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The Zoom in Popular Cinema
A Question of Performance

Paul Willemen

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1. Interestingly, Mehmet Aslan (1931-1987), known as ‘the fastest director in Turkey’ shot some 89 movies between 1965 and 1986. The series, originally based on a comic strip character, includes: Tarkan (directed by Tunç Basaran, 1969); Tarkan gümü eyer (Tarkan: Silver Saddle, Mehmet Aslan, 1970); Tarkan Viking kani (Tarkan: Blood of Vikings, Mehmet Aslan, 1971); Tarkan: Altin madalyon (Tarkan: Golden Medallion, Mehmet Aslan, 1972); and Tarkan güglü kahraman (Tarkan Against the One-Armed Swordsman, Mehmet Aslan, 1973).  

Watching more or less at random in the early 1980s some videos of routinely commercial Turkish films available on video in London, I came across the series of action movies featuring a superhero called Tarkan played by Kartal Tibet. (1)

In most respects the films are similar to some of the Italian peplums of the ‘60s, except for a greater emphasis on violence (especially against women), the grotesque blonde wigs sported by some of the central protagonists, and a generally more slipshod attitude towards dubbing and editing.

One aspect of the films, however, stood out as it did in a number of other commercial Turkish action-adventure features of the period: the repeated overemphatic use of the zoom. (2)


2. This is a feature shared by the Pakistani films of the period, though not, oddly enough, by the Indian action melodramas of the time.

3. See, for instance, the early films in Yilmaz Güney’s acting career, which offer Turkish versions of Sergio Leone’s elaboration of the Italian Western.

  The following remarks, triggered by films such as the Tarkan series – which by no stretch of the imagination could be called representative of Turkish cinema in general, although they may well turn out to be typical of the commercial Turkish action cinema of the period – are more concerned with the use of the zoom in such films than with an attempt to identify the specificity of the Turkish versions of the Italian peplum, however interesting and revealing such a study comparing Italian and Turkish commercial cinemas might be. (3)  



For reasons that will become apparent, I will start from a set of problems widely discussed over the last decade in literary theory or, more precisely, in the theory of the history of literature. True, film theory took off from literary theory in the ‘60s as a theory of narrative expressed in a visual mode and, arguably, displaced it in the ‘70s, at least as far as the Euro-American zone was concerned (with regional differences within that zone, of course).

However, since that time, the main intellectual energies addressing the question of how culture works, a problem infinitely more complex than the structure of the human genome, have re-migrated to the literary domain where they fused, often unwittingly, with aspects of a reinvigorated social anthropology and formed a new discipline called cultural studies, which, in spite of its borrowings from film theory, remained energised primarily by work done, for better or worse, in the literary and the sociological domains.

If today we want to have an inkling of the direction in which film theory ought to move to regain its intellectual respectability, we should look at literary theory and more especially to the theoretical dimension of literary history. It is there that the most urgent and potentially path-breaking issues are addressed and debated today.





4. See Michael McKeon, The Origins of the English Novel 1600-1740 (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1987); Kojin Karatani, Origins of Modern Japanese Literature (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1993); James Fujii, Complicit Fictions: The Subject in the Modern Japanese Prose Narrative (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Henry Zhao, The Uneasy Narrator: Chinese Fiction from the Traditional to the Modern (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995); Wlad Godzich, The Culture of Literacy (Cambridge, Massuchusetts: Harvard University Press, 1994); and Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990).


The main debate or area of discussion I have in mind is the work around the development of prose in different parts of the world, in different national literatures, and particularly the approach to cultural forms in terms of modes of address, of the differing inscriptions of the individuated narrative voice, the inscription of subjectivity, a critical-theoretical development that sums up and pushes forward all the main insights elaborated over the last 30 to 40 years in the areas of film theory, cultural studies and what has now come to be called visual studies.

Needless to say, this is a grossly oversimplified view of recent intellectual history and leaves out of account the crucial catalytic role played by, for instance, Michel Foucault’s reformulation of historiography. The work I have in mind, apart from Michael McKeon’s seminal work (to which I will refer later), is that of scholars such as Kojin Karatani, James Fujii, Henry Zhao, Wlad Godzich and, in a tangentially related domain, Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer. (4)

Franco Moretti has outlined a hypothesis for reformulating comparative literature as a discipline. His starting point is an extrapolation of a remark by Fredric Jameson which Moretti formulates as a law: ‘When a culture starts moving towards the modern novel, it’s always as a compromise between foreign form and local materials’, later specified further as a triangular relationship between ‘foreign form, local material – and local form. Simplifying somewhat: foreign plot, local characters, and then, local narrative voice’. (5)


5. Franco Moretti, ‘Conjectures on World Literature’, New Left Review (second series) no. 1 (January-February 2000), p. 60.





  The first question that presents itself with this Jameson-Moretti law follows from its very formulation: ‘When a culture starts moving towards the modern novel …’. This phrase begs a host of questions: What propels the culture in question? Why would it invariably move towards the modern novel (however defined)? Why should this movement immediately be conceptualised in terms of a problem around narrative voice? Is this problem of narrative voice to be found only in literature? Is literature necessarily always the best place to study narrative voice? All these issues revolve around one basic problem: what is at stake in cultural dynamics that it should manifest itself so crucially in the deployment (inscription, orchestration) of subjective discourse, or, the discourse of subjectivity, which is precisely what the narrator’s voice enacts in the telling of a story, any story, regardless of whether it is narrated in verbal language or in the heterogeneous mix of codes that is cinema.  


  The second question then must address the central position attributed to the individuated voice as the measure of a culture’s move towards modernity. The notion that a Western-style, Cartesian Enlightenment-derived notion of subjectivity can function as such a yardstick is, to say the least, controversial. The discomfort that may be generated with such a way of measuring any culture’s move towards the modern does not constitute an argument against it, however. Not even if we then go on to realise that such a way of moving towards the modern implies the recognition that capitalist commodification and its equalising tendencies are a fundamental force propelling the cultural dynamics in question, and that it thus becomes necessary to stop bemoaning the ravages of reification. Indeed, reification then becomes a nostalgic concept signalling regret at the passing of the premodern and actively seeking to discredit the advance of modernising, individuated subjectivity as it seeks to create a space whence it can speak as ‘narrative voice’. In the process, it displaces the previous, premodern narrative voices underpinning and providing the coherence of the acts of storytelling in what Michael McKeon described as status societies in his pathbreaking book The Origins of The English Novel 1600-1740.

Admittedly, Moretti does not specify that his notion of narrative voice is always that of an individuated subjectivity. Indeed, it may be a voice that speaks animatedly against reification and extols the virtues of collective speaking voices (a caste voice, a class voice, and so on). But all his examples from the various national literatures speak of the narrator in terms of a move towards the modern, towards greater individuation.

The questions raised by the Jameson-Moretti law of cultural dynamics are important and difficult ones. Without wishing to detract from Moretti’s enterprise, I would like to draw attention to an alternative route which, although originating primarily in the study of literature, has branched off into the domain of cinematic narration where it joined up with (or found corroboration from) some aspects of art history. In that context, the question of narrative voice and subjectivity is discussed in terms of regimes of looking, i.e., the inscription of a narratorial voice which manifests itself and can be tracked in the orchestration of looks at the levels of enunciation perhaps more than at the level of the enounced, and the articulation of spaces in cinema related to the distribution of both speaking/looking and listening/viewing positions constructed, offered by the intricately intertwined bundles of discourses which constitute the cinematic text.

Approached from this angle, the zoom, as a rhetorical procedure, a narrative gesture, or rather a marker, a signifier of narratorial performance, presents an interesting problem. The use in cinema of a variable focal lens has been noted since Paramount deployed a zoomar lens in the late ‘20s and zooms were detected in films ranging from the first Oscar winner, William Wellman’s Wings (1927), to the deservedly forgotten H.P. Carver film The Silent Enemy (1930) as well as in Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932). The development of the zoom was associated with the name of Joseph Walker who constructed a prototype in the ‘20s. However, it wasn’t until after World War II and the considerable investment in the technology of aerial photography reinforced by the emergence of television in the USA that the zoom lens became integrated into cinematographic technology.

One report claims that the first professional demonstration of the zoomar lens was in 1946; NBC TV in New York demonstrated its camera equipped with a zoom lens in 1947. The multinational giant RCA acquired the services of Joseph Walker in the ‘50s and the zoom lens developed into a standard rhetorical resource, although, at this time, prominent in television and in the making of advertising spots. Its labour saving aspects, avoiding the costs of laying tracks, employing grips and electricians to adjust elaborate lighting plans and so on, caused the zoom to become a more prominent rhetorical feature in the cheaper productions. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the zoom was a constant and rhetorical feature in films by the likes of Jesús Franco and Mario Bava.

From the outset, it struck me that the zoom functioned as an intrusive, emphatically overt sign of the narrator’s performance of the narrative. And the question of the narrator’s performance, discussed in film theory following the example of older literary theory in terms of marks of enunciation, has to date been posed primarily in relation to Euro-American art cinema. Hence the zoom could be seen as a signifier demarcating the crassly commercial filmmaker’s way of drawing attention to himself as distinct from the more arty ways in which authors signalled the presence of the narrator in order to disrupt the apparently seamless and impersonal continuity of so-called classic Hollywood narrative and its elaborate protocols designed to erase – except in special circumstances where the extraordinary capabilities of the cinematic technology are stressed as advertising for the cinematic form and industry itself – the presence of the individuated, singular authorial-narratorial speaking voice.



  Looked at in a different context, however, the zoom as a marker of discourse acquires a different set of connotations. In their immensely useful book Cross-Cultural Filmmaking: A Handbook for Making Documentary and Ethnographic Films and Videos, Ilse Barbash and Lucien Taylor point out that the zoom should be used cautiously in documentary work, pointing out that:  

6. Ilse Barbash and Lucien Taylor, Cross-Cultural Filmmaking: A Handbook for Making Documentary and Ethnographic Films and Videos (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), pp. 114-5.

zooming into a person can never convey the same sensation as moving closer to the person. [If you zoom] the move feels unnatural and your spectators will sense (and share) your distance from the action (…) If you zoom too much, you may destroy the spectator’s suspension of disbelief in what they’re seeing. (6)




Barbash and Taylor here articulate, quite sensibly in a manual for filmmakers, the disruptive effect on regimes of belief (in their reference to T. S. Eliot’s famous injunction that suspension of disbelief is an essential marker of a successful representational strategy) of an intrusive inscription of the enunciating agency into a narrative performance such as a film. In film theory to date, following literary theory and the strategies elaborated by Bertolt Brecht and modernist art practices explicitly to destroy suspension of disbelief in order to stimulate critical spectatorship or readership, this intrusive inscription would precisely be a precondition of modern anti-bourgeois aesthetics.

Wlad Godzich, however, discusses the question of oral literature in terms that throw a different light on the apparently interruptive intrusions of the narratorial agency. He discusses the transition from premodern (indeed pre-industrial) oral cultures, via the introduction of print technology and the book, to written cultures, warning against a common misconception. The terms of the opposition between written and oral would lead us to believe that, by contrast, in oral culture most people were text producers.



7. Godzich, pp. 78-79.

  If that were the case, then indeed that mutation from a fully collective and participatory, co-creative culture, as it has been described in the case of the oral, to a privatised, individual consumption and passive reception in the written culture would truly represent a major mutation. The reality is somewhat less dramatic: the indiscriminate use of the term ‘oral’ occults the fact that the vast majority of the population participated in the culture as auditors – recipients and consumers – of verbal artefacts produced by relatively few. (7)  



Godzich is referring to the performance of specially licensed or professional public storytellers, ranging from the bards and tribal singers whose task it was, for instance, to proclaim that whoever succeeded in becoming ruler of a tribe or clan was a direct descendent of the cosmos-creating gods, to the travelling storytellers performing in markets or other public spaces. Godzich goes on to point out that it might be better to talk of an auditive culture rather than an oral culture, a terminological change that has far reaching implications for ways of approaching the extremely insistent and emphatic soundtrack in, say, Turkish or Indian films.

The distinction between auditive and spectatorial cultures could well be a significant way of distinguishing between, on the one hand, the contemporary cranking-up of the decibels in Dolby-swamped odes to the amount of fixed capital accumulated in Hollywood’s main industrial sector (i.e., cinema) and, on the other hand, the overabundant and overemphatic use of sound and music in Hong Kong’s or India’s commercial cinemas. The latter might well be a signifier of the process of modernisation, that is to say, of the vectorial trajectory whereby the modern (read: capitalism) displaces and replaces whatever modes of production and consequent forms of social organisation preceded the coming to dominance of capitalism (let’s call it, for brevity’s sake, the premodern, even though such a term erases all the often massive differences between such formations), whereas the former should be seen as a consequence of the over-accumulation of dead labour stored in communicational technology as a consequence of the possibly temporary hegemony of finance capital within the different sectors of the currently ruling bourgeoisie (Wall Street and The City of London). Godzich goes on to point out that auditive culture:




8. Godzich, p. 80.


strives for emotional impact as opposed to the more deliberative mode of more purely written culture. (…) Its products will be characterised by a high level of rhetorical fabrication. Although orally delivered, such a text does not seek to establish a dialogical relation with the audience but instead to leave the audience dumbfounded, boca abierta (open-mouthed, astounded, impressed). The audience does not participate, nor does it internalise the arguments: it is conquered, subjugated, carried by the persuasive flow of the rhetoric. Such a culture is a culture of persuasion, but, of persuasion without understanding – a culture of theatricality. It lends itself eminently to manipulation. (8)



  Godzich also points to similarities between an auditive culture and some increasingly dominant aspects of contemporary industrial mass culture such as television, the music industry and advertising. He makes the extremely valuable observation that those who are not wholly subjugated by such manipulative strategies are not necessarily critical, modernised subjects, as is implied by the dominant modernist argumentation around the disruption of identification and suspension of disbelief in art or modernist cinema. On the contrary: the receiver, the listener-audience of such a rhetorical performance may become fully aware of the manipulative dimensions involved, thus subtracting him/herself from ‘the subjugated, believing mass’ and joining a kind of elite, non-duped sector. To quote Godzich one last time:  

9. Godzich, p. 80.


The constitution of a mass-oriented auditive culture permits thus, by virtue of the structure of its operation, what we shall call an elite reception, in which the receiver, perceiving the manipulation, subtracts himself or herself from it, in order to identify with the goals of the manipulators. Such a receiver need not belong to the class or group doing the manipulation, but culturally s/he seeks to join them. (9)




The zoom, then, as an emphatic, gestural marker of narratorial performance breaking the illusion of the impersonal, invisible narrator required for the suspension of disbelief, is most definitely not a Brechtian verfremdungseffekt. On the contrary it is a mark, within the discourse of, firstly, the shift from an auditive-professional storytelling premodern culture to the practice of an industrialised form of narratorial performance – analogous to the flamboyance of a public storyteller’s display of his rhetorical skills – and, secondly, of the storyteller’s desire to join the manipulative elite drifting to the top of the social strata as capitalism gains ground and restructures social relationships and thereby discursive practices.

I will conclude with two final sets of remarks regarding my use of the term premodern. Firstly, from my discussion of the zoom as a residual signifier of premodern forms of storytelling, some people might infer that I am characterising the use of the zoom as in some sense a sign of underdevelopment or backwardness, in the sense that this use signals a transition towards the modern. A listener who jumps to such a conclusion would have to assume that the social conditions within which we live in the Euro-American zone are fully and homogeneously modern and are already in the condition to which the premoderns and their auditive culture aspire. That would be a mistake. When I refer to signifiers of the premodern in films, I am not exempting Euro-American culture from being equally, but differently, implicated in the premodern. Indeed, speaking from within UKania, with its feudal honours system and a monarchy which is simultaneously the pinnacle of both institutionalised religion and the State, it would be absurd to confine signs of premodernity to what used to be called the ‘developing countries’.

To differentiate the zoom and its development in the context of aerial photography during World War II, from the plethora of special effects that infest contemporary cinematic rhetoric, would reveal dimensions of that rhetoric which point to the multiple tensions and overlaps between the premodern and the postmodern at the start of the twenty-first century. It would be instructive to examine to what extent the zoom in those ostensibly labour-saving ‘70s films of Jesús Franco or Mario Bava betray a nostalgia for premodern types of public narratorial performance.

Secondly, the zoom, to the extent that it displays a narratorial performative flourish, implies a recognition, within the very texture of the filmic discourse, of the presence of the audience in the same way that theatrical performances imply a recognition of this ‘live’ presence in, for instance, the spatial disposition of actors on the stage, the recourse to voice-projection techniques, and so on. There is a sense in which the zoom, just like certain aspects of the actorial style of performance in Turkish, Indian and other non-European films, acknowledges the presence of the audience in a way that transforms the performance space into a public space rather than simply a privatised, diegetic space. In other words, the actors behave on the screen as if they were in a public space, constantly on display to others, rather than behaving as if they were in an unobserved, un-overlooked private space. Actorial performances which acknowledge the presence of the audience in this way tend to be characterised in Euro-American criticism, dismissively, as theatrical, that is to say, inappropriate for cinema. This enables, precisely, the circulation of a performance as a commodity that can be consumed repeatedly in different spaces and at different times, thus enhancing greatly its capacity to yield surplus value or profit.

In this sense the zoom, like aspects of actorial performance, re-activates the question of the public sphere and its re-configuration consequent to the triumph of capitalism in the second half of the twentieth century – the previous notion of a public sphere being related to the three-hundred year long struggle of the rising bourgeoisie to gain control of the spaces of governance previously monopolised by the court – as well as raising the question of what happens to modes of discourse in the process of modernisation itself.


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