Buñuel on Cinema: Explicador

What happens when a new technology is introduced? and how it becomes part of the everyday life? Luis Buñuel, in his autobiography My Last Sigh, recalls the early history of cinema:

In addition to the traditional piano player, each theatre in Saragossa was equipped with its explicador, or narrator, who stood next to the screen and ‘explained’ the action to the audience. ‘Count Hugo sees his wife go by on the arm of another man,’ he would declaim. ‘And now, ladies and gentlemen, you will see how he opens the drawer of his desk and takes out a revolver to assassinate his unfaithful wife!’

It’s hard to imagine today, but when the cinema was in its infancy, it was such a new and unusual narrative form that most spectators had difficulty understanding what was happening. Now we’re so used to film language, to the elements of montage, to both simultaneous and successive action, to flashbacks, that our comprehension is automatic; but in the early years, the public had a hard time deciphering this new pictorial grammar. They needed an explicador to guide them from scene to scene.

I’ll never forget, for example, everyone’s terror when we saw our first zoom. There on the screen was a head coming closer and closer, growing larger and larger. We simply couldn’t understand that the camera was moving nearer to the head, or that because of trick photography (as in Méliès’s films), the head only appeared to grow larger. All we saw was a head coming toward us, swelling hideously out of all proportion. Like Saint Thomas the Apostle, we believed in the reality of what we saw. (p. 32-33)

The cinema ingrains our everyday understanding of films, what Buñuel refers to as our automatic comprehension, through our interaction with the new technology (cinema) and the practices that go with it – not by some sudden magical revelation of the new technology. As our daily lives enmesh with the new technology, we developed a new understanding, new skills, and new ways to cope with it. It is definitely not an individual effort. Wittgenstein (in Zettel 567-69), for example, remarks about it as “what determines our judgment, our concepts and reactions, is not what one man is doing now, an individual action, but the whole hurly-burly of human actions, the background against which we see any action.” However, he thought there is no structural understanding of this mundane hurly-burly.

Heidegger, on the other hand, goes to great lengths in Being and Time in order to explain this background as the background of our everyday practices. In his analysis of equipment, he explains the more we use a tool, the less we experience it and the better we get at it. The tool is always transparent in our everyday dealings. As a tool become transparent in practice, he explains, so does its structure of engagement. This transparent structure of understanding is the background of our everyday life. The technology, therefore, must remain in the background in order for us to work smoothly; or as Mark Weiser put its, calmly; he refers to this phenomenon as ‘disappearance’ of technology – in order for a technology to be truly ubiquitous, Weiser says, it must disappear into the background.

On a Buñuelian surreal end note, as the technology disappears in the background, in our everyday dealings with it, we follow suit; Hubert Dreyfus remarks in his commentary that in such dealings not only the tool is transparent, so is the user. Consider this: while watching TV, say, you get up and go to the fridge and take out the beer – in this zombie like state, both the fridge and the content goes into the background. Our automatic comprehension manifests in such mundane docility. New technologies, new tools, new docility, all exit to the background.

1 comment

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s