THE FORBIDDEN ZOOM

November, 1983, Hotel des Invalides. It takes the 58 Beirut victims for television to think of form as more than a mere formality.

Whenever our rulers want to endow a particular event with symbolic meaning, television is involved. And each time a somewhat forgotten question needs to be asked: how to film a ritual - a question which is both very serious and inescapable. For it is when a symbolic spectacle has to be portrayed that television, and those in charge of it, remembers that the medium actually consists of sounds and images, of commentaries and voiceovers, of cameras moving across petrified bodies, of an incredibly precise apparatus, and of extras who occasionally are not just "anybody" since they become emblems. Yesterday an "Image of France" had to be carefully balanced and upheld on the Place des Invalides, a France composed of ordinary heads of state (Mitterand and all the ministers, but also Giscard and Chirac), of ordinary soldiers and of grief-stricken families (those of the 58 Beirut victims.)

Then - and only then - the television directors, the cameramen, and the sound engineers ask themselves, as they say, questions about "content." But they do it negatively, that is to say they make in advance a list of all the things that would be bad form. And because they "watch it" they begin to think about their practice.

Television has invented its own rituals (games, debates) but it is always somewhat uncomfortable when it comes to grafting itself on to pre-existing historic rituals, rituals that are deeply rooted in French history and already appear in paintings or engravings. Television tends to have a trivializing effect, to zoom in on anything as in a commercial, to diminish everything (hence the expression "small screen".) Thus, when faced with a religious service, a presidential visit to the Pantheon or a sounding of the last post, it rediscovers that its tools are not innocent or that, as people have been saying (in vain) for centuries, forms are heavy with content.

What exactly had to be avoided in the live coverage of this posthumous honouring of the 58 Beirut bodies "fallen for peace" (or for France?) Pathos, pomposity, obscenity, the obtrusive presence of politicians, gratuitous spectacle, and ostentatious virtuosity. No particular image should steal the limelight from the overall concept of the event (sobriety, grandeur, unity.)

As a way of reconciling the movement inherent in the medium and the static quality of the ritual, the director brought back an ancient technique rarely used on television: the dissolve (an image slowly melts into another; for example from a view of immobile soldiers to a shot of clouds moving across the grey sky above the Invalides.) To avoid superfluous emotion he showed very little of the singers or musicians in action. To avoid pathos he shot the families as if only in passing (hardly more than 10 shots), like inserts of silent grief, without unnecessary emphasis. To avoid boring static long takes, he cleverly varied angles, found complex circuits for the five cameras, etc.

We thus had the strange spectacle of a modern medium practicing self-censorship in order to respect an older (pictorial) genre: the patriotic painting or engraving of the late 19th century. What we saw was an 1883 scene filmed in 1983.

The most striking aspect of it, and for me the most symptomatic, was the almost total absence of forward zooms. In its daily (profane) usage, the zoom has become, more than a desire to signify or a stylistic figure, a kind of automatic reflex on the part of cameramen, devoid of meaning, and which only signifies that "this is TV." At the same time the forward zoom, with its insinuating and predatory character, continues to "have a meaning": that, to be precise, of a rape. Thus, by refusing this common prop, to zoom but backward, the television director had to practice old-fashioned "mise en scéne," to move constantly from the detail to the overall picture, but never the other way round, to "take charge" of the spectacle as it was originally planned, with its slow moments (punctuated by the clicking of cameras, footsteps, the discreet hum of live sound) and its "strong" moments (such as the simultaneous raising of the coffins or their odd wobbly departure on the shoulders of the paratroopers.)

In short, it took 58 victims and a national ritual for a television director to ponder, a little, the meaning of his practice. "Form," as we can see, is quite something.

Originally published in LIBERATION, November 3, 1983.

First published in English in FRAMEWORK #32/33.

Translated by Ginette Vincendeau.