Rocky Balboa's run up the wide steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art is one of the most iconic scenes in American cinema; we can easily recall his gesture, on reaching the top: hands in the air, in triumph. These steps are in the local news again: The Philadelphia Museum of Art is expanding. Frank Gehry's design involves cutting out a large section right down the middle: straight along, in other words, Rocky's path.
As part of an ongoing investigation of the relationship of the body to the camera, the Los Angeles-based artist Adrià Julià found himself climbing those steps. In the past year, Julià has interviewed cinematographers and camera operators in Los Angeles and Paris and conducted a series of experiments. These short films, sculptures, lenticular prints, choreographic studies attempt to pull the embodied experiences of filmmaking into his own practice.
Julià was drawn to Rocky's ascent because that scene is associated with the origin of the Steadicam -- one of the most important inventions in cinema history. The Steadicam moves with but also against the cameraperson's body; balancing itself as that person moves. A 2008 profile in ICG magazine (the magazine and website for the International Cinematographers Guild) reviews the history of its development with reverence, tracing each step in the process as Garret Brown and his collaborators arrived at this device that seemed to have a life of its own. One cinematographer remembers, "'in the early days, the Steadicam operator was treated like he had his own little bag of voodoo.'"
Brown has gone on to create more magical devices, including many of the cinematic tools used in major sporting events -- such as the World Cup -- flycams that run with the athlete along the length of a track or a field; skycams suspended by wires that can swoop over the field of play like a bird. He has even created underwater cameras, used to capture the swimmer's body as she races down the lane. The Steadicam, however, is the device that made Brown's career.
In 1974, Brown produced a reel demonstrating what his camera could do with the aim of bringing his invention to Hollywood. On that reel is a film of Ellen Brown, his wife, running down, and then up, the museum's steps. (The two lived in Philadelphia.) When the team producing "Rocky" saw Brown's reel, they decided to set the film in the city of brotherly love so that its hero could run up those steps, just as Ellen had done. Ellen, in other words, is the reason "Rocky" is a Philadelphia story.
If we find that story surprising, it is because mass media representations of women's athleticism (ordinary and extraordinary) are few and far between. They are nearly as rare as women's authorship of films like "Rocky" (less than 2 percent of sports news coverage in the U.S. is centered on women's sports; less than 5 percent of feature films released by a major studio were directed by women).1 That a scene in a movie so macho, and also so famous might have taken its inspiration from a film of a woman running arrives as interesting news.
In meditating on this story, Julià noticed a remarkable coincidence: the museum at the top of the steps houses Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2" (1912) -- a work that itself invokes the experiments of chronophographer Ã?tienne-Jules Marey. Inspired by the proximity of these two images of women ascending/descending stairs and the way these images pivot around experiments with motion, time and the body, Julià rendered the scene of Ellen's run into something that looks like one of Marey's chronographs. He calls his short film "Rocky's Ghost Ascending the Stairs."
Different histories intersect in "Rocky's Ghost Ascending the Stairs:" the history of the development of camera technology; the production of history of "Rocky;" the popularization of running and fitness culture; modernism's repeated use of the female figure as a site through which the experience of modernity is expressed; the relationship between bodies and machines.
"Rocky's Ghost Ascending the Stairs" and "Rehearsal for Cameramen" or "Recording Machines" are just two chapters in Julià's exploration of the history and poetics of the body's relationship to the camera. It is atypical, in a way -- the body within this project is usually the body behind the camera, not in front of it: the hand that grips the camera, the shoulder which supports its weight, the finger that holds a button down - Julià created a series of sculptures of hands, and used stop-motion animation to make spooky films of a hand making the press/record gesture. Julià has been exploring images of filmmakers standing next to their cameras, and speculating on the fleshiness of the cinematographer's relationship to the instrument of his or her craft.
The artist's project mines the twinned stories of the development of Aäton shoulder-mounted cameras of the early 1970s (invented by Jean-Pierre Beauviala) and Brown's Steadicam (invented in also in 1970s). Both facilitate camera movement. But, the artist explains, they create "diametrically different or opposite possibilities." They are different in "their production value, weight, ergonomy, use." They facilitate different practices of authorship, and different forms of subjective experience for the viewer. What, Julià seems to wonder, is the experience of these cameras for the person who holds or operates them? What is the relationship between the body behind the camera and the body in front it? How does the shape, the structure of the camera inform that relation?
He recently traveled to Paris to interview Beauviala about his cameras, and to work with choreographer Myriam Lefkowitz. Their collaboration, he says, "develops a way of reading or looking at films from the point of view of the movements and gestures of the person behind the camera." Their aim is to provide what he calls "a kind of archaeology," a kinesthetic record of "the camera-operator's dance," which mirrors in the body what Jean Rouch described as "the cinema-trance," or the "different mental state or space" required of the camera operator.
The shoulder-mounted camera was designed to fit close to the body. It sat, according to its inventor, "like a cat on the shoulder" and moves with the body, and it gives the viewer a sense of being with the cameraperson. (Julià has named his project "Cat on the Shoulder.") There are traces of that person's body in the camera's movement -- the image jostles with every step, for example. There are also traces of the camera's presence in the body of the person holding it.
"Aäton cameras allowed a new way of filming," Julià explains, "it was a political tool for a different kind of filmmaking." When watching footage shot with this kind of camera, you never forget there is a person holding it. The jerkiness of the footage might make it feel personal, but it is actually a record of the camera's inability to smooth out its record of motion -- something our brains do naturally and constantly. It feels personal because it feels like film recorded not by a person's eye, but by a person's camera. Gestures, postures, ticks in a person's gait, injuries produced through repetitive motion all record a relationship between the body and the machine.
Using a printing process most of us know through postcards (which appear to be 3-D, or alternate between images as one shifts one's perspective), Julià imagines the machines as bodies -- as the viewer moves, a portrait of Robert Capra during the Spanish Civil War holding a camera becomes a portrait of the camera's imagined body. (Interestingly, these lenticular prints are not reproducible digitally; not as a static image. The format is distinctly analog. To appreciate a lenticular print, the spectator must move, just as we have to move to, say, peer around a corner.)
The Steadicam generates a different relationship between the body and the camera. It harnesses the camera to the body and the relation of the photographer's body to the camera is mediated by a balancing mechanism that stabilizes the camera. It moves with the cameraperson, but its balancing mechanism alienates the "eye" from cameraperson's movement. The effect actually humanizes that which the camera records. The spectator is not with the cameraperson; the spectator is inside the camera itself. And yet the camera itself is heavy and awkward.
The Steadicam's suppression of the body's movement (the jostling footsteps, a wobble of the wrist, a dip in the shoulder) allows it to capture something we experience as pure movement. It floats, and we float with it. Paradoxically, the suppression of the record of the body operating it allows the camera to get closer to the bodies it records.
Julià's ongoing project mines these contradictions - the shoulder-held camera produces an image that feels personal for all the ways in which is makes its mechanical function felt. It is the camera most associated with cinema verité and direct cinema because through it, we feel the apparatus of cinema. We "see" film, as a material practice. The Steadicam produces something that feels closer to what we see with our own eyes. And yet it does so by alienating the camera's eye from the camera operator's body. There is something at once exhilarating and also frightening about this process: it is perhaps one reason why the technology connects so intimately with athletic performance that it can make that performance seem both superhuman and also inhuman.
This is the camera that allows the cinematographer -- and us -- to climb into the boxing ring with Rocky Balboa. It allows us to feel boxing's violence, from an omniscient point of view. We are neither Rocky nor his opponent, nor the referee. We are no one.
The camera is part of an elaborate industrial system that facilitates our absorption into the sport spectacle, as well as our alienation from it. It makes the sport spectacle feel more real as we move with and around the athlete. But it also feels less real, as the filming itself become less "visible" to us, as the Steadicam operator appears on the field as an intrusion; as the shadow of the Skycam (also invented by Brown) flies across the green field like a stray cat or a ghost. The cameraperson withdraws from the picture, in favor of the athlete's vitality.
Julià says he is not thinking about athletes, but about the person running alongside them; the person holding the instrument through which we experience the athlete's motion. "In some ways," he says, "camera operators have become ghosts of what they once were: zombies -- a figure Maya Deren predicted and explored dancing with her camera among the possessed in Haiti in 1945." The cameraperson's body has disappeared at the same time becomes encumbered, harnessed to the real weight of the heavy steadicam: "the endless numeric captures of what was once called 'the real' is turned into digital corpses simulating floating eyeballs." Or, it's produced a different kind of body. A different sense of what life and motion are. What is that body now, Julià's research asks, and where did the other one go?
1 See, for example, Melissa Silverstein, "Infographic: Women Directors in the Studio System," Indiewire.com. 23 June 2014; Michael A. Messner and Cheryl Cooky, Gender in Televised Sports: News and Highlight Shows, 1989-2009 (Center for Feminist Research, University of Southern California, 2010).