Psychoanalysis is essentially a form of treatment, a therapy that allows us to go beneath the surface and find new meanings that govern our 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).


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 trompe 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.


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.


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





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.



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

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

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



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 plenty of inspiration in thinking about cinema. Physically, cinema allows thousands of great lives to be relived onscreen, but looking at the metaphysics of it all, cinema is somehow able to share a literal time and space with those who have passed. Cinema exists but only in so far as the dead exist in the present. Cinema itself is not spiritual, it does not exist without our viewing, but once it is viewed, cinema is able to life a life hidden in the depths of our very own subconscious. However, the characters that we experience and that feel so real to us will be dead; they cease to exist from the moment they are conceptualised and put into a medium of fiction. But more importantly, the moving-image cannot breath, i.e. once an image is captured, the actual subject is no longer alive or present. This is what can be frustrating for audiences of the cinema: we are witnessing a theoretical death, as it pretends to be very much alive.

Another way to reach this conclusion is by 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 one wishes to favour as auteur in the filmmaking process. Memories belong to the imaginary and cinema is one great big orgasm of imagination. 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, or a date who never turned up. The parallels are so acute that our minds are fooled into thinking of the cinematic event as a real event. This is otherwise known more simply as one’s suspension of disbelief. But I am arguing beyond this, I argue that cinema becomes a construct of real memory, inseparable from the chaos of our own lives. You can think of it like this: if the cinema makes feel or act, then you are alive and the effect is real.

How is this connected to a notion of the deceased? One might argue that the deceased actually did live once upon a time, and so 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 its existence was shorter and confined to the present moment of occupying the cinema’s auditorium. It is a scattered life and not directly compatible with the timeline of a human life. Therefore, cinema is only able to exist in conjunction with our own existence for the duration of the film, unless we are to witness multiple viewings.

We are talking about the time and space occupied after the spectacle, the space occupied by our mind re-processing the cinematic event. The cinema deceased will live on in our memories can be remembered as we remember those we have known and perhaps loved. Even if we live within the cinema, it will remain mortal after every event. However, it is a great fortune, as we can revisit the deceased and dip back into the dark for another ninety minutes or so. It will always be our friend, even though it never did exist in the first place, it tricked you into thinking it did. It is like having a dream of your once beloved, only to wake up the next morning to a shattering reality that they are no longer there.

Note: I frequently use cinema to refer to film processes as well as the auditorium. This is because cinema can refer to the entire medium of film rather than be cut short by perspectives of a particular film. Cinema is the ontology of the movies. And any theory of spectatorship should be based on the place where that medium is best experienced: in the CINEMA!

For good measure, you can find this daring documentary of Michael Haneke’s work on YouTube:




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


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