A Theory of Film – Psychoanalytical Studies

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Psychoanalysis is essentially a form of treatment, a therapy that allows us to go beneath the surface and find new meanings that govern are actions, and so on, and so on. This is the most common conception, but at a ground level, psychoanalysis really does rule the here and now, the everyday, and the inner and outer circles of life (the internal and external; the mind and the body).

Cinema reels together a number of relations that an audience is presented with at face value. Much like life then, the cinema provides an ordeal of interest for the participant preoccupied with psychology. Acting is psychology, the camera plays on this psychology, and then the audience is the final receiver of these psychological transactions. This is the interaction of film.

The above is an example of projecting onto film. Perhaps it is too abstract and too unclear. This essay argues, with reference to psychoanalysis, about such projections and what they could potentially mean for the cinema. There is no easy definition of cinema. Cinema is not simple.

“Everything is set to work to make the deception effective and to give it [the film] an air of truth.” Christian Metz (The Imaginary Signifier, 1982: 49).

The question as to whether we project too much on to film studies is determined by what we consider a film. In the strict sense, by looking at a film we can categorise that it consists of two principal themes: the message (the content) and the medium (the form of cinema and audience spectatorship). In cinema, and as for McLuhan, the medium has often become the message, in other words, film is strictly a form and is always taken as a film i.e. we know it is not reality, but just a film. However, we can begin to look beyond the film, we can take the elements that make up a film’s reality and use them, within our fantasy space, to constitute our own sense of a reality. This is the point at which studying film focuses on the spectator, the subject and their gaze. This is central to the contemporary field of film studies, how the audience is able to project onto the screen and into the world that is occupied by the film. Cinema asks for our prognosis and it does so by its very nature of foretelling us (human beings) in the first place; after all, cinema is about the journey and discovery of these human beings (the characters in the film just like us).

Psychoanalytical film theory predominantly originates from the work of Jacques Lacan, a theoretical psychoanalyst who lived and worked in France up until his death in 1981. He is known for his re-workings of Freudian concepts on subjectivity and sexuality. Perhaps Lacan’s most famous aphorism is “the unconscious is structured like a language.” Immediately it becomes clear how this structure can be applied to cinema, as cinema is the unconscious structured as a language, and so on. The unconscious is the figure of our defective communication; the unconscious disrupts communicative discourse with a similar structural regularity to language. Cinema is a disruptive discourse with a cinematic language similar to the regularity of our own language. Lacan is pre-determined with structures, the subject is never purely enacted, in other words, the subject must always battle with its a priori functioning of the self. This is important for cinema because the event is determined by the subjects own knowledge, a clear example of this is how every audience experiences a film differently i.e. we are well aware that it is a totally subjective medium for each individual.

Best images 1920x1080 Se7en Movie Se7en,Movie

“Truth is structured like fiction” (Lacan). For anybody serious about cinema, it is always about finding a certain truth. A great film follows a line of enquiry that we feel emotionally involved in as human beings, it can therefore be argued that a form of truth is speaking to us. Yet, how is this possible? For Lacan, reality is always tied to its other, the imaginary, which means that reality is always accessible via fantastical engagements. Lacan then, in the simplest sense, must be the ultimate figure for pioneering the cinematic experience as meaningful for the subject. The escapism can even be answered for as the subject’s awakening; they are left to be awake in the dark and to enjoy their own egotism; they awake into a false reality, which is not a dream, yet still an escape from their everyday lives and encounters with the Real.

It is here that Freud can be used to further this almost narcissistic position of the subject. Mulvey argues, “The cinema has structures of fascination strong enough to allow temporary loss of ego while simultaneously reinforcing ego” (cited in Flisfeder, 2012: 32). The protagonist provides an ego formulation par excellence for the spectator whose own drives, especially that of the id and super-ego, can be left to rest for the reason that there are no concerns of survival for the viewer to contend with and no ethical boundaries either; they are left untamed and can project as they wish, ego is only reinforced by ego. However, for Lacan and his dedicated disciple of what we might term Lacanian popular culture, Slavoj Zizek, these experiences most certainly do exist for the subject and their drives, even if they can only take place within the subject’s mind i.e. the subject’s experience still becomes their reality. Essentially, across all these ruminations, there is a distinct belief in the power of the imagination.

Before we project too much onto the subject of the psychoanalysed, Metz, quoted above, is an important scholar to note who battles with film studies and the notion of semiotics: the apparent meanings behind the images themselves rather than the spectator. Most of the material that existed prior to 1960 was vehement film criticism, and Metz wanted to construct a way to analyse the medium of the film image in the theoretical language that it was calling for, and in turn, summon the thought that can be applied to an institution. Cinema does exist as an institution, like a prison or an art gallery, there are a set of rules or understandings of how things function, even if they are not known to us. In Foucauldian terms, the institution would need to be a place where the body is regulated and confined, but perhaps the space of cinema for Foucault would be one of panoptics; the spectator who sits in the watch tower and gazes at his inmates trapped within the confinements of a screen. This would put the spectator in a position of absolute power. The spectator institutionalises his subject.

Metz’s line of enquiry was psychoanalytical as well as semiological because he realised that such an investigation of film – the medium par excellence of transparency – did not exist. The utterance that stands the test of time, and which I previously alluded to is that “a film is only a film… but all the same”. This is the suspension of disbelief that we see in the spectator: the threshold of “irreality” is crossed so that the spectator is tied to the illusion – the imaginary object becomes a true representation beyond the screen.

The irreality of the cinematic signifier invites a comparison with the Lacanian mirror stage in the sense that we must project onto the screen, or identify with the other; the child identifies their ideal self in the mirror just as the spectator in the image. The mirror and cinema are both about desires; they are manifest in the subject’s desire for the imaginary. Here cinema poses the problem of distinguishing a judgment between what is objective, or symbolic, from what is the pure expression of desire and subjectivity. Unlike the mirror, the screen does not reflect the subject itself and yet the subject’s pleasure must derive from an object, yet the pleasure in perceiving images that do not derive from such is a wholly imaginary position and therefore arguably, again, one of narcissism. This is what Metz identifies in his viewing of film as an approximation of the dream, nevertheless the spectator “identifies with himself, with himself as a pure act of perception” (1982: 49).

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Projecting further onto Freud, we could argue that in the spectator’s disavowal of cinematic irreality into a dream they are comparable to Freud’s conception of psychosis. Dreams and hallucinations lead to confusion between the reality and illusion of a certain situation. However, the cinematic signifier makes it very clear to the spectator that the image is just an image, such was the same kind of pleasure derived from Jean Baudrillard’s conception of the tropme l’oeil in painting, it gives itself for what it is. Even so, this pleasure is akin in its nature to what fuels the subject’s drives: fetishism, scopic passion, voyeurism etc. all spring to mind. The spectator finds the fetishistic subject that is equivalent to the substitution of the penis in castration. He denies the absence of the penis (the object supposed to be) and marvels at the grand illusion. This is activity beyond the gaze, for which an illusion is always an illusion, and is rather identification with some form of utopian power. The cinema begins to function more and more in an idealistic way.

Indeed, one could argue that such analysis projects too much onto the object-subject split, especially when in society our individualism is ultimately passivism. Perhaps any analysis projects too much, and everything can be analysed, and that everything can also be analysed perpetually. It is therefore our task to focus on a specific field, as we are, but still then one can always question the “what?” of any situation, rendering to Jacques Derrida’s line of thought. This may exceed the nature of projection, but such is the nature of psychoanalytical studies in film. One obsessive attracts another; Zizek’s fervent approach attracts the media, and visa versa. This analytical paraphernalia is a source of new inspiration and creativity, for it is not concerned with protecting the status quo of ‘correct’ thinking or ‘correct’ punctuation, but rather opening up new ways of thinking, being and ultimately of freedom. This is an argument for film as a philosophical study, a subject of metaphysical analysis. Just as Derrida stripped down the text to its bare minimum in On Grammatology, so we can strip down cinema by means of psychoanalysis. Fundamentally, there are always new ways to critique a subject, which raises an enquiry into the history of what it is to create these so-called subjects.

We can also look at cinema as a form of therapy. Foucault had a conception that to escape the disillusionment of the modern world we must simply turn back to historical antiquity, our care of the self, or rather what he called ‘technologies of the self’ (1988). However, despite Foucault’s slight disregard for cinema, can it not itself be seen as a technology of the self, a technology that allows the subject to be freed from their own forms of repression and to experience actuality beyond their own? Cinema can act as a fresh perspective on the familiar; Foucault always wished to see the ordinary with a fresh perspective. You might be rightly thinking that Hollywood offers no such perspective, but let us now turn to the vast heritage of world cinema.

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Lars Von Trier is a filmmaker who allows for complete expression of the self, the spectator is allowed to see the so-called underbelly of the human condition and make of it entirely what they will. In Melancholia we see a genuine and disturbing portrait of two sisters with severe depression and anxiety. They are confronting the truth of human existence and letting their inner demons out on the screen. Yet, these demons do not infect the spectator, rather they have the opposite effect. We have witnessed the Lacanian Other experience these demons and so the other has cleansed them of ourselves so that we may leave disinfected. By using the imaginary signifier we have dissolved into the characters and learnt their pitiless lessons. One still may react in vigorous distaste, or one may feel deeply moved and wish to resolve his or her own inner conflict, a reaction is dependent on the life condition of the particular spectator. Cinema of this free-nature has no ideological function, it is purely powered by a notion of the self (the director’s ego par excellence, if you like), and it could even be labelled as a productive power. Is this not slightly perverse?

The subject who watches cinema must be a perverse subject. It was the acclaimed filmmaker David Fincher (known for putting Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box – Seven) who said, “I think people are perverts”, which is of course why they love cinema. What are we as a cinema spectator if not a Peeping Tom (a metaphor for our behaviour)? Quite literally we seek out the lives of others who do not know we are watching them, and from a very close proximity. For Walter Benjamin, this alluded to the ‘optical unconscious’, the shock that we can experience from a close-up in cinema that the human eye could never see. A great film director like Fincher will use such cinematic devices to manipulate the audience into feeling uncomfortable or deeply involved, as two suggestions. Does a close-up not embody an act of sadism?

Cinema does not always have to act as if the camera were a sadist, or as Kraceur would say, by insisting, “on rendering visible what is commonly drowned in inner agitation” (1960: 58). Though, the audience can be just as sadistic as the filmmaker. Take for example, the Hays Production Code of the classical period in Hollywood, during which time restrictions on sex and violence etc. were severely restricted. Zizek argues that such excess provokes the very prohibition it seeks in the first place i.e. if you don’t show the audience something it enables them to imagine it for themselves, or a more common conception is that you tell someone not to do something, and as by some divine intervention, this gives them the will to do just that. For example, in the film Casablanca, Rick and Elsa are kissing and the screen fades to black, cuts to a watch tower (the phallic symbol perhaps) and back to Rick who is now smoking a cigar and looking out the window. What happened? They most likely had sex. Even if they didn’t have sex, it does not matter as for the Big Other (that Real space blurring lines of the real) they most definitely did. Classical cinema still allows us to interact with the Symbolic order in ways manifest with the Lacanian other. Even in Hollywood, the Big Other is staring at us, but we just don’t know it – it will hide in plain sight like the ideological content that it transmits alongside.

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There is pleasure to be had in the order of the Symbolic language that the cinema allows. There are sinthomes, often projected by the Big Other, these are literally symptoms of jouissance, of the enjoyment that is raised by the spell of fantasy. Every individual experiences this differently; it is what is unique to their experience and can therefore raise questions about the subjects’ ethics, and so on. For example, “I thought that character was great,” response: “are you kidding? He was evil!” The way this element of enjoyment is organised in the cinematic exchange raises such questions about our need for this jouissance. There will always be an element of the perverse and unattainable desire, which can only prevent a true awakening, as Lacan says: “the ultimate ethical task is that of the true awakening: not only from sleep, but from the spell of fantasy which controls us even more when we are awake” (cited in Zizek, 2007). Can cinema escape this spell of fantasy that is locked to the human condition of being? It is either a magnification of the spell, or in this very excess we could argue that it renders the spell obsolete. We know very well that the spell exists so that we may transcend it? This speculative, Kantian, way of perceiving cinema is tribute, once again, to the power of cinematic projection – the cinema.

No essay on film studies is quite complete without a reference targeted at David Bordwell, a prolific scholar of the field who keeps a tradition of the art form in check. His work Post-Theory is largely a rejection of psychoanalytical film theory. It stems from a concern of the emphasis being placed on the subject over the object, such as a particular film by a particular director and with a particular side note of cognitive functioning within a rational agency. However, Zizek would see this as an ideological gesture par excellence; the presentation of cinema as objective is exactly how and when ideology is allowed to function. This is Hollywood cinema and in Hollywood cinema there is a correct way to view a film, the way in which the gap is filled, there is no lack, ambiguity, or an abjection (Kristeva) in which to experience a difference, or perhaps a welcomed nothingness, but rather the path is paved by the definite gesture. The subject/cinema-goer concerned with freedom should look beyond the Hollywood cinema and beyond the work of David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson.

Of course, if the defining feature of film is that it is an ‘impression of reality’, then there would be little concern for film studies to grow beyond where it stands. To be taken seriously, we have to take into account the very real accounts of the spectator and how cinema functions in the grander scheme of society; where ideology comes out to play and cinema inevitably becomes a tool – a form of political technology. While psychoanalytical film theory gives some revitalising perception around spectatorship, should film scholars really be so concerned with the mediation of reality over the image? After all, isn’t film characterised by the image and the aesthetics of this image moving at twenty-four frames per second? Should we not be concerned with film just as an art form, the mise-en-scene, and so on? The latter achieves a level of critique that often falls short of a film theory, even if it is the synthesis adopted by most film studies textbooks.

As a conclusion and in keeping with the themes of this essay, let us argue that film studies deserves to be projected amidst every academic discipline, or indeed line of thought, as a method of learning first and foremost. Films are fantastic tools for analysis across the arts and humanities; one can even find scientific regularity and argument, in science fiction films for example. Every day we are consuming signs and images, and the cinema is the temple for such things. Laterally then, the cinema is not removed from everyday reality. Thus, even a thinker such as Jean Baudrillard can be applied to cinematic language. For Baudrillard, to simplify, there is no real left over in a post-structural society, we have consumed so many images that they have become more real than real itself (commencing from a lack of any original, authentic copy, and so on), and as such as new reality is ever evolving, known as the hyper-real (the fourth stage of simulacra where physical reality is rendered decadent). An easy example would be Facebook being more important to an individual than their very own life. Either way, such latitude is the essence of cinema and the direction for film studies.

Written by Charlie Bury

 

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Bibliography:

Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Bordwell, D, Carroll, N (1996). Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Fincher, D. (2014). David Fincher – People are Perverts. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGtVthP1b2Q. Last accessed 12th May 2015.

Flisfeder, M (2012). The Symbolic, the Sublime, and Slavoj Zizek’s Theory of Film. London: Palgrave Macmillan. 32.

Foucault, M (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. London: Vintage Books.

Foucault, M (1988). Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Kracauer, S (1997 [1960]). Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 58.

Kristeva, J (1984). Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lacan, J (1998). The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. London: W. W. Norton & Company.

Lechte, J (2007). Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers: From Structuralism to Postmodernity. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

McLuhan, M. (2001). Understanding media. London: Routledge Classics.

Metz, C (1982). The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 49.

Zizek, S. (2007). Slavoj Žižek. From Che vuoi? to Fantasy: Lacan with Eyes Wide Shut.. Available: http://www.egs.edu/faculty/slavoj-zizek/articles/from-che-vuoi-to-fantasy/. Last accessed 12th May 2015.

Žižek, S. (1997). The plague of fantasies. London: Verso.

Zizek, S (1991). Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. London: The MIT Press.

 

Films:

Curtiz, M (1942). Casablanca. USA: Warner Brothers.

Trier, L (2011). Melancholia. Denmark: Zentropa Entertainements.

Fincher, D (1995). Se7en. USA: New Line Cinema.

Metaphysical Thoughts – Cinema and The Deceased

Astoria auditorium, Mr Parker the projectionist arranged the coloured stage lighting, pink on the right and green on the left

Despite the morbid approach to the title of this short rumination, we will discover that the deceased can offer a plenty in the way of cinema. Not least, if we are talking literally, the thousands of great lives that cinema can relive etc., but on a more metaphysical level, the way that cinema shares a time and space with those who have passed. Cinema exists but only in so far as the dead exist in the present. I am not saying that cinema is a spirit (though this could be an interesting investigation), but rather that cinema continues its life hidden in the depths of our subconscious. The characters that we experience and that feel so real to us will always be dead; they cease to exist from the moment they are conceptualised. They are fictional, but more thoroughly, the moving-image does not breath, i.e. once an image is captured, the subject is no longer there (alive). This is most frustrating for audiences – we are witnessing a theoretical death.

A way to reach this conclusion is by primarily basing one’s ideas on memories. We witness and remember a film much like we do our own memories. Firstly, the material of a film can be transcribed as the physical rendering of memories. The memories of the writer, director, or whoever you wish to favour as auteur in the filmmaking process. Memories belong to the imaginary and cinema is one great big orgy of the imaginary. Secondly, when reflecting on a film, we process it as a lived experience, in a similar way that we may re-process an important meeting that took place last week, for example. It would, therefore, suggest that our minds are fooled into thinking that the cinematic event was a real event, Suspension of disbelief, and so on. But, I argue that the cinema becomes a real memory, intermingled with all the other chaos in our life. If you can think of something and it makes you feel or act, then the effect is very much a real one.

How does this fit in with the deceased again? The simple answer is that the deceased live on in our memories too. One might counter argue that the deceased actually did live once upon a time; so then how come cinema can exist on equal terms of time and space? This is very true, but there is still something missing. The cinema has lived, but only in a far shorter and more present moment of occupying the auditorium. It is a scattered life and not comparable to the consistent timeline of a human life, it is only able to exist in conjunction with our existence for ninety minutes or so (unless we sit through multiple viewings).

Yet sill, this is beside the point, we are talking about the time and space occupied after the spectacle, the space occupied by our mind re-processing the event. The cinema is deceased, but it can be remembered. Even if we revisit the cinema, it will still be a mortal experience. But, we are lucky, as we cannot revisit our deceased friends, or whoever they may be, yet we can dip back into the dark for another ninety minutes. Remember though, the cinema never did exist in the first place, it tricked you into thinking it did. It is like having a heartfelt dream of your loved one only to wake up to the shattering reality that they are actually deceased.

Note: I frequently use cinema to refer to film. This is because cinema can refer to the entire medium of film rather than an individual perspective of a particular film. It is also because any theories in cinema of spectatorship should be based on you sitting your butt in the auditorium and not in front of your bloomin’ mac-tosh!

For good measure, here, embedded, is a daring documentary on Michael Haneke that you might well enjoy:

 

A Theory of Film – Slavoj Zizek and The Ideological Basin

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Hollywood cinema is well known for marking ideological content. After all, it is only an extension of the American dream. However, in this essay, we can dig a little deeper and use some of the contemporary theories of radical thinkers like Slavoj Zizek to help us get there. We are concerned by Hollywood and cinema, so this is very much a critical analyses, but we do it because we are part of the machine: we love ideology ourselves!

To what extent can ideological content manifest itself? Is ideology not limited and defined by the very term ideology? Ideology can therefore not be defined, in other words, ideology is constituted everywhere, for any thing has a contingent value that will inevitably manifest itself in ideological terms. We are on the path to denouncing ideology, but our key concern here is how can this space be analysed, or manifest itself? If all content gives way to a naturalism i.e. it forms a system that becomes the natural way of doing something (such as economy being tied to social responsibility etc.), then the space can not exist a priori to the event; the space where ideology is denounced must remain empty. The problem is arguably an irresolvable one, any material content becomes ideology, but an empty space can’t have any meaning, ideology is therefore a trap of the highest degree.

For the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek, it is this empty space underneath ideology that forms a potential cyberspace. In society, this notion by Zizek is clearly a critique of Left liberal politics, what Zizek calls the ‘passive-interactive’ dynamic. Zizek is not a fascist, but he does wish to take over the radical ground occupied by the extreme Right by way of revitalizing Marxist political action. The liberals ignorance hides in plain sight, their passive-interactivity is not externalised, not enacted upon and, thereby, does not actually deal with any real world consequences. A subject must be enacted to make a difference. A literal example of this would be the liberals in support of multiculturalism, but remaining at a distance and therefore evidently not willing to live in multicultural communities. In such an instance, ideology is useless; it does not function as an act, it is denounced in cyberspace. Essential antagonisms are not resolved, for example, multiculturalism, sexual differences, global economy, and so on. What does this mean for Hollywood cinema? It means exactly what it means for ideology and the Left, which is that Hollywood doesn’t have to deal with it, it can denounce ideology as cyberspace and the consequences will not be sought after, i.e. it will hide in plain sight.

We live in a society where the avoidance of suffering is addictive and this is the impotence of our culture. One always wants more, could consumer society and capitalism function were this not the case? It is the difficulty of Zizek’s thought that a post-modern sensibility cannot tolerate, rather than an adequacy on part of the thinker himself. There is desperation in the climate of contemporary thought, and cinema is a direct way to channel this desperation into a format that hides from reality, yet is essentially made up of it. As cinema is so fully materialised, ideology has to function, even if it is not easily denounced, as we have just established. This is the function par excellence then of ideology as a political tool, a function of power. However, Zizek is not arguing that modes of ideology are essentially this simple and already giving, rather that the latter can manifest itself in a variety of instances all complex and indefinable.

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The cinema can formally embody certain beliefs and provide examples of certain falsified implications for society, for example, running from coast-to-coast will not make you famous and happy, but it will for Forrest Gump. Is this film not the ultimate simplification of life and its various obsessions? A man with a disastrously low IQ can cascade through a destructive, yet wonderful life for the sole reason of good intention. Despite the lack of reality, and investment in any form of Lacan’s Big Other (or, the Real), in other words, a false rejection of fantasy (“it’s just a film”), Forrest Gump is able to pass as a grand romantic drama with a powerful message of common sense (ideologies hidden form): “…life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Or, life is unpredictable, but that is life and you will always come out on top as long as you go with it (and get lucky). In Hollywood, there is enough space for everyone in the world to get lucky. We can see how Hollywood is telling a universal lie in order to sustain public morale, a ‘Noble lie’ because it is knowingly told as untruthful.

This concept of the Noble lie originated in Plato (The Republic) as the telling of a fictional tale. We can then take cinema itself, according to Plato, as the grandest of all noble lies. Cinema could be “a contrivance for one of those falsehoods that came into being in case of need” (414b-c). This is Hollywood cinema, it is essentially intended for good effect, but the authorities know otherwise. Ideology is often referred to in the guise of knows, “he knows that we know that he knows that we know.” The last know is a Zizekism, the fact that we know that he knows that we know renders us stupid and powerless. They act anyway and we let them knowingly do so, yet we invest in our false belief (that we don’t know) so much that we end up believing in what we are subscribing too. Do we believe that Bruce Willis will come and save us when we are taken hostage by German terrorists in a tower? Yes we do. This is Zizek’s message of the “unbearable” universality. “The secret to be unveiled through analysis is not the content hidden by the form… but, on the contrary, the ‘secret of this form itself” (1989: 11). The form presents this uncanny belief, that “the failed mediation [or message] is the message”.

The self-referential nature of cinema and the performance of the spectator is also an important position for Zizek. It follows what we previously mentioned of false belief, the spectator will “kneel down and you will thereby MAKE SOMEONE ELSE BELIEVE!” (2006: 353) This is the parallax view that belief is de-sublimated onto an Other which is belonging to the Symbolic order and can therefore become universal, and so on. The problem of this universality is that there are now “impossible positions of enunciation we all recognise only when they are pointed out to us” (2010: 95). How can we see beneath these subtle effects when “a thing is its own best mask” (2006: 28)? The simple answer is by thinking about it, “As a matter of face, I’ve always known it; only I’ve never thought of it” (1995: 192). Here, Thompson captures the essence of Zizek’s thought when he talks about the mediascape. A landscape that tells us what it is doing but doesn’t give us a chance to think about it, quite literally shown by programs that give speakers two minutes to comment on a topic that would realistically need over an hour’s analysis or debate to come to any rational conclusion and explanations.

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Let’s not forget that cinema is moving-images and moving images require a significant level of audience attention to process in there entirety; “if there’s an aesthetics of cinema it’s movement” (Rene Clair). Hollywood’s technical brilliance, beautifully rendered worlds and action-packed sequences, serve to cover up their conservatism. A recent Oscar smash-hit American Sniper had invigorating scenes of Army SEALS in battle over in the Middle East. These scenes are exciting for teenage boys who carry one perspective under their vision – that of the American hero/dream – yet in reality War is, of course, a damning activity. We do not suffer as the victims, we do not witness any pain from their perspective, however we can certainly witness the pain of an American death, which are to be glamorised with marvelous funeral proceedings. The Hurt Locker is a similar film that deals with recent turbulences and continues to ignore the debate about US intervention. “In its very invisibility, ideology is here, more than ever; we are there, with our boys, identifying with their fears and anguish instead of questioning what they are doing there” (2012). Zizek also uses the term “white man’s fantasy” to conjure up these glorified images that Hollywood produces. For example, the aborigines in Avatar, the agents in The Matrix, or more explicitly, every superhero movie or film starring Harrison Ford.

However, cinema is not all so explicitly ideological like Hollywood that it is able to hide in plain sight, or rather, run over and into the minds of the viewer without an apparent awareness. There is also cinema that enables the viewer to see between the lines and which almost acts as a critique of ideology itself by open-ended interpretations to psychoanalytic theories and the subject’s experience. Such cinema beyond Hollywood allows us to greater see the dichotomy of various ideologies. European cinema, for example, can offer refreshing interpretations in a less distilled form of ideological content, a form in which the content is not so telling or exclusive. The films of Michael Haneke, an Austrian writer/director, are layered with an underlying trauma, elements of the Real. His cinema reveals less to the audience, yet in doing so provides a far richer experience – the aphorism “less is more” has never been more effective. Funny Games is an exploration of the terror and games involved in home invasion. The pace is slow, threatening and intimidating just as we imagine the act to be if it took place. Amour has a similar theme of death in which Haneke never looks away from the truth surrounding an old couple’s last moments alive together, the piercing fact that not even love can escape our mortality, and so on.

funny-games

In the above examples, technique is used to emphasise meaning, the use of realist tricks (the long and wide takes, the subtle nature of the camera etc.). Technique does not drown out meaning like it often does in Hollywood. However, as Kraceur noted on cinema, “the transmitting apparatus overwhelms the contents transmitted” (1960: 293). Here, Kraceur is foreshadowing McLuhan’s aphorism the “medium is the message.” This is evident of Tarantino’s films in which he purposefully showcases his flair, or the recent Birdman, for example, in which the whole film is made to look as if it was shot in one take i.e. without any cuts. Such cinematic bravado serves to get in the way of, rather than compliment the story and its meaning. We can escape the ‘apparatus’ if the latter becomes invisible by effective modes of storytelling. Yet, still this cannot distill ideology, as the camera gives birth to ideology.

Like ideology, pre-existing models of subjectivity are always hiding in plain sight. There is no unique benefactor, for example models of love and beauty do not feature in exclusivity, they are part of a process. This is according to Julie Kristeva who accounts for the subject in-process, instead of being subjected to phenomenological accounts that posit the transcendental ego-subject. For example, love is an “open system”, the psychic space of love’s subject is consistently modified and such can expand and enrich the symbolic and capacities of the imaginary (1984). Hollywood cinema abolishes any notion of this ‘open system’, as ideology does not allow for a subject to posit such space; they are always refrained by their material value, the knowledge and interpretation of ideologies own content. However, in reference to earlier examples, cinema as a medium is able to offer alternatives, in which spaces can be consistently modified in the viewer’s speculation of ideological content, because the film is unassumingly open-ended. When a film is open-ended, as is the case with Haneke (for example, when Cache ends, we can only guess who the culprit was by certain clues, not even Haneke himself has the answer) the subject is always enacted in-process and never subjugated to a defined discourse.

society_spectacle

Guy Debord is another thinker whose critique is highly engaged with ideological discourses. His conception of The Society of the Spectacle features a society of representations and surfaces with no depth, no layers other than exchange-value. It is a display that makes the commodity one mediated by a fetishisation of the image – “images which have become detached from their essential position: the true has become the false” (1967: 19). These images are the “unreality” at the heart of a real society; ideology is the heart of this ‘unreality’. And, therefore what hides in plain sight, the ‘unreality’, actually becomes more real in effect than what is left over: “reality rises up in the spectacle, and the spectacle is real” (1967: 19). However, the spectacle is in exact opposition to the opening up of ideas or exposing being (the unconscious, for example). Hollywood is part of the network of egos that construct this spectacular world; a battleground for capitalism. Ideology, or the noble lie, does not allow for an environment of being, in other words it does not gives access to ideas which by-pass the ego, and therefore this system becomes a central aspect to how ideology is allowed to function in Hollywood films.

A movement of thought that arrived largely before and inspired the post-modern thinkers of Zizek, Badiou, Habermas, and so on, is that of structuralism, a French undertaking that initiated deep analyses of the underlying structures widespread amongst the mixed fashions of society. While an ‘objectivist’ illusion often occurred at this level, structuralist thinkers like Foucault, Derrida and Bourdieu can provide a valuable insight into ideological functions. For example, in a critique of television, that can be applied to films, Bourdieu exclaimed that in the pretense of being open to the world was in fact a form of censorship because, intrinsic to its mode of production and format, is a limitation to what could be said and communicated (1996). This critique does not function at an ideological level, but instead introduces an epistemological relationship, which serves not to get caught in a battle between either-or issues of a singular truth, or the reductionist thought that Marxism often provokes. Is cinema not reductionist in its matter of inevitable singularity? For psychoanalysis, such considerations are irrelevant as the spectator is just as aware of what they are not shown as what is shown. In fact, the power of the film director comes often from what he doesn’t show, a clear example of this uncanny notion is seen in horror films where the monster is never actually revealed, The Blair Witch Project is a well-known case.

Zizek_Badiou

Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou is deeply concerned with a truth, and sees it as an epistemological split i.e. “knowledge does not give access to truth” (2011: 234). Truth exists in a void, perhaps the same void that we must find in order to denounce ideology, but this would reduce truth to an empty space, yet for Badiou truth can only be presented and not represented, hence why it is able to exist in a non-ideological form. Badiou uses set theory and the ontology of mathematics to present the void (truth) as a singular multiplicity, the paradoxical being present due to the fact that there is no “set of all sets”, which presents being as a unity that engages with the infinite. This is the realm of truth, as opposed to interpretation (ideology, hermeneutics, and so on) that is always concerned with finitude, or the meaning in the thing. When applied to cinema, Badiou’s framework of truth is a method of showing how this empty space can pre-exist a form of ideology in cinema, unlike Zizek’s framework in which this space is equivalent to ideology and the subject. For Badiou, the subject, or ideology, does not exist until the event has taken place, in other words, it is the experience that brings something into being. By analysing a film’s truth content, we will never be able to exist as a subject equivalent to what is taking place, we will exceed the content as we enter from an above position and thus, become restricted from the truth because we are not able to exist prior to this actual event. We cannot know what came before, but is this not the truth of cinema? As we experience it, we are subjectivised under a new guise of knowledge and so ideology can blossom at its purest.

“Philosophy can always go astray, which is the sole reason why it can go forward” (1990: 14). Ideology can always wane, but this is the sole reason why it is able to exist in such a powerful form. The minute we believe ideology has vanished is the exact moment when it is functioning at its purest. In this sense, ideology functions like philosophy; it is a system of mediating life that will never, and can never, strike a cord with its absolute function. The cinema suffers the same result, and is therefore a medium with an infinite resource of functioning for ideology, ideas and philosophies. Quite literally, the cinema has endless resources, however, Hollywood seeks to diminish its own resources to the extent that ideology can repeat itself and this is Hollywood’s ultimate function in enabling ideology to work at the level of near invisibility.

Writer: Charlie Bury

 

Bibliography:

Badiou, A (2011). Being and Event. 2nd ed. London: Continuum. 234.

Bourdieu, P (1996). The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. Chicago: Stanford University Press.

Debord, G (2000 [1967]). Society of the Spectacle. London: Black and Red. 19.

Kracauer, S (1997 [1960]). Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 293.

Kristeva, J (1984). Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press.

Plato (2000). The Republic. London: Dover Publications.

Taylor, P (2010). Zizek and the Media. Cambridge: Polity Press. 95.

Thompson, J (1995). The Media and Modernity. Redwood City: Stanford University Press. 192.

Sider, J. (2012). Slavoj Žižek on War and Cinema: The Hurt Locker Between Theory and Post-Theory. Film Matters. 3 (2).

Zizek, S (2006). The Parallax View. London: The MIT Press. 353.

Zizek, S (1989). The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso. 11.

Films:

Eastwood, C (2014). American Sniper. USA: Warner Brothers.

Hanake, M (2012). Amour. France: Wega Film.

Avatar

Hanake, M (2005). Caché. France: Wega Film.

Zemeckis, R (1994). Forrest Gump. USA: Paramount Pictures.

Hanake, M (1997). Funny Games. Austria: Wega Film. The Matrix

Bigelow, K (2008). The Hurt Locker. USA: Voltage Pictures.

On a final note, and if you have made it this far, you will definitely be interested in watching Sophie Fiennes documentaries on Zizek, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.

 

A Theory of Film – The Digital Database

Lev_Manovich

Film has always picked apart life like a database – it is essentially a database of sounds and images compiled into some resounding order. However, in the digital age, we can argue that film really has become a database for its maker, its user, and its aesthetic. We will discuss this by looking at Lev Manovich’s concept on ‘database aesthetics’ and by referring to the organisation of narrative in the films Timecode (2000) and Silent Hill (2006) – not very good films admittedly, but nevertheless good for discussion!

Lev Manovich is a professor of media and communications studies who wrote a seminal book in 2001 called The Language of New Media. Within this text, he proclaimed the database to be a rising symbolic form of the new digital era and a form, which according to a computers logistics “forms two halves of the ontology of the world” (Manovich 2001: 42). These two halves are the data structures and the algorithms, which via their method of cultural expression and technological processes, shape a close relationship to narrative. “After the novel and subsequently, cinema privileged narrative as the key form of cultural expression of the modern age. The computer age introduces its correlate – database” (ibid: 39). To undergo a discussion of database aesthetics in relation to cinema, it will be necessary to refine our understanding of the database logic and what it means in relation to the modern age of digital cinema.

Through the binary process of digital, cinema becomes “precisely a code … it’s language is encoded in the interfaces and defaults of the software programs and in the hardware itself” (Manovich 2001: 327). Already the cinema can be thought of as a graphic user interface (GUI) of a computer; what Rosalind E. Krauss would term the “post-medium condition” (1999: 31), or as we better know it The Postmodern Condition (Jean-Francois Lyotard 1979). Without yet touching on aesthetics, the technological innovation behind data structures and the structures of digital moving-image show direct lineation. The data stored inside of a database is organised for fast search and retrieval by a computer, which copies the database a film editor will use for their footage, or an assistant director may use for their scheduling, and so on. The processes of digital filmmaking encompass the database beyond moving-image content.

timecode_film

The medium of film – the medium as a storytelling phenomenon – is what gave rise to the cultural dominance of narrative forms. According to Mieke Bal, a narrative “should contain both an actor and a narrator; it also should contain three distinct levels consisting of the text, the story, and the fabula; and its “contents” should be “a series of connected events cause or experience by actors” (1985: 8). This is what we recognise as a narrative, the substance that encompasses the plot (each storytelling element) and formulae of the story itself. The narrative can consequently be seen as a “user” of story – its elements that constitute stories are the database – and it replicates the new media ‘user’ who “creates a sequence of screens by clicking on this or that icon at each screen” (Manovich 2001: 50), or the gamer who makes plot decisions on their own whilst proceeding to “uncover their underlying logic – their algorithm” (ibid: 44). It is clear then that the most dominant form pervading the modern age is the narrative hidden as the database, in other words, the language of new media has stolen the forms of expression inherent to narrative. Lev Manovich states, “My hypothesis is that it [new media/the database] follows the dominant semiological order of the twentieth century – that of cinema” (ibid: 50). In broader terms, cinema has helped shape society today.

However, whilst films’ elements may be organised into databases, film is not a medium that boasts an interactive user interface like games and new media. Film appears fundamentally different on this level (the watcher can only watch), however throughout this essay, by looking at two examples of film that use digital cinema technologies to great effect, I argue that the climate is changing and the ever growing database aesthetics of new media forms is merging such that cinema is no longer stuck at “the intersection between database and narrative” and is a very active participatory medium indeed. A somewhat abstract example can delineate how this may have always been the case. “The world appears to us as an endless and unstructured collection of images, texts, and other data records, it is only appropriate that we will be moved to model it as a database” (ibid: 40). This process is exactly what a film does; a film models life and molds it into its very own database through the collection of ‘images, texts, and other data records.’ Film orders life.

Timecode and Silent Hill are two polar opposite films, yet we will discover that they are very similar in the consequences they provide for an analysis of narrative organisation. Whilst Timecode deals with what André Bazin would favourably term “realist” cinema and focuses on the study of human behaviours, Silent Hill is rather an exercise in the horror film that is never short of special effects, screaming women and incredibly good-looking visuals. Therefore, it will be necessary to take each film individually to gain a deeper understanding of the narrative functioning, but there will be crossovers to note as these films both draw back attention to Manovich’s ‘database aesthetic’ and serve to complement the idea.

peter_greenaway

Timecode can be best introduced by the films various taglines: “Four cameras. One Take. No edits. Real time” and “Who do you want to watch?” (IMDb 2014). This is a sufficient film analysis in itself, however, the director, Mike Figgis, takes this formidable idea and creates a number of consequences for intriguing discussion. The fourway split-screen in Timecode immediately present us with a new visual syntax and thus a new way of understanding narrative. The earliest example in the cinema of this technique can be seen as early as 1913 in Suspense where a triptych of three triangles creates the added dramatic effect of the far being near and visa versa. Experimentation in framing thus occurred far before the digital era, “Like a ‘visual accordion’ – from the very beginning attempts were made to test dynamic variations of the frame. In any case, “framing is limitation” (Deleuze 1983: 23). The famous words from Deleuze highlight that the screen is a closed system, but by opening the frame up fourfold, Figgis is, in principle, making more space for storytelling. Peter Greenaway would polemically disagree with this suggestion, as he has always wished to go beyond the highly conflicted two dimensions of a monotonous screen – more on Greenaway’s convictions in another bout.

Timecode places shots simultaneous and adjacent in space, we are therefore allowed to see each character from their point of view as the story unfolds. This is almost a fetishisation for the consumer who is allowed a surveillance view of the events. This surveillance aesthetic “links its spaces with telephonic simultaneity” (Friedberg 2009: 192). The result is perhaps that of four ‘metatexts’ within a single text (the frame of the frames), if the ‘metatext’, as Manovich describes it is the empirical observations within the text itself, then this is exactly what the four angles of camera that crossover their content from time to time, allow us to see. For example, Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera is the finest example of database imagination, it shows the cameraman and the movie theater at points within the film itself; “in the hands of Vertov, a database, this normally static and “objective” form, becomes dynamic and subjective.” (Manovich 2001: 58). The exact same thing happens in Timecode, it is not just the imagination of the camera that alludes to a database aesthetic, but also the subjective mode of audience experience.

man-with-a-movie-camera-2

“Who do you want to watch?” Quite literally, we follow whom we want to watch, we are the “user” who creates each edit point as we see fit. The film is never complete in the sense of a direct trajectory; it is a collection of material that changes over time as our gaze develops. Not to mention the voyeuristic content, but the simple trajectory of the human eye is voyeuristic on its own, when given the choice. We witness: a marriage break-up, the husband having an affair with an actress whilst the actress’s girlfriend secretly listens through a wire, and the various other discourteous behaviours that take place in real-time within Red Mullet Productions. This narrative is melodramatic, the characters are experiencing story elements, but these elements become seamless by the real-time use of the long-take. It is naturalistic melodrama, which sounds like a contradiction in words, but it is not so because of the surveillance nature of the recording, we are witnesses to a ‘true event’ (aesthetically).

Perhaps our eyes cut to the next screen when we are bored of the previous; Andy Warhol said of his experimentation in two-screen projection: “I put two things on the screen in Chelsea Girls so you could look at one picture if you were bored with the other” (Warhol 1969). However, Figgis’s method of simultaneous real-time, which we are reminded of by a series of four earthquakes at equal time intervals, each providing a camera shake of the four-screens, makes our choice a distinctly subjective one. Figgis does attest slightly to this, he changes the audio levels and the sound mix from screen to screen, directing our attention to the necessary dialogue or action. But, this provides further complications, for we may be looking at one screen and listening to the dialogue from the next, certainly a form of spatial disorientation is at work here. Special effects present a similar form of shifts in space and time that will become clear in our later analysis of Silent Hill. Each viewer creates their own causal algorithm (each ‘user’ experience is different) and this is a fundamental feature of the database aesthetic; games and data structures allow their user to proceed through them and configure an underlying algorithm of their own.

It is at the level of the interface that allows for this pattern to emerge; in new media “the content of the work and the interface become separate” (Manovich 2001: 45). It is the split-screen that acts as the ‘users’ interface and at the centre of this creative process is the database. A literal example of this in relation to the ‘shelf life’ of a film can be seen on DVDs where user interfaces showcase special features and scene selections etc. (Timecode includes a director’s commentary and cut takes). This provides for a growth beyond the story, in this sense, merchandise, website forums, home videos etc. can all be seen as an extension of the narrative into a database form. Just as new media is never complete – web sites continue to grow etc. – so the film is never quite complete, at least not for the ‘user’. They may buy the soundtrack, the poster and email the cast, so does this mean that the story is over for them? The ‘user’ of the cinema becomes justified, just as the gamer does when he completes the next level up. The ‘user’ of Timecode is motivated towards a goal, a subjective goal of consuming as much footage as possible, or a necessary goal of having to cut between certain footage.

silent_hill

Let’s now examine the interface of Silent Hill. Firstly, it is a hard narrative to follow, unlike Timecode that unfolds in real-time, Silent Hill explores fantasy worlds ridden with evil demons and possessive creatures. The movie critic Roger Ebert was even perplexed by the film and when asked why, he said “… but we work mostly with movies” (Ebert 2006). Whilst this is a somewhat cynical remark, it is very astute as to how the film functions. It is adapted from the PlayStation game of the same name, by director Christophe Gans, and thus unveils its narrative via gradual discovery of evil spirits and levels. For example, the attacks on Rose (the heroine) and her daughter Sharon (the possessed) become more and more severe as they progress through Silent Hill, as would the levels on a game-play mode. It is this repetition of progression (intended cause-effect) and rich art direction (full of religious symbols, vast textures of concrete and atmosphere) that convinces the viewer they are witnessing a narrative when in fact the aesthetic is almost in direct correlation with a game.

To mention his name again, Peter Greenaway uses a similar tool to fool the audience into a story when he makes films. For example, in The Falls and The Draughtsman’s Contract he uses sequences of numbers that “act as a narrative shell that “convinces” the viewer that he or she is watching a narrative” (Manovich 2001: 55). In Manovich’s view, Greenaway is a contemporary pioneer of the database imagination, and one of the only in fact. It is certainly true that the Hollywood school of filmmaking continues to make linear narrative, as the commerciality of film will always be focused on storytelling, but certain filmmakers and films (including the ones discussed here) can make us rethink what we mean by storytelling. As Greenaway has cunningly suggested, “[cinema] could it not travel on the road where Joyce, Eliot, Borges and Perec have already arrived?” (1995: 21).

Silent Hill is perhaps such a road, although a literary analysis is beyond the scope here. Incorporating ‘database aesthetics’, or rather creating the language of ‘database aesthetics’, is something that continues to grow as digital cinema is exploited by means of further experimentation within the medium. Deciphering meaning out of an undefined language is what ‘database aesthetics’ introduces us to (and what Manovich discovers in Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera), and we can see a further example of this when Silent Hill creates a series of ‘metatexts’ via its virtual realities. There are perhaps three levels of reality in the film, yet before we go further, there is no definite answer, which is what makes the film compelling and similar to a database: the plot is composed to each individual’s interpretation/seeking (just as Timecode is). The database has no beginning, middle or end, and so the film cuts between a ghost world (the white, hazy and atmospheric Silent Hill) only to be morphed into an evil dark world (the green, rubble-ridden, demon infested Silent Hill) and the supposedly real Silent Hill (the brown, dusty and worn-down town as it has been since 1970 after the eruption of poisonous gas in the coal mines caused an evacuation). There is a significant change in spatial relationships here, and thus our viewing experience is distinct.

“Increasingly sophisticated design of special effects is prompting a general sense of dislocation of the temporal-spatial dimensions of cinema itself” (Spielmann 2003: 57). Here, Spielmann talks of a cinema with a growing sense of displacement in direction and dimension, which the viewer of Silent Hill may well attest to. For example, there are special effects in which the demon (embodying the character of young Alessa) soars across the church throwing octopus-like legs of barbed wire around the necks of cult leaders and slashing them to bits in mid-air. Close-ups and wide shots capture the entire scene in a congregational display of design and special effects. These images create a sure uncertainty in what we are seeing and believing, which is no wonder, as Spielmann goes on to say how “the shifts of time and space in science fiction cinema affect the matrix of human knowledge that is based upon experience, cognition, and perception” (ibid: 62). This follows Shilo McClean’s proposal that CGI (computer generated imagery) now “takes us beyond the works of our conscious imaginations and into worlds we have yet to dream into being” (2007: 216). One would imagine that this would be desirable, but films like Silent Hill testify to the opposite and may even be an “implicit criticism of modern urban life and the economic system that produces it” (Kuhn 1999: 20). By putting character through dystopian hell and back (or not back in the case of Silent Hill; Rose and Sharon remain in the nether zone of the ghost world, even after supposedly defeating the demon inside), special effects continue to subscribe to the destructive view. These films show “the fantasy of living through one’s own death and more, the death of cities, the destruction of humanity itself” (Sontag 1996: 212).

andre_bazin

Despite the examples of interface procedures, films evidently ascribe to greater technological factors than anything directly aesthetic. For example, the lightweight cameras used to achieve the long takes in Timecode. Does this absence of cutting force the audience to consider further the technological foundations of the cinematic practice? Whilst mostly resonant with Vertov’s Kino-eye (what “catches life unawares” 1984: 41), the long take is also what Levin might describe as “semiotic excess” (2002: 593), the limitless recording that the digital cinema allows. A refusal to cut, or the non-interruption of order, goes against database logic and could well be just an exploitation factor of the digital economy. Alexander Sokurov’s commentary for his one-take project Russian Ark explains the impossibility of achieving such a film without the digital economy. Using one window (frame), Sokurov is able to exploit cinematic time and space to create what paradoxically appears to be an illusion, yet in the attention of Bazin it would be closer to true ‘realism’; the longer the take, the “more positive contribution on [the viewer’s] part to the action in progress” (1967: 21).

The “myth of total cinema” has truly been expunged by this new technique, by allowing our conscious imaginations to flow through one seamless lens with no interruptions. Of course, Timecode censors this further by infusing four long-takes together, yet four cameras is surely the antithesis of any real? A perfect example can be seen in modern reality television shows such as Big Brother where multiple cameras are set-up to catch the real, but surely the more cameras there are the less real the situation inevitably becomes? It is the paradox that the medium of film swallows, and as it continues “competing to make meaning out of the world … database and narrative continue to produce endless hybrids” (Manovich 2001: 51).

Hybrids are all a part of what has become the hyperreal in cinema. These spatial effects have led to “the map” becoming “the art form of realism” and the “perspective” becoming “special effect” (Spielmann 2003: 65). In other words, this is reality upturned with no firm ground left to stand on; it is an example of Jean Baudrillard’s hyperreal where “it is the map that precedes the territory” (1994: 1). The map rids the ‘territory’ of any spatial awareness and leaves it in an endless dimension of space. The conclusion of such a process of simulacra is that “it is now impossible to isolate the process of the real, or to prove the real” (ibid: 21). Baudrillard may have been a radical post-modernist beyond the scope of this essay, but perhaps his time has arrived in cinema? New media attests to no distinct real and so if the database aesthetic is affiliated to cinema, then perhaps cinema too is losing sense of what is. Spielmann notes “hyperreal spaces” [in cinema] aim for “comparison with the immersive qualities in interactive media” (2003: 70). Thus, the narrative organisation, when infiltrated by the ‘database aesthetic’ (the hyperreal, the endless dimension, direction, and so on), becomes limitless and indefinable, an integral part of the new media landscape. Silent Hill and Timecode are two films of many contemporary digital cinema ‘artifacts’ that indicate change and are hand-in-hand with the deconstruction of the modern age.

Written by Charlie Bury

Citations:

Bal, M. (1998). Narratology. Toronto: Univ Of Toronto Press, p.8.

Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Bazin, A. and Gray, H. (1967). What is cinema?. Berkeley: University of California Press, p.21.

Deleuze, G. (1986). Cinema 1: The Moving Image. London: Athlone, p.23.

Figgis, Mike. 2000. Director Commentary. Timecode, DVD. Directed by Mike Figgis. Culver City, CA: Columbia Tristar Home Video.

Friedberg, A. (2006). The virtual window. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Gelmis, J. (1969). The film director as superstar. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, p.65.

Greenaway, P. and Schweeger, E. (1995). The Stairs. London: M. Holberton, p.21.

IMDb, (2014). Timecode (2000). [online] Available at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0220100/combined [Accessed 26 Dec. 2014].

Krauss, R. (1999). A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition. Cambridge: MIT Press, p.31.

Kuhn, A. (1999). Alien zone II. London: Verso, p.20.

Levin, T., Frohne, U. and Weibel, P. (2002). Ctrl [space]. Karlsruhe, Germany: ZKM Center for Art and Media, pp.578-93.

Lyotard, J., Bennington, G. and Massumi, B. (1984). The postmodern condition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Man with a Movie Camera. (1929). [film] Russia: Dziga Vertov.

Manovich, L. (2002). The language of new media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

McClean, S. (2007). Digital storytelling. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, p.216.

Russian Ark. (2003). [film] Russia: Alexander Sokurov.

Silent Hill. (2006). [film] Hollywood: Christophe Gans.

Sokurov, Alexander. 2003. Director Commentary. Russian Ark, DVD. Directed by Alexander Sokurov. New York: Wellspring.

Sontag, S. (1966). Against interpretation, and other essays. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, p.212.

Spielmann, Y. (2003). Elastic Cinema: Technological Imagery in Contemporary Science Fiction Films.Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 9(3), pp.56-73.

The Draughtsman’s Contract. (1982). [film] UK: Peter Greenaway.

The Falls. (1980). [film] UK: Peter Greenaway.

Timecode. (2000). [film] Hollywood: Mike Figgis.

Vertov, D., Michelson, A. and O’Brien, K. (1984). Kino-eye. Berkeley, Ca.: University of California Press, p.41.

Did The Cincinnati Kid spawn the Casino film?

Guest post by Charles Cole.

It takes a host of iconic figures to help create a new genre. The poker and casino genres definitely had their high points in cinema if you look back at the history of the niches, but the popularity of both has waned somewhat of late.

Some of the more contemporary releases have flopped on a global level, which has caused many film hacks to question whether there is longevity in niches that spawned classics like Casino, Rounders and Oceans 11 over the last two decades. But determining when the casino niche gained its stripes isn’t exactly straightforward. Who was it that brought the first film to the industry that would change the way in which casino-related films were produced?

Arguably one of the first was The Cincinnati Kid in 1965 starring Steve McQueen in the lead role as Eric ‘The Kid’ Stoner. Directed by Norman Jewison, it wasn’t long until they were both catapulted into the limelight in the 60s and 70s.

zincinkidhd

McQueen had already starred in great films such as The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven, but his role as Stoner in The Cincinnati Kid seemed to resonate more with people of the same era. Stoner was a young upstart caught in the deep Depression of the 30s and playing poker from bar to bar in order to build up a reputation as the best in town. This was probably the first film to glamorise gambling in casinos to its fullest. Yes, there had been the old John Wayne films that centered round spit-and-sawdust saloons and backstreet gambling dens, but there was an aura of sophistication with the film’s gambling houses and quality of production.

Although many casino games were very popular at the time of release, such as roulette, poker, blackjack and rummy, it was a million miles away from the state of the art technology that is present today. Games are even played on smartphone-friendly websites known as mobile casino, gaming has never been more accessible to anyone of a legal age. Popular games like poker were beginning to be played more often in the United States during the 60s, the era of the The Cincinnati Kid, and alternative forms of the game were being created such as the now universally recognised Texas Hold’em.

Maybe it was the stunning good looks of McQueen that helped elevate the niche above the slew of Western movies that offered their routine takes on casino gaming. One thing is for sure, the film definitely influenced the likes of James Bond and Casino in the way of pacing, composition and strong hero figures. McQueen was the epitome of cool, well dressed, suave and devilishly good looking – there’s no wonder he became such a Hollywood star, and a movie icon revered still to this day.

Here’s a clip from the movie:

“We owe it to ourselves to go out and do it!” – NFTS graduate Shady El-Hamus talks film directing

Skyhigh

Do you want to know a lot about directing films? Then chat with Shady El-Hamus, a recent graduate in directing fiction from the National Film & Television School (NFTS), or modestly read on and decrypt the messages below.

Shady’s short films focus primarily on relationships within the family and how pressures from one’s background, social status, and psychology all impact one another. After watching Over Zonen (About Sons), winner of the Dioraphte Award at the 2012 Netherlands Film Festival, I felt compelled to contact Shady and discover more about where he came from and how he manages to create such a compelling drama in the space of 15 minutes. The film secured Shady a place at the NFTS in the UK to study his craft in safekeeping for two more glorious years.

There was no one anecdote that secured Shady’s interest in filmmaking, rather both his parents have been writers and actors for years, so an impressive feat for accomplishing artistry must come as second nature. More specifically, Shady always loved storytelling and film fell into this love quite naturally. But, at eighteen, he admits not entirely understanding much about the process other than that a director essentially tells the story. However, the film school in Amsterdam (a 4 year BA) divides writers and directors – a long time to commit to one discipline! Despite enrolling in writing, Shady’s desire to direct his own scripts surpassed the schools regulations and he was able to convince the school to make Over Zonen. Without this go-getting attitude, film directing (and NFTS) would never have happened – I believe this is the case for anyone getting into the business – you have to have an element of single-mindedness that allows you to do what it is you actually want to do.

In a dream world, Shady does want to find a co-writer, another mind that can gel with his own to explore the many themes that he is curious about. Two minds can be greater than one. If you find someone with qualities you lack, for example, then it is likely to be most prosperous working with another writer. Let us not be misinformed, Shady is adamant about his love for collaborating, it is clear from his thoughts that it would not otherwise be possible to become a director. A director works with many people, something that Shady believes should be an enjoyable experience and come effortlessly, collaboration as a kind of disclosure. Shady targets another interesting thought that you have to be positive in order to be and stay creative. He then goes on to say that communication should go beyond language. It is a matter of getting other people inside your head. Whether right or wrong, this director understands how to work and evidently knows how to achieve what he wants – a bridge more fundamental in the craft than arguably anything else – essentially understanding yourself, “your mind”.

Shady has been fortunate (and wise) enough to focus solely on directing his films without wearing the producers hat too. The producer is not just the person to hold onto all the logistical and budgetary baloney and to force him or herself away from screaming in public, but actually to aid the director in vision, according to Shady’s welcoming experiences. He believes a producer should guide you in the right direction, “to keep you on the right path” throughout rehearsal, production, or whenever. But, the producer needs to understand first what the director is trying to achieve, and then help him to reach that specific goal. Shady is incredibly humble and talks about a habit of getting carried away with actors, or being overcome with excitement in the moment, and, therefore, finding someone who can remind him of a scene’s essence, or the core of the film, broadly a sustainability, is the most valuable asset that a producer can have.

When talking with Shady about actors, he underscored some central characteristics that are essential to a director. He explained his method, but then concluded with the philosophical truism that “everything will always be different.” And, therefore, the director “must have a very progressive state of mind.” It sounds quite simple really – just don’t be a conservative! But, we all know it is never that easy to give up that little piece, or a core idealism, that you wrote on that one long stormy night at 3 in the morning. Another interesting point is raised when thinking about the language used to engage with actors. It should never be from an audience’s point of view, but rather always that of the character. For example, “This guy is an asshole,” shouts a young lad at the screen – a very judgmental comment, but the director should not shout at the actor, “play an asshole!” There is no one way an actor can know how to play an asshole. The character just needs to know the why of what he is doing and the audience can judge in any which way they feel is appropriate. A director would be at a complete loss if he or she started making direct judgments about a character. Give Shady a message if you need this bit explained better!

After a chat about our favourite filmmakers, Shady talks crucially about coming at autership and cinephilia, as it were, from a place of theme. Watching a director for whom you recognise a certain theme within. “To me, that means that they have something to talk about.” Theme is not like style; style resides on the surface, whereas theme runs deeper, and ever deeper. It is enthusing to hear Shady talk about theme with such profundity. “The story is the vehicle, the ride… the theme is the core… not present, but existing in there somewhere.” Shady also believes that it is theme that essentially allows a film to be “timeless and universal”, look no further than Yasujirō Ozu for a few examples. It seems there are no bounds to the philosophy of film and its makers!

Fairuz

The reality is that the director is on a suicide mission. They have to clench the confidence to carry a bag of elephants up a mountain and not be told otherwise. No matter what it is that they are carrying, it has to SAY SOMETHING. “What is it that you want to tell me?” Shady realises that a film had better be good and say something if you are asking people to pay a tenner and relentlessly sit in front of a big screen for two hours. This is the responsibility of the director. A director needs to be truthful if they are taking on this task. If not, then “why the hell are you saying it?” There needs to be a REASON, “you need to know what you are saying, and you need to know how to say it.” There really is now nothing more to say! That is directing folks!

Here is an overview of talking points and insights from our chat:

  • Preparation is key for the director – Know what you are saying and how to say it!
  • The task of the director is to get other people inside your mind. This is the art of collaboration. Enjoy collaboration – You have to be positive in order to be creative!
  • Becoming a director is a gradual process of discovery. Shady discovered directing by screenwriting and views this story component as essential to directing. In other words, learn to write too!
  • The importance of theme – the story is the vehicle for the theme that runs far deeper than any style. Theme is often what resonates most with an audience’s understanding. Remember: understanding and enjoyment are two separate things, for example, one might connect with Tokyo Story thematically, and yet be more entertained by Mad Max: Fury Road.
  • For young Tarantino’s – the story will determine your style, not the other way around!
  • The director’s responsibility – the material needs to be personal in order to be truthful. Although, personal does not need to mean autobiographical!
  • Actors are collaborators too. Shady uses the analogy of giving road directions when speaking to actors – be clear and know where you are taking them. Also ensure that the actor understands what you as the director want to achieve.
  • The producer is not an enemy, they are there to guide you in the right direction and keep a tab on that core driving the film.
  • Last advice: Stick to it and make sure you are prepared; rarely does one get a second chance in film directing!

Be sure to watch Over Zonen online, for free, right here: