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Framing aquatic life

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This article considers the way aquatic life appears on screen, and the implications of the resemblance between the film frame and the other frames through which human spectators habitually encounter aquatic life: the aquarium, and apertures opening into the deep sea. The discussion opens with an exploration of the parallel histories of screen and tank, before moving on to probe the questions provoked by apparent equivalences between the two as forms of visual spectacle. How does the aquarium tank come to be understood as akin to the screen image, and how and why does the screen image stand in for the aquarium? How does this relate to the way modernity made aquatic animals ever more visible (unlike most of John Berger’s zoo animals)? To what extent is the reality of aquatic life suppressed and substituted by visions of mere animation? The article then examines what happens when framed aquatic life appears within fiction film, looking in detail at Stuart Paton’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916) and Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1947). The final part of the essay moves through a broader set of examples, including Phillip Warnell's Outlandish: Strange Foreign Bodies (2009), to consider the possibility of catastrophic rupture of the fourth wall, which I argue is inherent in images of aquatic life. Such moments confront us with the visceral presence of these creatures, even as they hurtle towards on-screen death.



36 Creative Arts and Writing, 3605 Screen and Digital Media

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Oxford University Press (OUP)


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