Here is an excerpt from my essay on the cinematic experience of falling bodies on which I’m working on for publication in an international film studies journal.
The case of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñàrritu’s short film in the collective work 11’09’’01 – September 11 (Canada 2002) is extremely interesting, since the impact with the ground of the falling bodies is not represented at all and since the black screen is used to partially obscure the movement that precedes the impact, which is, therefore, only evoked as the dramatic and inevitable ending of the falls. The black screen represents a darkening of both the visual field and consciousness. The sight at a distance of desperate, defenceless falling bodies is immediately and emphatically experienced by the spectator because of the precarious nature of its representability. The unwatchable, the unbearable, the unrepresentable is embodied in the ‘blind’ gaze offered by the black screen. Deferring, fragmenting, rationing and partially blacking out the movement, Iñàrritu wants to keep us at a distance, in order to make those piteous images acceptable and bearable. The film embodies both a perceptual and an interpretive approach. The unsensory (i.e. the negation of perception) communicates the insensate (the inconceivability of the events). The physic and the psychic are bound together in an empathetic process of understanding. This empathic relationship does not occur through the proximity between the viewer’s body and that of the falling victims, nor through the display of their facial expressions, but rather through the embodiment of expressive qualities of the on-screen event: the film is operating literally on the edge of visual perception, working to focus bodies that are almost indistinguishable from the rubble – falling debris, souls in search of liberation. Verticality is ineluctability, the fall is decline (in fact, the fall of the bodies anticipates and prefigures the fall of the Towers). The strength of the expressive qualities of the images and sounds (which literally surround the spectator, coming from all directions) affects the neurophysiological basis of the spectator’s emotional experience, but reaches a higher, symbolic level: the movement in the space is a sense of void, and the spectators feel they are plummeting. What heightens these emotions is not only the recognition of the bodily conditions of the falling bodies and the generic empathy that arises from our awareness of our human similarity with those people, but also the ‘expressive shape’ of the movement. The representational forms and expressive dynamic have per se – or rather, they are – expressive means that instinctively refer to figurative concepts (the fall as a sense of emptiness, decline, decay, human weakness, dizziness as instability, fear; speed as an uncontrollable, inevitable force) and thus arouse emotions empathetically, i.e. in the form of an immediate understanding of the meaning of the fall: the sensate in the sensorial, and the sensorial in the sensate.