Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Shaping a Knowledge of Cinematic Visuality

When the subject of movies or television shows is under discussion, I have observed that often times those who have not seen the film or show being discussed are typically aggravated when those who have seen it disclose important plot details. Discussions about movies with surprise endings are ripe for this social situation, especially. My continued observation of such discourse has lead me to consider what is it about plot twists and surprise endings that interests so many viewers, and how does one think that if she or he knows of a particular twist or plot point, the experience is ruined.

As many have said before, when it comes to that which we see, how we see something is far more important than what we see. If you're not interested in how a particular action is made visible, then cinema is not the medium for you. Nevertheless, I have either observed or been apart far too many conversations in which individuals insist upon not knowing certail details, as if what happens is why they see the movie at all. I can understand that for many viewers, cinema and television are just distractions into which they can lose themselves for an hour or two. Therefore, they would rather not catch themselves up on how an image is working; they are more interested in what that image signifies.

I certainly understand this perspective, however I remain convinced that if an individual is more focused on content rather than form, than form becomes less important and since form decides content, content becomes nothing more than sensory-motor cliche, to use Deleuze's term. What we have then is a "bad" image, one that creates a temporal and spatial reality only allowing the spectator to understand its image by means of identification with cliche. The viewer then sees what she or he wants to see, and the act of processing and intepreting images becomes one of commodification, convention, and easily identifiable patterns rooted in the idea that plot is the mosty important point of visual storytelling. viewers then determine what they will see based on whether the plot adheres to their preferences in particular plot or genre conventions. Essentially, this mentality breeds the notion that images are to fit nicely into little boxes that we can label, leaving viewers to choose to consume exactly what they expect. This mentaility of valuing content only then spawns a culture of images makers and spectators to understand images that way, and hence interest in real, nuanced images and cinema becomes lost in the mix of commodification, marketing, and demographics.

While this is a larger cultural problem, there will always be cinema lovers and filmmakers who understand the value of images and the urgency to see and construct new ones. The identifiable patterns of plot, genre, or stylistic conventions as set forth by the destructive, yet highly influential notion of "film language" are irrelevant. Nevertheless, since cinema is grounded in traditions of narrative and situates a story and plot within its spatial and temporal reality, these kind of things are inevitable. I do not propose that we need to do away with plot and narrative. I am instead proposing that filmmakers and viewers become more demanding of what they create and see. Cinema has an amazing capacity to structure a world and make it visible. Narrative conventions and patterns are in a sense inevitable, but there is no end to how they can be expanded and responded to, thus forming new realities. But only by rejecting a content over form mentality is this possible. Maybe we will come to a point when people no longer care if they find out what happens and are instead more interested in the images themselves and how narrative conventions are comprehended based on how images present space and time through their motions, juxtapositions, and existence.

While I would love to revel in such optimistic modes of simplistic solution-making to cultural problems of seeing, it's more important to consider the implications of conditioning images to content, thus prizing easily identifiable patterns of style. Of course, it's impossible to see or know nothing about a film to which one buys a ticket or purchases. There is always some form of context as well as text to which a movie belongs that signals something about the movie before one sees it: even the title "means" something. Therefore, the idealistic model of film viewing, i.e. knowing nothing about the plot or images of a movie, is not possible. Which is why it's very crucial to understand the role of expectation and anticipation in how we consume films.

Returning to the aforementioned issue of knowing too much about a plot, I believe that a knowledge of plot elements, however extensive, only damages the film viewing experience only as much as the viewer allows it to. As I have argued, an emphasis on the images themselves would nullify the potential damaging effects that any explanations or disclosure of story details may cause to one's film viewing experience. But, even if we move beyond this paradigm and into one focused on images, familiarity and stylistic convention must still exist, firstly, and we still have a looming issue of how expectations of a film affect or influence the experience of seeing a film.

The first thing that one should note when considering this potentially problematic issue in film viewing is that now movie exists within a vacuum, both from the perspective of how a viewer sees it and how a filmmaker constructs it. A knowledge of how to construct and consume images is directly informed by a culture's or individual's previous experience with the medium. Therefore, the content-over-form mentality informs images by means of promising images that are congruous with sensory-motor schemata, thus diffusing the viewer's ability to and capacity to engage with the images, because the viewer is instead focused on the processing of the cliches dictating the form of those images. In the form-over-content paradigm of film viewing, there will still be patterns and conventions to identify, however the viewer/maker is often reflexive of that and the conscious knowledge of that allows one to think about how such identifiable elements can be arranged so as to be incongruous to one another, forming a new image based on knowledge of how cliche images are put together. This is certainly possible with cinema as the elements of a moving image constantly transmorgify and form relationships based on how movement constitutes space and time, which may therefore inform new relationships and allows new ways for the elements to engage one another.

But adopting this approach still begs several questions: the main concern being how much discourse one to which one should engage concerning a movie she or he intends to see. This discourse inevitably affects how one sees a film's images and is different from one being informed by a knowledge of images from other movies because this discourse specifically focused on the form of the film that the individual has not yet seen. Is it better to have an extensive knowledge about a film before one has seen it or not? If not, would we have the same cultural perspective of films such as Citizen Kane and Casablanca? How does the inevitable histroy of film criticism that any self-respecting criticism exposes her or himself to alter, influence, and inform the experience of seeing such milestones in cinema history and how might it be shaped otherwise? In terms of films being influenced by other films, to what extent are all films influenced by particular modes of seeing, particularly that of classical style. Do not avant-garde films exist as alternatives to classical cinema and therefore by acknowledging such conventions still exist in relation to them? Or, is "originality" possible when considering that all films that employ similiar narrative and/or stylistic conventions of building images, either consciously or unconsciously. The films that borrows images consciously and reflexively is of particular interest now considering the many pastiche films being released, e.g. Grindhouse. I plan to address these areas of inquiry in coming posts. I can only surmise now, however, that these are all important questions to consider from the standpoint of criticism and the theorizing of images, as we attempt to understand how to consume and process images as the media and technologies through we do so continue to expand.

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