Blink and you’ll miss it.
You place the camera on the tripod. You tell the actor to get into position. You start shooting. You stop the camera. You tell the actor to get out of frame. You shoot again.
Thus, almost without effort, one of the oldest and most effective cinematic illusions is achieved: the disappearance of people, animals and objects. A trick that has been put into practice by Méliès and by any grandfather inviting his grandson to play with the domestic camera he’s just bought. It’s just a blink of the shutter, but when the shooting time is resumed, everything has changed, except for the framing.
A century has passed since those first wonderful primitive disappearing acts; trick photography has evolved and, in the meantime, characters have left the screen in many different ways: through fading to black and ghostly transparencies, complex special effects, or with a camera movement that removed their presence. Still, there will always be a new director seduced by the irresistible force of that cut/blink: even at such a late date as 1986, David Lynch emptied the screen in Blue Velvet with this most efficient method after a wild Dennis Hopper exclaimed: “I’ll fuck anything that moves!;” his laugh can still be heard when his body has already left the room. Lynch would still use it in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the film that probably contains the most electric sequence in all his career: after having disappeared a few years back, agent Phillip Jeffries (played by David Bowie) enters the FBI’s premises before his colleagues’ bewilderment. Dizzy, as if he’s suffering from some kind of inter-dimensional jet lag, he starts delivering an exasperating monologue, short-circuited by visions of Bob, The Man from Another Place, and other equally cryptic characters. Bowie’s voice becomes a scream, his gestures become desperate, and the noise of a bad TV signal fills the screen; we see some transmission towers and then the chair where the character was sitting, now empty. “He’s gone!,” shouts agent Gordon Cole (interpreted by Lynch himself!). Both us as spectators and the characters’ colleagues had him before our eyes, but he’s no longer there. And we’ve been unable to do anything about it. Still astonished, the scene gives us the final blow by telling us about the disappearance of another FBI agent, Chet Desmond, played by Chris Isaak.
The scene in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is particularly striking because it overwhelms us with so much information and images that we cannot apprehend it in one sitting. Even though a disappearing act will always be an important event within a film, what interests me now is to focus on those cases in which it’s not only a trick or a dramatic effect, but narrative matter, the (empty) centre of the story.
“Once upon a time, there was a man named Harrington, a man named Forbes, a man named Gart. They used to exist, but don’t any longer. Someone -or something- took them somewhere. At least they are no longer a part of the memory of man. And as to the X-20 supposed to be housed here in this hangar, this, too, does not exist. And if any of you have any questions concerning an aircraft and three men who flew her, speak softly of them -and only in- The Twilight Zone.”
With this speech, Rod Serling closed And When the Sky Was Opened, eleventh episode in the first season of The Twilight Zone, directed by Douglas Heyes and written by Serling himself. It was the story of three astronauts returning to Earth after a complicated mission, hailed as heroes. However, soon after their comeback they start disappearing without a trace; nobody remembers them, except for their fellow astronauts. In the last minutes of the episode, Major Gart accepts he’s about to vanish, following the steps of his wretched colleagues. Terrified, he puts his hands on his mouth so as not to shout, while he lies down on his bed. Instead of following his bodily movement, the camera starts a not too functional approach towards the wall behind the character, leaving the frame completely empty. Immediately after, we see that the hospital room occupied by the man is deserted and spotless, and no doctor or nurse wonder about his absence.
And When the Sky Was Opened was based on Richard Matheson’s short story Disappearance, but except for its central idea, the plot was completely changed (something that the writer, who would pen and/or grant literary substance to some of the most memorable episodes in The Twilight Zone, was never too happy about). On the short story there’s no sign of astronauts or space trips: the main character is a writer who sees how the people around him start disappearing without anybody remembering them. Finally, the main character disappears too, mid-sentence. A simple and yet effective formal trick that finds its equivalence in the approach to nothingness with which the TV version expelled the last astronaut from the story.
Anna is gone, Anna left
And When the Sky Was Opened was broadcasted in the United States on December 11th, 1959. Roughly half an hour later, the Cannes Festival saw the premiere of L’avventura. As it’s widely known, in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film there’s also a disappearing act, Anna’s, lost in the rocky isle of Lisca Bianca. The young girl argues with her boyfriend, Sandro, after which he lies down on the rocks; she turns around to watch him and then the image fades to an extra long shot of the isle’s cliffs and the ocean; a figure-less landscape that has devoured Anna. We never see her again, but her disappearance isn’t the end of the film, since the film then turns to Sandro and her friend Claudia, who at first look for Anna but at the end love each other in her absence, a heavy presence felt on any of their actions.
Their closeness in time allows us to trace a line between And When the Sky Was Opened and L’avventura that is defined, of course, by those creatures disappearing from the screen; an apparently similar type of narrative, but in fact very different. The TV example shows a classical story moving towards its extinction; that’s why its progress is detained when the hero disappears, because its mission was to film those disappearing. On the other hand, Antonioni keeps on shooting after the person whom we thought was the main character has disappeared in order to observe anything arising from her disappearance, starting by the desire between her friend and her boyfriend, which isn’t lived as the liberation of a repressed love, but as a furtive, anti-natural and guilty act. As if Anna could reappear any minute (she doesn’t) or could see them from behind the shadows. To this respect, Gilles Deleuze talked about the “subjective point of view of a character who is, nevertheless, absent, or has even disappeared, not simply out of frame, but passed into the void. […] in L’avventura, the vanished woman causes an indeterminable gaze to weigh on the couple -which gives them the continual feeling of being spied on, and which explains the lack of co-ordination of their objective movements, when they flee whilst pretending to look for her.”
For the French philosopher, these gazes projected from the void were one of the elements that lead the passing from classicism’s typical movement-image (the one taking conscience of its own rattle in And When the Sky Was Opened) to the time-image that would define cinema’s modern times, where a disappearance is no longer a mystery or a conclusion, but a principle of uncertainty to play around with.
On the same year in which L’avventura was premiered, Antonioni would find an affinity within Hollywood itself, where Alfred Hitchcock was premiering Psycho. In this film, disappearance becomes a brutal act, expeditious and terrifying: a murder in the shower that marks the elimination of Janet Leigh from a narration that, after the first shock, will go on without her. With the carnage, the British director leaves the audience bewildered and with a feeling of helplessness they won’t be able to get rid of.
Those who stay
We could stop at the birth of modern cinema, or choose one of the many examples from contemporary films that have disappearance as their raison d’être. Although probably the most interesting thing would be to turn our eyes again to the TV screen and see how recent shows have used disappearances: in Lost, for example, its creators use counterfield, something natural if we take into account that the central idea is to imagine a space in the shape of an isle (less rocky than the one in L’avventura) in which those who “have entered the void” can inhabit a story. On the other hand, Fringe‘s fourth season based its main story arc on the attempt of Peter Bishop to reappear after having been vanished from his timeline. To put it a different way, it was about an absent character rebelling against his condition and trying to recover his body and also the memories of those who had loved him but no longer remember him.
But the TV show that has worked harder on the idea of disappearing is, without a doubt, the much more recent The Leftovers, devised by Damon Lindelof (one of the writers and creators of Lost) and Tom Perrotta and based on the latter’s eponymous novel. On the first episode’s first scene, a woman undertakes a series of chores in different parts of the city while her baby cries, inconsolable. At a given moment, she gets in her car while she talks on the phone; the baby keeps on crying in the rear seat. The camera stays with the woman and, all of a sudden, the crying stops. When the mum turns her head, an everyday gesture, her face goes blank when she finds out, at the same time that we do, that the baby’s no longer there. A few yards ahead, a kid calls for his father, also vanished, and we hear several sirens. Without previous warning, in the blink of an eye, the world has changed forever.
The Leftovers‘s leitmotiv isn’t (at least by now) trying to figure out what has happened with the 2% of the world’s population that has disappeared from the face of the Earth, but to move forward until a few years after the event and witness the everyday lives of those left over, already installed in a sort of simulacra of normality. Since there are no deaths, there’s no possibility of closure, of moving on to a different state. Disappearance imposes a feeling of uncertainty; a never-ending mourning that is, like Jacques Derrida put it, “an on-going process, with all its phenomena of melancholy, of manic joy”. That is why among the omnipresent sadness permeating all the episodes, there are several bursts of aberrant euphoria, almost as unbearable as the romance between Claudia and Sandro.
While we wait to see what the second season will offer, for the moment the proposal of Lindelof and Perrotta embraces disappearance as a foundational idea of modernism, but not to explore it during two hours, rather to move it towards serial fiction (close to the genre, on top of that), and even to reconcile it with the movement that And When the Sky Was Opened had taken up to a seemingly terminal point. Building up, after all, an ocean wide expansion after that tiny (but, as we’ve seen, far from harmless) blink with which Méliès surprised us so many years ago.