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

zizek-perverts-guide

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.

Tom-Hanks-Forrest-Gump

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.

america_sniper

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).

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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.

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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: