He’s the man behind the camcorder, and he never puts it down. His right hand has grown around it; no-one’s ever even seen his right eye. He walks the same paths others walk, but he doesn’t walk with them. They see him at births and weddings and funerals, but they never really see him. His camera is less than a foot long, but it opens a chasm between him and them. The long distance video guy walks alone.
People make way for him the way they make way for police cars, ambulances and fire trucks. They let him go places they cannot go, but they block him from places where everyone else goes. They shrink from him as he approaches or they “play” to him, but they cannot ignore him. They cannot be themselves when he is around; at best they can only “act natural.”
Do they fear exposure, ridicule, violation: “Why is he spying on me?” Perhaps it’s vanity, self-absorption, hope of exposure: “Wait until everyone sees me on TV.” Or maybe his presence make them feel important: “If the guy with the camera is here, I must be where it’s at, where whatever is supposed to be happening is actually happening!”
As best friends and family they may embrace the videomaker, but when he raises the camcorder, it pushes them away. They feel like rioters at the wrong end of a firehose, or bacilli at the small end of a microscope.
But the camera also throws him back from them, like a rifle with its kick. He no longer breaks their bread, clinks their glasses, whispers in their ears, presses their flesh. He frames it all instead; he captures the light and the sound of it. He knows better than anyone else what color dress Sue is wearing and what time the cake comes out, because he’s keeping an eye on it all. Everyone sees the long distance video guy at the wedding, but nobody thinks he was really there.
Bertolt Brecht spoke of the “alienation effect” of his plays. He said he wrote them in a way that would make the audience ever aware that they were seeing a fictitious construct. Unlike most good plays, his weren’t meant to trick the audience into feeling it was seeing real life. The long distance video guy views his own life through the alienation effect. He goes on vacation, and spends the whole time taping the experience. Koan of the video guy: who had his vacation?
Another take: cinema verit documentarians use their own intimidating presence to provoke events that would not ordinarily occur. They explain that, though an event might happen only because the camera rolls, it could reveal the truths that ordinary life never does. Could the long distance video guy also penetrate to deeper truths because of his distance, his disengagement, his concern with the look and sound of things?
If he tapes a waterfall from 15 angles, and shoots it with great care for color, luminance and sound could he come away from it with an insight into the life and workings of that waterfall hard to obtain by simply looking at it? Of course that wouldn’t come automatically, but it could come with concentration and disciplined seeing. The distance of the long distance video guy could lead him back into a different, maybe deeper, understanding.
It could just as easily lead him to perpetual tourism: a superficial grasp of people, events, the world. That way lies death of feeling and real loneliness. So much is at stake with the proliferation of modern tools and toys.
As we say, nothing’s guaranteed.
Stephen Muratore is Videomaker‘s Editor in Chief.