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Embalmed Air: The Case of the Cinematic Bubble

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Pollard, Damien 


This article explores the complex cinematic representation of bubbles. The bubble is best understood as a pocket of air contiguous with but distinct from its ambient milieu. The air within the bubble gives it its form, and the bubble thus objectifies the air it contains; it renders the air perceptible. I argue that what we see in a photograph or film of a bubble is thus, somehow and obliquely, the indexical trace of the air and I suggest that the indirect representation of the air by the onscreen bubble might complicate longstanding accounts of photography/cinema’s material relationship with the ‘real’. I look back to the important role played by the bubble in seventeenth-century vanitas painting, where it operates as both a meaning-laden symbol and an autonomous visual spectacle, and I argue that the onscreen bubble maintains this tense duality. I draw on pre-sound films from the UK and Italy, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (USA, 1960) and Chris Kentis’ Open Water (USA, 2003) to explore how filmmakers have put the bubble’s aesthetic complexity to work in the service of moral instruction, commercial advertising, and the generation of narrative suspense. Finally, the paper will argue that these films all suggest that the film frame itself be thought of as a sort of bubble. By creating this equivalence, these films invite us to reflect on our own position as spectators and to (re)consider the complexities of our aesthetic engagement with the film image.



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Wayne State University Press

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Junior research Fellowship, Clare College