Richard Linklater’s film Waking Life contains a dialogue which is quickly becoming a personal lens for how I measure both my work and the work of others. In it, a man (Caveh Zahedi) gives a brief overview of film critic André Bazin’s ideas about God and film. The train of thought starts with the argument that if photography and film-based cinema are a record of something, be it man, animal or thing, in a space and in a time, then it captures a fundamental truth of existence. And if reality is the work of God, then each frame of a film is the record of a fleeting holy moment, or perhaps the face of the divine Himself.
It’s a lovely idea. And an ironic one, when you consider that the idea is presented in a film that has been so digitally manipulated—a subject explored in critic J. Hoberman’s Film After Film.
Religious feelings aside, there can be something magical about seeing a person captured on film in a special moment, regardless of how imperfect the image may be. In fact, sometimes the imperfect image has more of a charge than a perfect one. Which leads to the aesthetisation of imperfection. For example, the work of Ralph Eugene Meatyard whose blurry, shaky, over- and underexposed images had more power than most professional work of his time.
These aestheticized imperfections exist in cinema as well: Jean-Luc Godard’s hand-held camera, Stan Brakage’s scratched film, Michael Snow’s film grain and light leaks, and my current obsession: the lens flare.
The best-known film which transformed the lens flare into a discreet effect was Richard Lester’s A Hard Days Night—an exuberant and slightly arch study of The Beatles at the beginning of their careers. It’s a simple story. The band, with Paul McCartney’s grandfather (“a clean old man”), travel from Liverpool to London, run from rabid fans, have a few comic interactions, and then appear on television. The whole production had a relatively low budget and was quickly shot in the cinéma vérité style.
Keeping in the vérité tradition, there are a few moments, as the camera moves around the band, where the lights of the television studio flare into the camera. Now this was something that any self-respecting cinematographer would work to avoid. But The Beatles were something entirely different. They represented a new way of being in post-war modernity. Mass media was quickly eroding the line between private life and public persona and this was a good opportunity to follow and learn about the band as “real” people.
And any obvious attempt to retouch this reality would spoil the moment… the holy moment… as any Beatles fan would argue, as we see into the souls of the lads from Liverpool.
Within a few short years, the lens flare was making frequent appearances in countercultural cinema. It signified spontaneity and confidence. The viewer’s experience was no longer mediated and homogenized by the establishment. We were there, with the actors. We too were alive. And we too were free.
And we were exploring uncharted territory.
This free and easy play of light quickly found its way into other counterculture media. Perhaps not always a lens flare in the strictest definition, but certainly a stylized imperfection of lighting, intended to evoke a… response.
In 1974 the lens flare acquired another meaning — the bright future — when astronaut Steve Austin, played by Lee Majors, found himself in need of bionic limb and eye replacements after a catastrophic crash of an experimental spacecraft. He was to become a new kind of human. He was The Six Million Dollar Man.
As entertainment, the series was your basic one-camera, well-lit, episodic hack job. But that opening sequence was rather complex and layered for its time. The lens flare, centered under his bionic eye, shifted from an indicator of reality to a signifier of dreams and possibilities.
This is the same dreamy wonder seen in films directed by Steven Spielberg, whose use of light in Close Encounters of the Third Kind obscures as much as it illuminates. As it pours from the alien craft, the brightness prevents us from seeing detail, and thus allows the mind to imagine something beyond our earthly experience.
This is more than just a holy moment. It is a transcendent one, in the exaggerated sense of Baroque painting. A moment where the thing that lies beyond is so awesome, so glorious, we can’t even imagine it.
And as Reubens had followers, so does Spielberg: most notably J. J. Abrams, whose storytelling philosophy was described as follows:
“He [Abrams] recalled getting something called a mystery box. On the outside it had a big question mark, and on the inside it had . . . what? Toys, presumably. Tricks, maybe. If you shook the box, you heard them rattling around. But their precise nature wasn’t known. That was the thrilling part, the part that held your imagination captive.”— Frank Bruni, “Filmmaker J. J. Abrams Is a Crowd Teaser,” The New York Times, May 26, 2011
“Well, say that there’s a…there’s no question that I overuse lens flares on occasion. I know that there’s a sort of… The kneejerk reaction from the director of photography is usually…it’s usually, ‘OK, we’ve got to flatten that light because it’s going to flare.’ I think it’s one of those things that you want to make sure that, obviously, it’s…To me it’s such a cool beautiful image, the light through the glass. There are times that I feel like it sort of adds another kind of smart element, and it’s hard to define. But it is a visual taste that I do like. I think there are a couple shots in Super 8 where I just think I should definitely pull back here or there, but I can’t help myself sometimes.”— Interview with J. J. Abrams
The lens flares which appear in much of Abrams’ work stand out because they often obscure without overtly advancing the narrative. That is, beyond a vague sense that something extraordinary is happening.
So let’s consider the flares in Abrams’ version of Star Trek. The film has a lot of dark murky spaces, generally punctuated with blinding glare, and a starship bridge with the worst human factors seen in quite a while. A place so bright, one should worry about finding the photon torpedo button in an emergency.
A place so bright, that the title of the sequel, Into Darkness, borders on irony.
In all fairness, I can’t blame Abrams for compulsively including lens flares in so much of his work. He’s not the only one with a gimmick. Hitchcock famously performed as an extra in his fims, Godard soundtracks idiosyncratically careen from full sound to absolute silence, and Clint Eastwood often closes a film with a zoom out shot from a retreating helicoptor. If I don’t see these things, I get anxious in their absense. Every creative person has their tricks and go-to techniques and these can be reassuring to their fans.
Still, I don’t get the sense that Abrams thinks on the critical level that Spielberg does. He admits to overusing lens flare, and it can be hard to define what the flares are trying to do other than create a “techy” atmosphere. Right now, in 2013, you just apply a matte screen protector to cut down glare off your iPhone screen. So then why can’t the engineers in Abrams’ future build a starship bridge that doesn’t throw off so much indiscriminate light?
Given the general lack of creativity in Hollywood corner offices, the success of Abrams’ films means the easily-copied aspects of his work will be imitated for years to come. If he’s the current king of science fiction, then Hollywood’s superstitious laws of transitive property dictate that you need lens flares to make a proper sci fi film.
At least in Battleship, flares support a plot point where the invading aliens see better in the dark, and combination US/Japanese forces use this weakness to defeat them.
The flaring has reached such a level of absurdity, that it appears in first-person role-playing games like Battlefield 3.
The incongruity here is that lens flares are a result of light in a camera. In theory, the Battlefield player is using their eyes, which have a greater ability to see both shadow and highlight — without lens flare.
Yes, it may look cool. But it says nothing.
In contrast, here’s one frame from a battle sequence in Saving Private Ryan, a film influenced by the materials and processes of period news reports.
Speilberg described his process: “Early on, we [Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski] both knew that we did not want this to look like a technicolor extravaganza about World War II, but more like color newsreel footage from the 1940s, which is very desaturated and low-tech.” Kaminski stripped the camera lenses’ protective coating to bring them closer to period technology. “Without the protective coating, the light goes in and starts bouncing around, which makes it slightly more diffused and a bit softer without being out of focus.”
In this case, Spielberg and Kaminski’s flare effects have a critical and aesthetic foundation which gives the film an authentic look and feel. Something which may not contain holy moments as described in Waking Life, but certainly more emotional impact than the unholy moments of excessive lens flares.