Historicizing Color in Film. Technologies, Aesthetics, Affects

Dr. Bregt Lameris

Within the context of the ERC Advanced Grant Filmcolors I investigate color technology, aesthetics and subjectivities in film. One of the first problems I encountered in this research was the question of whether I could historicise affect and subjectivities. Over the past twenty-five years, media studies has witnessed the development of a variety of methodologies to examine affect and emotion in film and other moving images with the help of theoretical perspectives adopted from phenomenology, cognitive psychology and branches of philosophy concerned with the concept of ‘affect’. This is problematic because, like every other element of culture, the visual representation of affect and emotion is historically determined. Fortunately, this issue has been addressed through the framework of ‘media archaeology’. In his book What Is Media Archaeology (2012), Jussi Parikka explains that what distinguishes the approach from other methodologies in affect studies is its historical account of embodiment and its focus on technological conditions. As such, media archaeology combines formal film analysis, technological and material history, and the history of ideas.
Another approach is that of E. Deidre Pribram, a film and television studies scholar who focuses on media and emotion in a historical context. Her work is part of a relatively recent movement in cultural history known as the ‘history of emotions’. Jan Plamper lays out the ground principles of this approach in his book The History of Emotions (2017). As Plamper notes, various theories and methodologies have been introduced into the domain to analyse in particular the socially constructed nature of emotions. Another problem Plamper approaches in his book is the question if affects and emotions are culturally or biologically determined. However, even though the question of ‘nature vs. nurture’ is constantly brought up in the debate, it seems that the questions whether emotions and affects can also be biological, relatively stable entities remain unanswered. In fact, the entire nature vs. nurture — or cultural vs. universal — discussion is mentioned and discussed, but not structurally taken into account when analysing the history of emotions and affects.
In order to address this problem of nature vs. nurture, I draw from the concept of the ‘pluralité des durées’ in historical time introduced by Fernand Braudel. Braudel’s study consists of three parts. Each part describes and analyses a specific temporal layer in the history of the Mediterranean. He distinguishes a history that is ‘quasi-immobile’ meaning that it hardly changes over time, the history of groups and groupings that manifest a slow rhythm of change and a rapidly changing history, that of individuals and individual events (Braudel, 1949). I use these ideas as a template for my study of affect and emotion in film, introducing a similar but slightly modified distinction in layers of historical temporalities.
Braudel’s layer that covers the quasi-immobile milieu, is related to nature and the way the environment influences human behaviour. This layer partly corresponds to Plantinga’s idea of ‘direct affect’. In his book Moving Viewers (2009), Plantinga argues that ‘[s]pectator responses to movements, sounds, colours, textures, and manifestations of space are in large part automatic and pre-reflective’, and that their reactions to what happens on screen are partly rooted in ‘natural perceptual responses that have developed over long periods of human history’. In other words, these more physiological reactions change at a very slow (quasi-immobile) pace. In my opinion, the physical component of colour perception and the way it affects the body is such a constant factor. This provides a good starting point from which to investigate the quasi-immobile history of colour perception and how it relates to film and affect. In a study on affect and colour, this gradual pace of change corresponds to the slow evolution of human perception and the human visual system — the eye and optical nerves.
However, the concept of ‘direct affect’ as a direct bodily response to the filmic representation is not exclusively governed by these ‘natural perceptual responses’. Plantinga explains that films can also affect spectators according to social conventions and cultural constraints. This brings us to another temporal layer — that of cultural and social discourses relating to colour and affect in film. This layer is determined by the aesthetic and cultural context in combination with the technological possibilities and constraints of the period.
Finally, my proposal is that a last temporal layer should cover the filmic events and structures that propel them in the direction of affect. The attempt to address this problem needs to be grounded in the close reading, formal analysis and interpretation of individual films and their colours.
In my opinion, one of the main problems in studying affect and emotion in film is that the implicit durées show relatively large variations depending on the elements under scrutiny. This is precisely why it is necessary to investigate all three layers in order to gain a clearer understanding of how colour and affect in film function at particular moments of history. To explore this, I focus on the 1960s cultural context with its extra-ordinary colour culture.