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 – The Digital Database

Lev_Manovich

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

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

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

timecode_film

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

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

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

peter_greenaway

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

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

man-with-a-movie-camera-2

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

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

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

silent_hill

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

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

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

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

andre_bazin

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

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

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

Written by Charlie Bury

Citations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metaphysical Thoughts – Cinema and our fellow existence

stardust-memoriesDo you ever find it bizarre that we all exist in the same time and space? I am talking about the living, not the deceased. The deceased are much like cinema, but more on that in a later article.

We exist and we are often very concerned and consumed by this existence. Consequently, our burgeoning thoughts might be entirely self-centered. Yet, there are billions of other people equally wrapped up in similar thoughts at precisely the same moment in time. What does this mean? I have absolutely no idea.

But, do you ever ponder what another person is doing as you ponder it? They could be living their life in any shape or circumstance imaginable. You will never know, but you will always know that something is happening. I can’t work out if this is a freedom or an absolute affliction. How can it be that other people seem so free, yet, as individuals, we are wholly stuck with ourselves? I am not saying that we should all be Siamese twins. Rather, one of the many reasons is surely that our mind cannot belong to anybody else; I am focused on mind, not body. Our mind is a sole benefactor of our own being that can never ever, ever, ever be accurately distilled, or shared, by another individual. A sad truth, it seems.

This is where cinema comes in. I am not saying that cinema has the power to distill far away cognitions with unqualified accuracy, but actually I am, because cinema has no life in reality to tell us otherwise. In other words, the cinema (the character up on the screen) can’t turn back around at everyone in the auditorium and say, “Hey, actually that isn’t how I was feeling, you inconsiderate bastard!” Instead, we are free to interpret cinema by our own choosing. Yes, the arts really are liberal.

purple_roseForgetting this psychological insight, I want to return to my opening concern regarding time and space and suggest that cinema breaks apart our existence amidst this cosmic conundrum. When we watch characters on the screen, they do no longer exist in the same time and space as us (unlike our imaginary friend on the other side of the world) because they exist in a space of non-existence – the silver screen. We can think about these characters long after the show and know that they do no longer exist parallel to us, but that their effect can still be felt. Their effect might even be felt more than those, in reality, who exist as our friends and neighbours. These characters always exist in a completely altered reality of time and space. This is a profound magic trick that the cinema has been employing since its birth and one that has been interpreted in many ways through the history of film studies.

However, I want you to look at the trick from the bizarre perspective of why people in our real lives are all exactly in accordance with our own time. Don’t take this too scientifically (the laws of the universe can easily explain this), but looks at it more critically from a philosophical perspective. We are all living in the same moment. Being (a Martin Heidegger term for the universe – apologies for my painful simplification) can never escape from being (our own self), and vice versa. As this is the case for indefinitely ever after, we can begin to see cinema as it prevails to a utopian status! A simple conclusion: cinema is far more important, and more metaphysically demanding, than we may believe.

Written by Charlie Bury

A couple of film recommendations that shed light on some of these thoughts:

 – Stardust Memories (Woody Allen, 1980)

The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, 1985).

CINEMA THINKS – Cinema and the Philosophical Project of Alain Badiou.

France - "Vous aurez le dernier mot" - TV Set“There is something interesting in cinema because we cannot reduce it to a conceptual definition.”

The above quote from renowned contemporary philosopher Alain Badiou opens up a world of theoretical enquiry into cinema as an art form and where it might be heading. However, as always, targeting the specifics of this interesting ‘something’ is not an easy task. This article will break down Badiou’s thought on cinema and hopefully open a way for more exciting thought on the cinema and appreciation of such art works.

We begin by asking the interminable question “What is Cinema?” It is an everlasting question because there is no definite answer. If cinema is an art form, then why can’t it be conceptually defined like all other arts? If not defined, then what is the special ingredient? For example, poetry is an attempt to say what cannot be said, theatre is a battle to form an external relationship between human beings and an audience, and painting aims to create the visible from the invisible – these are the fundamental ideas that promote and invoke these arts. There will always be further ideas on such a quest, but it is clear that cinema holds no such distinction. I always like to argue that cinema is a collective of all these ideas and that’s what makes its individuality eternal, it is never shaped by a definition, and therefore there can be a positive infinity in cinema production.

However, as Badiou makes clear from my previous assumption, cinema itself is a very complex question and therefore cinema as an art must also be a very complex question. It is rather simple really: cinema is complex, so hence anything we wish to attribute to cinema (philosophy, art, psychology, archaeology etc.) will also become complex. A philosophy of the cinema is a complex idea; we can never really know what cinema is. Badiou even attempts to postulate cinema as the “history of complexification of itself.” These layers inherent to cinema form a unique relationship whereby the spectator falls under the spell, or inside the cinema according to Badiou, but without knowing its real signification. Cinema is essential in the collective existence of today’s world and yet it continues to be something that we have no firm notion off – certainly from a theoretical standpoint, but arguably by way of practice also. Is this not a very dangerous idea?

Badiou_Cinema

 

Whenever we are considering the thing of something, or the what is, we need to retrace our passage back to some custom of historical antiquity. Plato is a good denominator to begin with, especially for cinema. With philosophy we are on a search for truth in life, or a true life, something that is pure and in accordance with our entire make up. How does cinema impact this quest? Can cinema be true to life? These questions are inscribed into every film, and it often comes back down to the spectator’s ability to suspend their disbelief: to give themselves whole-heartedly over to the sequence of images and sounds on the screen. If they can do this then the images they witness are true, at least true to themselves. Even so, this it too general, we need to look beyond the spectator and take the films at face value. What makes a good film? How can we identify good film with art and philosophy?

If Plato were alive today, he would probably be feeling very ill. We cannot escape images today. The famous cave allegory was a false reality for Plato, but it is the founding movement of cinema: moving shadows cast themselves across the walls of the cave once backlit from a great beam of light. This was a conviction of truth: the composition is an illusion! Illusions cannot be so! Here is the answer: cinema does not claim to be such a false reality, cinema knows very well that it paints a grand composition of illusion, and its images are no substitute for contamination, they are didactic images that speak off new formations and new bonds of knowledge! In other words, cinema is an answer for finding the truth in irreality; cinema knows that it lies, but it is a lie of edification.

Cinema is alive and speaking to us. Cinema has possibility, it is an art of possibility perhaps, and this is why it must have a relationship to philosophy and vice versa. Because cinema is so alive, it is constantly in battle, a fight between art and non-art. It is here that Badiou can draw out his belief that “cinema thinks”. By way of this vision in which a contemporary world battles with art through film, we are able to distinguish the good films from the bad. If, permitting to Hegel also, art is something of the past and cinema takes on a contemporaneous position as the ‘impure art’, then through constructing a successful conflict of images one has created a good film. This conflict is within the images themselves as well as the audience because the images require contemplation and are often ‘vulgar’ or disruptive. Cinema is therefore not a peaceful art and furthermore, this aforementioned fight between art and non-art is allowed to erupt between its fences. We can then resolve, in line with Badiou’s claims, that the more impure the artwork/the film, the greater the present battle is within the image itself and the better the film!

MelancholiaWhile this is all very metaphysical and might seem dismissible to most audiences, Badiou has targeted the underlying causes for our connection with the image from a strong philosophical standpoint. The point of most significant is this totalisation of cinema: cinema as the non-essential but all-permitting feature of new possibilities and limitlessness. Cinema creates new evaluations and new participations in dialectics. For example, great music can be given a new education in films. Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia features music from the prelude of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The music is played at different points throughout the film and at each instance is inscribing new meanings onto the image. There is battle with the image and the music is forced to engage in new directions. The range of possibility is astonishing. It is here that cinema takes a form of judgment on all the other arts.

Badiou is telling us to “go to the cave.” We must approach cinema as a means and become involved in the democratic dialectics of our modern education. If none of this speaks to your way of thinking, then you must focus on the idea of possibility: the search for possibility. Cinema makes the search possible.

 

Author: Charlie Bury

 

You can watch the full video that inspired this thought below.

I Think David Fincher is a PERVERT

Before you get your fists caught up, let me explain that David Fincher is first and foremost a genius. Okay, now we are on the same page, I want to essentially deconstruct Fincher’s comment that “people are perverts”, or equally that the spectator is a pervert when they engage with cinema. My reason for calling Fincher a pervert himself, is because film directing is the ultimate form of acting as a spectator, you decide exactly how perverted you want the audience’s experience to be, and therefore you are the greatest manipulator of all – you can’t tempt a pervert (the audience) without understanding how they will recieve your intentions (the film).

So what does Fincher mean by this? I don’t believe it is a throwaway comment and as Fincher himself claims, he has based his entire career on this notion. I think all film director’s have believed this, whether or not they were acutely aware of the term. After all, why else would an audience want to sit in a dark room and have the gates opened onto someone else’s life and all their upheavals? We go to experience and be entertained by another’s pain (the character), and in doing so, project and release our own problems into this fantasy space. We can leave cleansed, for the time being. A pervert seeks this pleasure in which they will not be the obstacle, they will not have to face the consequences, their conscience will be left untamed. A pervert wants this, it is a sure way to turn things on their head, and cinema is a great way to reveal an upside-down nature (Seven and Fight Club go lengths to reveal disturbing elements of true nature, as do all Fincher’s films, in fact, Gone Girl is probably the best example).

A pervert is not only a Peeping Tom, but inevitably someone who wishes to satisfy their own desires. We all have this element of ego, but the cinema exploits it in almost a dangerous fashion. It is a pure ego formulation, our ego drive is solely at work when we view a film, there is no concern of the Id or Superego (no need for survival or ethitcal/moral regulations). We could psychoanalyse this further, but it is clear that Fincher intended to plainly state  that “people of perverts” and that is why they go to the cinema and enjoy watching his films!

Why do I say that David Fincher is a Pervert? Because he is a film director, and to be a film director you simply have to be a voyeur par excellence!

I would love to talk more about cinema spectatorship and the Lacanian gaze, the voyeur, and so on, but instead I recommend you pick up the following book on film theory by Todd McGowan, The Real Gaze. It is delicious, to say the least.

Finally, and for the good sake of it, here is an illuminating video essay on Fincher’s works:

 

A Discussion of Film Technique

Sergei-Eisenstein

The early filmmakers and film theorists (many of whom were both) discovered the fundamental techniques of film and hence called for the appreciation of the medium as an art form. Soviet filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin discovered the turbulent effects of montage, commonly referred to today as simply the process of editing: the stitching together of a series of shots to form a linear (or non-linear) narrative. [i] With montage, the filmmaker is able to transcend the space and time of a narrative; something that had never been done before cinema and that is taken for granted today. However, montage means far more than merely putting the constructs of a film together and as the masters of cinema have discovered, it is fundamental to their unique expression and intrinsic to ensuing direct control over audience reactions and behaviours.[ii]

The filmmakers in Hollywood began utilising tools of the camera and montage to a classical effect (angles, movements, continuity editing etc.) that reached pitch perfect by the 1940s (or more specifically, 1939, the year commonly referred to as the golden year for film). They used several camera angles to create compositions of varying meaning and perception that allowed greater control over the process and the editor to become the key manipulator of the unfolding story. For example, an editor chooses the exact frame on which to cut the characters action with a reaction (the cause-effect approach); whether dialogue or an action sequence. This formula of Hollywood film technique was flawless; it is the framework for approaching a classical narrative and classical cinema would know no different.

Citizen-Kane-Secrets

However, a couple of years later emerged further pioneering filmmakers introducing techniques to Hollywood that laid bare the current rhythmic montage and presented alternate methods. For example, the deep focus shots of panoramic views that allowed for far more effective shot sequences, like introducing a close-up parallel to a master-shot. Orson Welles and William Wyler are forerunners of such movements and throughout the 1940s and 1950s the auteur in film developed as the director implemented a greater and more vigorous understanding and control of their style. For example, in Citizen Kane, Welles uses single shots with a deep focus to cover entire scenes and, thus, carefully lets the audience pick out specific points of detail. Welles had full control to use a close-up or alternating shot to devastating effect simply because he savoured such tools at his disposal (of course, before sound, long takes were common, but scenes remained primitive and classical technique was only in its prospective development).

From the 1960s, film technique (or rather exploration of) explodes and is sewn together by innovative filmmakers from across the globe with an eye to pitch their new wave of style.[iii] It is clear, however, that the foundations of film technique and even experimental forms, were all manifest and in practice from the classical era of filmmaking. Exploitation films and progressive/subversive genres simply got buried beneath the mount of classical cinema until the disintegration of the studio system in 1948 (Paramount Case[iv]). B-movies started getting more attention and filmmakers plunged into the deep waters of making films on shoestring-budgets. However, really one needn’t look no further at the vast world of cinema, which today rehashes and replicates all that has come before (albeit with particular visions), than the pioneers and masters of early and classical cinema, if one wishes to gain a fully comprehensive understanding of film and technique.

Alfred-Hitchcock

I want to briefly discuss the film technique of Alfred Hitchcock (he is always a good place to start), a filmmaker who utilised just about every technique the cinema has to offer within his tales of deceit and murder. From revealing pans in trembling close-ups to harsh low-angles of towering objects and from suspenseful montage (and direction) to layers of allegoric meaning, he has carved a succinct and colossal discourse of film techniques.[v]

How is suspense created? We have all heard of Hitchcock’s label “The Master of Suspense” and whilst he did continually make thrillers, they didn’t necessarily have to have the same degree of suspense – this is the touch of Hitchcock, if you like. The basic indicator of suspense is revealing the horror before the subject (or in terms of dramatic construction – dramatic irony). For example, in Psycho the audience sees the shadow of the killer as he raises the knife behind the shower curtain before our heroine, who witnesses the latters brutal attack. Yet, Hitchcock has a certain aura (or added layer) of creating such suspense and this is accomplished by his specific use of film technique. Suspense is a narrative technique, like mystery (the reversal of suspense) or surprise (the coinciding revealing of an event), and whilst narrative technique and film technique are inextricable (one can’t exist without the other; just as to film something you have to apply a film technique – the cameras viewpoint), Hitchcock enriches, upholds and resolves the former technique with the latter.

shower-head-Psycho

The camera lingers in the shower with our heroine, immediately shadowing the heroine’s narrow field of vision. Amidst this field, Hitchcock moves his camera above the subject (she is nothing but an ant about to be stamped on) and across the axis (the 180 line: a relatively strict rule cinematographers abide by in order to keep the audience in line) to reveal all sides of our victim; she is weak and so are we. Hitchcock has offset the audience by his sequence and it is then that the killer is revealed in the shadows. Hitchcock has built up the suspense, in effect, before he has applied it. Whilst, you could rightly label narrative techniques under the heading of film techniques, in my analysis I am aiming to refer specifically to technical devices; the camera and the editing; the two vital and expedient processes of cinema.

Film technique is arguably more powerful than any story and plot structure, as it gives you infinite control over what the audience sees and how and when they see it. You cannot scatter a narrative and execute it to the same effect (Tarantino explores with the limitations of this effect notably in Pulp Fiction); scenes must retain a reasonably substantial order; each must punch into the next. However, a choice of film technique is immeasurable and impossible to avoid; it is what nurtures a filmmaker’s vision. The filmmaker can represent the subject however they please within the wondrous three-dimensional space that is offered to them. Beginning a scene in a close-up or a wide shot is the filmmakers choice, the narrative, or rather the plot, remains fundamentally the same, but the filmmaker can alter the audience’s reception to the narrative with film technique. Such is the power and the language of the cinema. It is not just shot composition, but the sequence of editing the shot compositions together that the filmmaker should adore. A close-up may be repeated, or only used for one second instead of four, as intended; all processes change the expression of the filmmaker and his judgement of the narrative. Indeed, a daunting process for the filmmaker is working out how to cover a scene, by cover I mean what shots they will use, and how they will stage and block the scene. Of course, there is nothing more exciting than this exposition, it is discovering the inner fibres of your film and it is also discovering the fibres of yourself, the filmmaker.

You will hear, “script is king”. Well, the filmmaker (film director) is “king” and queen. He is the sense and sensibility of the script and the pioneer of its land. Of course, you must have a great script, and a great filmmaker can make a great script great, but a great script on the shelf is not a great film, it is nobody. A great filmmaker would be silly to direct a script that wasn’t great (or at least that he/she thought wasn’t great) and therefore this discussion of script (or screenwriting) is vain to an analysis of film technique; we can assume the material that a filmmaker has chosen to work with is good.

wesmrfox2

I don’t wish to dismiss contemporary pioneers of film technique. Wes Anderson is a prime suspect of innovation and flair in filmmaking. Metaphorically, he creates a symmetrical box in which to frame his action that can move up, down, left, right, or in and out. Occasionally, the camera jumps to the far side of the box or sits on the roof, but it never breaks this manner of primitive and proportioned framing. Whist this is innovative, it is no more than a fresh refurbishment of film techniques; the director has utilised the techniques of the camera and staging to create his own style within his canvas, as should any great film director (or artist, in relation to their canvas). I will further define how I am using the term film technique (it often gets used as common excuse for anything film production), the technique is the central grouping of film compositions (shots), montage (edits) and sequences (scenes); techniques that have phenomenal undergrowth of exploration and which belong exclusively to the cinema.

These cannot be changed, the close-up shot will always be the close-up shot, but it is how the filmmaker uses it that I am concerned with. This draws on a fundamental principle of the cinematic language, it shows and then it tells; and film directors have often stressed the importance on how you show it that matters (this is characteristic to the subsequent telling). No contemporary filmmaker is able to pioneer, for example, the close-up shot (I believe first used by Georges Melies of the moon in Le Voyage dans la lune (1902)), but they can structure it effectively within a sequence that makes it innovative and appear utterly fresh and convincing, but it will be innovative only to that filmmaker’s style. In other words, technique, at its innermost core, is never new, but if it is utilised by a master, it can appear as such.

A reductive approach could argue that all film technique is drawn from the other arts, at the core of its invention, the seventh art is photographic, steals a generous palette from painting and it pinches the actor from the theatre. Of course, this can be ridiculed by modernistic approaches to film; the illusion of the moving image itself as a new phenomenon provides generous possibilities for techniques to evolve. The surrealists had an art form that is able to uncannily blend fantastical elements with the real; painting could never achieve the same impact. The close-up first appeared in painting, but the close-up in film will have an entirely different effect. Distinguishable meanings and implications are, of course, the beauty of each individual art form; and meaning in the cinema continues to blossom at the cutting-edge.

manhattan-shot

Lets not forget that film has been praised and simultaneously impugned for its tendency to merge multiple arts under one umbrella, but this is why the medium is home to some of the greatest artistic geniuses. Why did Woody Allen start making films? He could express his artistic values: his favourite music (Jazz), comedy (his own stand up and Mel Brooks), art, sculpture, photography (The Museum of Modern Art) literature (The Catcher in The Rye), theatre (Broadway), architecture (New York) and films (from Bergman to Bunuel) under one canvas. Indeed, as a true auteur of his craft, it also allowed him to express layers of meaning from his own life and concurrent philosophical insights – death, religion, moral relativity etc. – and appropriately (and with great talent) digest those interests via the language and technique of film.

I want to end this discussion by saying that if film technique is used correctly, if it connects with the concurrent meaning and implication of the subject, then it will create good and stimulating cinema. If it is masterfully constructed, if it connects with every sequence, act, and the entire story while adding an ambiguous but concise layer of allegory, then it almost becomes magic and is certainly categorised as great cinema. If you witness a masterpiece, it is because the magic of the film technique (there are other factors of course, you need a great story, but as mentioned earlier, a bad film director – a filmmaker who hasn’t mastered the language and his technique – won’t make a good film) used by the filmmaker seamlessly catches your tongue and sews you to the story, layer by layer, so you can only succumb to praise of what is an impeccable execution of the form. A separate discussion is raised, an audience’s varying interpretation of film technique (though this should be at the unconscious level – a filmmakers technique should pass the spectators eye integrally, or, in fact, unnoticed – at least this is the case for typical audiences). Let’s conclude that if the filmmaker has executed his technique how he wished (and he is closest to the material) then it will be so purely inscribed that even if you (as a viewer) don’t connect with the filmmakers intentions it will otherwise have an equivalent effect (possibly at the unconscious level) in an equal and opposite direction.

 

To be continued…

 

Notes:

[i]For a discussion on the three pioneering techniques of Soviet montage and related topics see Eisenstein Film Form and/or The Film Sense.

[ii]For a great book on film editing, see Walter Murch’s In The Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing.

[iii]See Peter Cowie Revolution!: Explosion of World Cinema in the Sixties for an insightful introduction to world cinema and disparate styles of filmmaking.

[iv]For a discussion surrounding the studio systems collapse and the battle between the competing world industries (specifically Europe and America) see David Puttnam’s The Undeclared War: Struggle for Control of the World’s Film Industry.

[v] If you are interested in Hitchcock then there are plenty of great books to discover more about his technique and style. Here are a couple of my favourites: Hitchcock: Centenary Essays edited by Richard Allen S. Ishii Gonzales and Hitchcock: A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut.