Image-making, Sharing, and Truth in Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Proof (1991)
When I think of photography, or simply, images, I think of eyes — of the act of seeing. It’s an obvious correlation; the analogy of the eye and the lens is not a new one. This connection materialized sometime between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as the camera obscura’s popularity increased. The device, in its most basic form, consisting of a small dark room with an aperture and a lens through which light entered, became the dominant paradigm of human vision — a mechanical model of the eye itself and a representation of the relationship between the self and the external world. It existed, in the words of art critic Johnathan Crary, “as a model, in both rationalist and empiricist thought, of how observation leads to truthful inferences about the world,” and could potentially offer complete, totalizing knowledge about humanity.
By the early twentieth century, the structure of the camera obscura had evolved into the photographic camera. Though this development had in no way occurred on a linear trajectory, the camera obscura’s social and philosophical conception as an observer of objective truth still informed the new medium. At the time, realist theories contended that the camera’s mechanical apparatus allowed physical objects to be reproduced by means of the optical and chemical action of light, almost by way of magic. Unlike a painting or a descriptive paragraph, the photographic image was not a flimsy, disputable interpretation of its subject. It promised a seemingly irrefutable link to the physical world, a sense of comfort, knowability — that everything within the frame is a “record” or “trace” of something that is or was. As William J. Mitchell notes, the photograph “seems to provide a guaranteed way of overcoming subjectivity and getting at the real truth.”
Somewhere in Australia a little boy is born blind. He stretches his fingers and touches his mother’s face. She recoils, insisting that fingers are not the same as eyes. Every day she describes to the boy what goes on outside their apartment window. Often, there is a man outside, who the boy senses by the sound of leaves crackling under his rake. One day, the boy can’t hear him, but she protests he might’ve not been listening. The boy believes she’s lying to him. After all, it’s a fitting punishment for his blindness; he would never know. His mother is right, what use are his fingers now?
Years later, the boy, Martin, now a man (Hugo Weaving), leads a hermetic life in Jocelyn Moorhouse’s 1991 debut feature Proof. His movements span no farther than the local park and film developer, and his relationships are no deeper than the quarreling and often cruel interactions with his housekeeper, Celia (Geneviève Picot). His is a small, lonesome world, made a little larger only by the photographs he takes, which remain hidden until he encounters Andy (Russell Crowe) –kind and playfully affectionate, and almost too good to be true. This is a film about loneliness, that aching need for connection when you don’t quite know how to reach out, so it comes as no surprise that Martin trusts him immediately. By the end of the film, the detail of his trust will have spilled over disastrously, –though not without hope — but for now, just minutes after meeting, Martin lifts a camera to his eyes and photographs Andy holding an ailing cat in a vet’s office. The next day, he visits Andy and asks him to describe the pictures to him. Perplexed, Andy asks why. Martin explains: “This is proof that what I sensed is what you saw through your eyes. The truth.”
Proof is concerned with probing the limits of such truths, how they’re accessed, and how they inform our perception. But if Martin is interested in finding a singular, uncomplicated truth, the film wants nothing more than to obliterate that hope, for him and us. From the first frame — a fast montage of ill-framed photographs of clouds, trees, and dogs — the text situates its conflict on the images Martin makes and venerates; they are powerful — world-building — but destructive, too. The key to the film lies in their off-centeredness, their implicated haphazardness. What they anticipate is irresolution: a hotbed of half-formed truths and contradictions.
It begins with Martin’s attempt to substitute his eyes for the camera. There are, for example, the mechanical similarities between the two: the glass-like transparency of both the cornea and the lens, the ability to focus on a single object, the limited scope, and field of view. Their physical resemblance ends there, but what the film posits with its more abstract analogy is more exact: how could either of the two ever hope to reproduce an image with a singular, monolithic meaning?
Finding a sole visual truth, most theorists agree, is impossible. Hulick and Sontag remark on the selectivity of the photographic lens. Hulick notes the diversity of focal lenses, how changes in chemistry and light affect the developed film negative. Sontag expands upon it, adding that images “fiddle with the scale of the world,” they “get reduced, blown up, cropped, retouched, doctored, tricked out”; they are “still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience,” more valuable as expressions of the self, or self-portraits, than evidential objects. And though Martin’s images operate predominantly as a substitute for visual memory, he, like any other person, chooses what he wants to look at, where to point his camera.
Perhaps more insightful in the context of the film is Berger’s interpretation of Sontag’s text. She writes that the photograph “takes place in time, and must be explained in time,” — that it is inextricable from its context. As Berger rightfully concludes, “photographs in themselves do not narrate,” they can only “preserve instant appearances.” And what context is left by the time Andy sees Martin’s pictures? Can he detect Martin’s careful hand, how he arranged a fallen leaf precisely where he wanted it — under the brightest light of the midday sun — to prove that the warmth that grazed his skin was real, that he wasn’t being lied to? The photograph holds little empirical value, revealing nothing to either of them — to Martin about the pitfalls of his own orchestrations and to Andy about Martin’s actions; its inadequate machinery is only ours to witness.
Even so, there’s an unassailable power to images. Celia knows this, even if, unlike Martin, she admits to their limitations. Through her eyes, though, the generative capability of Martin’s images turns ruinous and catastrophic. In an attempt to disrupt Martin and Andy’s growing friendship — the film’s deciding conflict — she permits Martin to take a photograph that implicates both her and Andy. She lures Martin’s dog with treats while he frantically looks for him. Unbeknownst to Martin, Andy is there, watching. He remains silent throughout, even as Celia takes a photo of him there. He’s not quite sure why he doesn’t speak, save, perhaps, because he’s attracted to her, as she later proposes, but even that is suspect. Ultimately, she hopes that Andy will be caught in a lie when asked to describe the picture. And he is, effectively severing the friendship’s sole agreement (“You must never lie to me”).
Image-making also puts her in a unique place of knowledge and ownership — and therefore, of course, one of power. Rows and rows of pictures of Martin’s face line the walls of her apartment, decorate her tables and shelves; images covertly-taken, its subject eternally unsuspecting. In a way, Martin was right; there is some truth in every image, just not solely about its subjects. Perhaps, as Celia herself tells Andy about Martin’s photographs, “the camera loves us,” it confesses rather than reproduces. The images here reveal her tunnel vision, her desire for Martin — girlish, sweeping, and obsessive — but they elucidate as well the violent maliciousness and irony at the root of their relationship. When she takes a picture of Martin on the toilet, she exploits his blindness and her unfettered access to his home, hoping, somehow, for love. Her image-making is an effort to trap Martin, both within the frame and outside it; as prey, yes, but only because their routinary mechanisms of self-protection won’t permit any kind of intimacy.
It’s this profound sense of misdirected communication that guides the film, from Martin’s self-conscious, prickly persona and his unseen pictures, to the belief that his mother faked her illness to abandon him — that earth-shattering moment he taps his mother’s coffin and pronounces, “it’s hollow.” It’s in Celia’s pictures, too, her bastardized attempts at friendship. Martin and Celia are lonely, and desperately so. It feels as if their warpedness is, paradoxically, as much preservation as it is overrun energy, symptomatic articulation of a need to connect. The same could be said of Andy, though to a far lesser extent. Thus, the film’s most precious salves appear when the pain of isolation is alleviated, even if briefly, by moments of genuine connection. Loud and tactile, brimming with uncontrolled joy: Martin and Andy’s unrestrained laughter after their car accident — Martin’s, raw and unpracticed, like someone learning to laugh.
And it’s images that most often give way to these beautiful moments. Or at least, make them possible. For one, Martin takes photographs even before he meets Andy, but doesn’t share them with anyone. Martin’s secrecy is confounding; his pictures are notoriously banal: dogs and leaves and whatever else he might encounter on his walks. A critic rightfully notes that he could just “ask two unconnected people to describe the pictures’ contents” to him if all he wanted was to confirm his impressions. Crucially, before Martin meets Andy, Celia offers to do so, and Martin rejects her offer. And so, the truth of Martin’s request is, unbeknownst even to him, layered. Truthful descriptions of his photos give way to trust, but they’re secondary. How can we explain Martin’s carelessness with Andy? Or why he asked Andy and not anyone else to describe his photos to him? His trust is groundless — instinctual — the way the start of good friendships often feel. Martin’s photographs might be an excuse, but they are the initial connective tissue that binds him and Andy. It’s that very mundanity contained within them that he longs to share: that which is small and unpracticed, ostensibly insignificant but remarkably integral.
Andy, on the other hand, doesn’t take pictures, but he shares with Martin some images of his own — Alec Mill’s slasher film Bloodmoon. Andy’s description is lively, riddled with laughter and expletives. It’s unclear how much Martin is getting from the movie, but the night ends with hushed admissions and plans to meet again. But just as images brought them together, it’s a picture that captures Andy’s betrayal. And yet, the revelation is not at all conclusive. That Andy cares deeply about Martin is unquestionable. It has nothing to do with sight, either. Andy saw Celia perfectly well and still fooled him.
The implication here is awful and undeniably true: whatever truth we can gather about people is fragmentary, pieced together amateurishly, like Celia arranging Martin’s photographs of Andy into a monstrous patchwork that is not quite human, or even complete. We will never know other people wholly, but to develop worthwhile connections we must accept whatever paltry pieces they can give us and, in return, expose ourselves, offer our ugly, insufficient parts to others, accepting the possibility that they might be rejected, or worse, sharpened and turned against us.
Martin understands this by the end of the film. He invites Andy over to describe one last picture for him before they part ways. Its contents — ordinary and unmemorable — are slowly revealed by Andy: the old man in the garden from all those years ago, raking leaves. Martin’s first and most important picture. He knows, finally, that his mother hadn’t lied to him, but the image is not magic; it divulges nothing of the real truth he had hoped was hidden there. His mother’s love or hate remain unprovable.
He gives it to Andy anyway as his last hope of reconciliation. Andy accepts. It’s flimsy and incomplete, but it will have to do.
In the end, the film extends us the same courtesy it does Martin — we never see the picture. And what more could we get from it? The text recognizes its limitations, it knows that the pieces it dispenses are, like the photographs, partial at best, and contradictory, most often. In Proof, images build, destroy, and connect. Truth exists just beyond reach, distant and impenetrable, and never precisely what’s been hoped for. What’s remarkable is that it manages to find some harmony in its uncertainty. It knows that connections are demanding and disappointing, but desperately necessary. We will never know each other completely and we will be lied to, time and time again, but what’s better than those moments parts of us are known? Try again, this seems to say. Isn’t that film a little funnier now that we’re watching it together? Isn’t the bright light of the sun reflected on a leaf more beautiful? Maybe it won’t work out but maybe it will.
The uncertainty is just the price we have to pay.