Negative Turn – Bug

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Originally published online, February 2014.

One single cut in Bug (2006) starkly signals the relentless negativity which characterises the most powerful of William Friedkin’s films – part of an unending series of destructive calculations which seek in vain to resolve chaotic, violent situations.

It does so in a simple, but striking manner:

Day, an establishing shot of the motel in which the action takes place. The camera is still. There is barely any movement within the frame.
Cut.
The camera remains in position but it is now night, the motel decoratively neonlit. The composition of the image, too, remains almost identical to the previous shot.

This moment occurs immediately following the love scene between Peter and Agnes and explicitly announces a turn in the story that will propel the growing hysteria. As Agnes becomes increasingly intimate with Peter, she will become more sympathetic to his paranoid worldview. From this point on, the palpable unease which the character has brought into Agnes’s life will develop into a frenzy, transforming the environment in which we are immersed.

In addition to this basic narrative function, the cut suggests an inversion of the original image; a rupture of the onscreen reality and a passage into a distinctly different metaphysical terrain. Not only is the story progressing, but the conditions of everything that we are seeing have altered, affected in a flickering instant. Things seem to retain their steady course initially, but a deep shift has occurred in the substance of the film. Or is this only imagined?

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Avoiding the explicit use of a negative photographic image that Murnau put to haunting use in Nosferatu (1922), Friedkin here manages to achieve a similar result, without departing from the conventions of cinematography. Friedkin is continually maintaining the semblance of realistic images, drawing on the lessons from his formative years making documentary films. But the more one looks into these films, the more instability, confusion and illusion is apparent everywhere – emanating from this sensed negative zone which ceaselessly threatens identity and manageable everyday reality with disorder.

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