A Phenomenology of the Image: On 127 Hours


So I just watched this film, 127 Hours, and what struck me most about it is it’s not really about this trapped dude hacking off his arm. It’s about the act of recording — what it means, how it performs.

First of all, am I the only one who found it odd that the recorded plays such a pivotal role? Sure, he records everything — which is strange enough — but he hallucinates in recorded images — tv shows, ads, his own home movies. We even see him through the eyes of a surveillance camera at his job. But while hitting us over the head with the ubiquity of the recorded image, Boyle does not hit us over the head with a didactic argument. On the contrary, we get a kind of phenomenology of the image, a splaying of the different ways the image goes.

“…living in the document rather than the real thing.”

Image as more. Aron (James Franco) is always snapping away. He has a video camera attached to his mountain bike. When he falls hard off his bike, before getting up, he snaps a picture. One could no doubt read this as a watering down of the purity of his event, living in the document rather than the real thing. But another way of seeing it, the way it seems to function in the film for Aron, is as an doubling of his adventure: he climbs and has images of climbing. It’s more adventure!

Image as amplification. In ceaselessly recording himself, Aron becomes the hero in his own drama, in his own life. Not only is he kicking ass in Canyonlands, he’s kicking ass on a virtual big screen (see “image as social” and “image as temporal fold”). In the present, he’s projecting himself onto the screen, across the interwebs, into your homes. And hence he’s not alone — he’s part of the epic drama of civilization — and he’s living into the future.

Image as social. Presumably, Aron is a bit of a loner. This is the dominant narrative arc: he has been selfish and alone and needs to be folded back into the social body. So, at the end, he’s married, has a kid, is with his friends and family — and always leaves a note as to where he’s gone. But then why is he always recording himself? Yes, amplification. But it’s also that the image functions as new mode of the social — hence his memories and dreams are tv shows and ads.

Perhaps this is obvious to you but it wasn’t to me: the circulation of images through our homes — our tvs and interwebs — is the social. We say things like Facebook are social media but tv was already social media. Unplug the tv, disconnect from the network, and suddenly you are in fact cut off from the social body. Aron does not do this. He lives in this new layer of the social — this infinite circulation of the recorded image.

The very act of recording is, for Aron, a social event. His image joins the flow, the great circulation of images,the society of the spectacle. And the camera becomes an agent, an interlocutor of a sort.

Image as temporal fold. The movie is not about surprise. We know, before going in, what’s going to happen. In this sense, it’s a classical tragedy: we know the ending but want to live through the life nonetheless. The tragic structure of the film is an odd temporal fold to begin with. But then Boyle starts snapping away at Aron snapping away and we get this strange effect: the documenting of an event that hasn’t yet happened: a now that becomes a record of an already happened.

Image as record. This is, of course, the most obvious aspect of the image: it is a record of what happened. It is a way of knowing. How do we know these things about Aron’s adventure? There it is, on film. But just because we take this mode of the image most for granted doesn’t mean it isn’t fucking weird. Knowing comes from watching a movie — Aron’s movie, yes, but Boyle’s movie, too. Film, then, is not about knowledge; itis knowledge.

There are no doubt more things to say, more ways the image goes in this film. But I find myself wondering: What if there were no recording? Take the camera out of Aron’s life. What would the event be like then?

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