman to a man – is the final line in City Lights. To the lovely newly-found florist who has recovered her sight Chaplin asks incredulously “You can see now?” and she answers “Yes, I can now.” As to say that it’s this encounter to give a meaning to the regained sense.
With an inspired inversion, Chaplin wants to tell us that it’s love that allows us to see, not just sight which kindles emotions through charm and physical attractiveness. In order to communicate this to the spectator, Chaplin had chosen to renounce to the voices, shooting during the full explosion of the sound era in 1931 his last movie in the classical mute style. The character’s words appear written on typical scrawny black panels which interrupt the scene. It isn’t with persuasive and enchanting sentences that who is blind must search for a surrogate to the impossibility of entering in touch with a world he cannot see. Four words are enough. The florist’s eyes find acknowledgement of what she already felt, with the acuity that only absence can awaken.
Cinema is possibly the invention that celebrates in the most powerful way visual quality. But unlike other visual arts, it must emerge at every performance from its opposite, the dark. And from the obscurity of the theatre, cinema brought back to life every time. In this opposition is revealed a close connection, something that resembles the relationship between a shapeless marble block and the statue that, in the mind of the sculptor, is already contained in it. If Michelangelo said that sculpture was the art of “taking off”, we can say that cinema, all the cinema, is the art of making light emerge from the dark, the invisible inner light that is contained in what we intend portraying, and that is different from what is passively, perceptibility seen: effectively underlined by the instant of total darkness before the beginning of a movie.
Perceptive darkness has been the source of inspiration for many films after the Chaplin’s unrivalled masterpiece. The most famous movie was probably Profumo di donna directed by Dino Risi in 1974 and its Hollywood remake Scent of a Woman in 1992. In both cases, the main character – a retired military officer who became blind in a war incident – is accompanied by a young man on a trip in search of sensations and dangerous emotions - predominantly sexual, on a Ferrari – which was regarded as the protagonist’s acting bench test. Star performers Vittorio Gassman and Al Pacino took the field, stood up to the test and proved to measure up to their fame. But the dialogues in the movie are bewildering: not only the military life left behind the main character justifies an insistence – that in the American film turns out to be embarrassing – on the association between blindness and scurrility, as if the lack of vital contacts that originates from blindness would be compensated by a heavy carnal expressiveness of the speech.
Not easily can a film convey the withdrawn moody appeal of experiences of who is a spectator in a world concealed behind a dark screen and yet tries to give himself a representation of it, creating an ineffable imagined world – but not imaginary – capable of being shared with who is watching the screen.
When cinema invents its stories, an imaginary reality is brought to mind: knowing how to seize the improperly called cinematographic “fiction” reveals how immeasurable are the boundaries of our senses relentlessly stimulated by pictures and sounds. This evocative power of an invisible universe - that of the protagonist’s emotions and feelings - and events depicted by the author-director’s demiurgic will, strongly and metaphorically sends us back to all that we accomplish in every moment of our daily lives.
Either being perceptive hints of hertzian waves that reach our eyes and ears, direct physical contact on our skin, food in our mouth, or particles that flow through the air in our nostrils, it’s always our brain that works to classify, give a meaning and recall to our mind other experiences and suggest an interpretation, a value, a pleasure or displeasure, desire or danger. We are guided by sensorial experience, even when there is no direct and immediate relationship between what happens around us, because somewhere in that miniature universe in our brain is stored the story of our lives, from birth and perhaps before. And for all these reasons, both in the Indonesian shadow theatre and in the cinema, flattened silhouettes that move on a screen can fascinate us so much.
When attending a wayang kulit show, the Balinese children’s first reaction is to find out what’s behind the screen. There, the dalang, illustrious inherited profession passed down from father to son, is fulfilling his duty of bringing back to life the events of the epic theatre; here, authors, directors and actors. In both circumstances, it consists in bringing forth simple shadows on a screen: the more the expressive means to which is left the scenic action is evanescent, the better you can grasp its meaning and purpose. They are sensorial messages, nothing more: there is nothing real inside or behind the screen. Just like the dalang pulls out of his trunk his characters, the authors of our culture express themselves through cinema, both evoke the shadows that come out of their mind and articulate them with light and sound. Simple hertzian waves: but our mind, guided by experience, from memory and culture in which it was formed, transforms them in heroes, lovers, brutal murderers, battles and poetic landscapes.
It’s easily understandable that an expressive visual tool as cinema, both for its inventive and documentary potential has often been attracted by sight, or better its absence, for its represented subjects. Deafness and the sense of smell have had more than their share of second lead roles, often ridiculous and grotesque. Profumo, from the director Twyker and inspired by Suskind’s novel, is an exception in which the central plot is the olfactory adventure of the leading character. As for taste, summing up all the numerous dinners in different historical periods isn’t easy.
From Bunuel’s surrealist scene in Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie (1972) in which the composed elegant characters are imperturbably seated on toilets to the homespun, unrefined scenes in Italian comedies for example Aldo Fabrizi’s Famiglia Passaguai (1951) in which, together with Ave Ninchi and Peppino De Filippo, they go on a gastronomic outing by the sea. But taste has also inspired more perverse, subtle connections as in Marc Ferreri’s Dillinger è morto (1968) and yet another film La grande bouffe(1973). In both films the consumption of elaborate and sophisticated delicacies are ambiguously associated with the desire to bring about simultaneously pleasure and death.
Without considering pornography, touch provides many examples from which to choose. For the specific tactile quality of the narrative technique chosen, it’s sufficient to mention the scene from Alain Resnais ‘s Hiroshima mon amour, in which the lens slides on Emmanuelle Riva’s skin resembling a voluptuous lover’s caress, symbolic erotic reaction to the atomic death that surrounds them and that is seen from the bedroom window.
The synesthetic stimuli transferred in a movie are deposited in our minds thanks to the strength of the image and its power to be stored with more efficient and long lasting tools than to other sensorial impressions.
Thanks to recent progresses in the neurosciences, words such as memory, cultural inheritance, experience have found their position in the brain and the thick, complex linkage of neuronal connections that are being unravelled, work together so that we can figure out what happens inside and outside our body, our mind. Memory, cultural inheritance, experience aren’t only conceptual abstract expressions; we know where they are and how to activate them, either being part of our genetic inheritance or being the registration of events that, through the senses, are imprinted in our mind.
We are heirs of the Aristotle’s classical division of the five senses (although the Greek philosopher believed that there were other interior ones, for example memory). Since then, we imagine them as endowments that help us to react to outside stimuli: sound and light waves, fragrant dusts, stimulating flavours, skin contact. They are all passive reactions, and therefore called sensorial receptors. But we could also consider belonging to the senses those intentional activities which we are equipped with and that refer to specific organs like the first ones.
Movement, above all, with its muscular system and tendons guided by nervous tissue that connect them to the brain and spinal cord.
Even more so, the complex phonation organ, that includes vocal cords, stimulated by the air in the lungs, which sounds are amplified by the palate that works as a resonance chamber, by the tongue and lips.
Considering the vital potentiality of our body as authentic senses makes us fully aware of how restrictive it is to merely observe the physiology of our body whereas it is necessary to consider the cultural factors that guide our actions to make them become essential for the functioning of our organs. Vocal activity, for example, has permitted the expression of language, on which is founded man’s cultural evolution, through interaction with hearing. This sensorial interdependence, and its cultural foundation, finds evidence in a deaf-mute person who, as we know, isn’t really mute but being deaf from birth, cannot receive the necessary information in order to elaborate ways of expressing himself with words.
When cinema draws its inspiration directly from the outside world, in the several forms of the documentary style, the purpose is generally transmitting to the spectator the impression of “being there”. In order to achieve this effect, we use the available technological tools that most appropriately capture the environment and human behaviour. The swift progress of audiovisual aids has made us part of a race where, in the end, we feel compelled to use state-of-the-art technology. The latest and most significant revolution in this is the digitalization of audiovisual messages, which have simplified and equally made reproduction more efficient. Soundless environments, the possibility to make a recording in extreme low brightness, the almost unlimited running time of the shots and the affordable prices of the equipment and technical assistance have transformed video cameras from professional totems surrounded by its aura into prosthesis accessible to all. Sound and image recording is nowadays considered extension of our sensorial capacities and gives us the possibility to lay aside the input in one of our memories, digital instead of cerebral, which can be activated on pleasure to be used in order to recall and re-elaborate sensorial impulses afterwards.
In a certain way, this humanized technology has been transformed in a malleable tool that strengthens our own natural capacities. But, as we know, this can transform man into a cyborg, partly natural, partly artificial cybernetic organism just like in a science fiction nightmare.
A way to deal with our addiction to the sensory organs, its deriving perceptions to the consequent psychological and cultural interpretations, is following a totally different path than the one that increases artificially our endowments. It isn’t by pursuing an expansion of our receptors, just like in bionics, changing natural damaged or missing organs, nor pursuing our fantasies of a cyborg humanity, speeded up by electronic gadgets, but rather by gathering information and documenting how we live if you can’t count on one or more of Aristotle’s five senses.
It’s about getting closer to a scarcely known human condition, in order to establish a bridge between our own perceptive tools e those of who has elaborated a different sensorial map, share this experience and seek ways to communicate it using the appropriate conceptual and technical devices to diffuse it. A process which, guided by an empathic spirit and intellectual curiosity, and identifies itself with anthropological investigation in general aimed at the knowledge of other ways of life that are unfamiliar: and especially with visual anthropology. The intention, at this time, is to underline this so it doesn’t seem paradoxical using as a communicative bridge audiovisual tools to communicate the condition of the blind and deaf.
Until now, there have been two approaches to accept the challenge to show in a realistic manner the condition of the unsighted. The first, we could call “documentaristic”, can be exemplified by Slovenian director Juraj Lehotsky with his film Slepe Lasky (Blind Love) 2008. It describes the daily life of Peter and Iveta who share not only blindness but also a rich range of sensorial experiences, underlined with a particularly intense sound track. The second, “subjectivistic”, best exemplified in Derek Jarman’s movie Blue (1993). The director tries to get across the sensation of who, in this case, like himself, saw the world vanish before him. The screen, in this case, is in a monochromatic blue during the entire picture. Rather than inspiring pictorial suggestions – above all Yves Klein’s famous blue paintings – that permanent image aims to shift our attention on the psychological existence of who has fallen into that condition and is looking for an alternative also in other sensorial messages.
In other circumstances, blurred effects and variation of brightness are used to portray the perception of how sight weakens until it completely fades out. There is a sentence, in Doctorow’s last novel, Homer & Langley, that efficiently puts into words what several films try to depict “ My sight has not suddenly left me : it has been a slow fading-out, like in the movies.”
Regardless of the fact that both approaches are empathic, each in its own way, the filmmaker’s position is to describe a physical deprivation and how who has to deal with it must find a remedy, compensating it with other perceptive or psychological experiences.
A more in-depth anthropological research would require an additional step, in order to testify a condition of life that is worthy, following Terenzio’s lesson, since antiquity warned us that nothing that is human must appear alienating.
It’s about reversing the perspective: sharing a common condition of perceptive shortage that originates from the limited sensorial capacity of the body of all humans.
In the world of the blind, no one is blind, and no one is non-hearing if we were all deprived of ears, even if the surrounding world would be filled with sound and so many beautiful things to see. We should put ourselves in the position to learn how who has a perceptive gap, compared with mankind in general, has found ways of communicating with others.
In this case, we are the different. We could try to discover how the world can appear using a particular sensorial map, precious because owned by few. An experience of rediscovery of a world, our own, that we thought we knew, revealing more than we could imagine.
It’s the revelation, through a particular human experience, of sharing a universal condition, of which we are not always aware: of how much the surrounding world escapes us, of how all of us are blind and non-hearing in a narrow perceptive segment. As Guy Lazorthes said, our senses are a narrow door on the world.
We are all, in fact, blind to the luminous infrared and ultraviolet radiations to which other animals are sensitive to, similar to the way we are non-hearing to ultrasounds and infra sounds, while we perceive central frequencies, between twenty and twenty thousand hertz. Nor do we react the same way to flavours and scents that our cultures have trained us to appreciate or reject. All human cultures have been developed starting from the shared reactions of almost all their members to certain colours, to certain sounds and certain shapes, and therefore to the possibility to see and recognize their own kind.
Ethnomusicologist Steve Feld has revealed that we don’t know how to use the same sensitivity that the Kaluli from New Guinea use. They have conceptualized a multi-sensorial geography, where space and time are seen and felt tactilely, and in turn these senses react with taste, while the perception of our body’s orientation comes through listening sounds of nature and voices: Feld called it soundscape, a resonant landscape.
Another example is the Anthony Seeger’s case of the Suya from Mato Grosso which illustrates a society divided by scent classes, each with its own identity.
Our sensorial endowments are sufficient to live in our familiar environment and to communicate within our society. But we should have the awareness that there’s a world, a real world, physical and tangible, that we ignore.
Culture is mostly an answer to these limits. Not having an ecological “habitat” like bats nor being able to fly in the dark avoiding obstacles, we had to invent artificial lighting. For sure satellite navigators installed on cars are infinitely less sophisticated than a voyager pigeon.
Who is deprived of some sensorial potentialities can supply us with an extraordinarily interesting quantity of information about the modifications that man can develop to compensate the shortage on the whole set of standard capacities that puts an individual in communication with the outer world. It can mainly contribute in opening us to an interior world of extraordinary originality often neglected.
A conversation in the dark with who doesn’t see what we see, but has developed more than the non-blind, a familiarity with his own particular sensorial map, can provide us a greater knowledge of our “being-in-the-world”.
A sense of deficiency, almost a disappointment, sometimes accompanies the reading, stimulating for other aspects, of some ethnographic monographs. In today’s globalized world are also included, only for some of its aspects and at least indirectly, the Trobriand Islands, a mythical place for anthropological vision. We have therefore lost an unrepeatable opportunity to find out how life was at the beginning of the century, when Malinowski did his famous research. Did Malinowski eat? What taste did the food have? We could go on with thousands of questions, meant to be unanswered. What anthropologists regarded as important was something else: institutions and social relations, indigenous idea concerning sexual life, to examine and challenge some of the principles of psychoanalysis, the presence of economical laws of exchange.
Perceptive sensibility has progressively combined its meaning with sensuality – a culturally intricate emotional reaction – which as triggered puritan censored obscurantism from which anthropology has never been guarded against, especially in the Victorian era.
“Scripturalism”, more controllable and auto-censurable than “visualism”, can correspond with iconophobia. The anthropological observation turns out to be a partially blind vision of reality and the insistence on the interpretative necessity of what is transmitted can transform itself into a control tool, disguised in conceptual analysis. If puritanism has recently in a strict sense forced the restorers of the Sistine Chapel to remove the added underpants and cloths from Michelangelo’s frescoes, a more concealed self-censorship has pushed Malinowski to write in his diary his intimate emotional reactions and sensorial pulsations of the encounter with Trobriand ‘s “savages.
Anthropology, for research requirements, has developed a particular attention to oral tradition. The superiority awarded to one of the senses to spread and hand down the cultural elements specific to a society – the sense of hearing, to which is assigned the listening of words – differently from the awarded supremacy of written words, that uses sight and only subordinately reading out loud, has been considered the discriminating factor between societies considered primitive and those considered modern. So as to call the former, once it has become obsolete the evolutionistic word
“primitive”, a society “without writing”.
Oral communication is direct, face to face, often underlined by an appropriate body language, that acts subordinately with what reaches our ears. From Ong to Goody¸ it has exhaustively been described how, where press is widespread, the cultural communication has become a solitary exercise, outdistancing the author from the recipient of his messages: even more so with electronic communication, in which we participate – but in a “cold and distant” way as McLuhan would say - at events that took place at great distance.
In tradition like in change, the senses are the protagonists in all the fundamental dynamics of communication between men. And nevertheless, anthropology, which ambition is to testify the universality of human condition through the expression of its diversity, has appeared too often insensitive e almost timorous of recording its manifestation in its singularity.
Visual anthropology has charged itself with the task of elaborating suitable expressive means to disclose the phenomenology of individual actions and collective events – the “private” and the “public” – in ways and manners which the social actors perform, getting the represented object closer to the spectator, that is to say to the depicted subjects while shooting. Such vocation leads the authors of ethnographic films and videos to open themselves to an expressive modality considered on the whole, as they show themselves according to shared and variable cultural codes in different contexts: it leads, therefore, to multisensoriality.
This is demonstrated during the monothematic editions of Nuoro’s exhibition (today SIEFF), from Magic and Medicine (1996), to Music and Rituals (1998), to Food (2002). These films not only illustrated a kaleidoscopic variety of subjects and inspirational sources but also a broad mindedness that contrasted the hegemony of an auto-referential interpretation. The fundamental passage was to expose, through the author and his tool, the subject’s emotional and sensorial impact and hence the interpretative elaboration of the represented event. The success of such an involvement was proven in the variety of what was being noticed and therefore, sensorially perceived, by the spectators. Differently from what often happens when reading the ethnographic monographs, where there is no possibility to develop different versions of what has happened “out there”, in the presence of the anthropologist at the time of his observation.
In spite of all the differences and semiologic subtleties, visual anthropology brings us closer - and also us as anthropologists - to those with who we want to communicate. It’s not really the result that needs analysis (think about the boring issues like framing and what is left out of it, or about the film maker’s more or less invasive presence) but rather the attitude in which he places himself in front of the “out there “ (calling it “reality” would raise other useless issues).
An all-embracing ambition that inevitably and favourably places who adopts it in an unpredictable situation. Goodbye rigorous classifications, more or less AristHotelic, goodbye geometric symmetries, more or less “structuralist”. If the rigorous physical sciences don’t withdraw in front of the idea to explore the chaos of the matter, anthropology shouldn’t have to withdraw in front of the many ways the human condition shows itself.