A Theory of Film – The Digital Database
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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).
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
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.