Friday, March 30, 2007

Classicism and Modernism in the Digital Age: An Essential Piece of Criticism

From Jean-Baptiste Thoret's illuminating criticism of Miami Vice, one of the most evocative and important cinematic achievements in recent memory:

"The classical/modern conflict, essential in Mann, takes here an unexpected turn and puts Miami Vice undoubtedly at the origin of a new cycle in Mann’s work. The question is no longer, as in Manhunter (1986) or Heat, to evaluate what between two worlds is similar or different since, if disparity remains, it is in a negligible manner. From this point of view, classicism with its strong events (hold-ups, shoot-outs, marked positions, etc.), its simplification of the stakes and its resolution of an initial given situation is consumed: the leak in the heart of a governmental agency that launched the narrative will never be identified, the romance between Isabella and Sonny appears suddenly on the way and finally takes the upper hand, while, at the end, Montoya vanishes. From modernity and from American cinema of the 1970s, Miami Vice has kept a problematic rapport to action, between deflating (how many dismissed sequences and aborted conclusions) and overheating. But there is also the feeling of a complex and illegible world, in which it has become impossible to interact if not in a peripheral manner (the release of Trudy from the claws of the Aryen brothers, the elimination of Yero, etc.).....

How can man hold on in a disembodied world, so transparent but ultimately so opaque? The disappearance of the human, its dematerialization in the heart of an urban universe governed by technology, and thus its capacity for resistance, constitutes one of the central themes of Mann’s cinema and finds in Miami Vice its most accomplished extension. Here, the only point of view capable of reversing the flux is in the Sonny-Isabella axis. When their eyes connect, immediately the world recedes and the flux subsides."

Many others have offered a wide variety of approaches to Michael Mann's masterpiece, but this criticism is a significant starting-point for a new analysis and understanding of cinema in the digital age. It articulates new technology as it relates to cinema and narrative, which I believe to be a crucial realm of cinema and media studies to which I soon hope to contribute. As Deleuze notes, cinema doesn't create a representation of a world or an idea. It is its own world. And Michael Mann understands this in relation to film technology as no other filmmaker does.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Possibility of Hope: a DVD Feature Worth Watching

Not knowing what it was at the time, I watched a featurette on the Children of Men DVD that I purchased yesterday, entitled The Possibility of Hope. Since the film's packaging looked thrown together, I wasn't expecting much from the features on the DVD. But because it's an Alfonso Cuaron film, I retained hope that there would be something worthwhile in the special features, so I watched The Possibility of Hope. Now having seen it, I'm convinced that it's one of the best features/documentaries I've seen on a DVD. The film, directed by Cuaron himself, is essentially a series of interviews with scientists, philosophers, and other scholars discussing issues of security, culture, and social structures. Among those interviewed were Slavoj Zizek, James Lovelock, Naomi Klein, and as they were talking, the images of the film depicted factions of global society in ruins, governmental bureacracy, masses of refugees across the world - all seemingly disparate, but sharing a strong connection to the ideas discussed by the various scholars.

This short film is something of a companion piece to Cuaron's visionary film that focuses on all of the issues of the film without ever really discussing the film itself with the exception of a few instances. Overall, these scholars all discuss different theories and approaches to social economy and the problems we face as a "super-culture" of sorts; as members of Earth. These issues range from immigration to war and global warming, but this isn't just another "liberal" treatise on the state of political issues. This short film instead offers perspectives examining the social frameworks and networks that constitute segregated institutions such as nations, religions, and class systems within them. Only when we analyze communication and human interaction at this level will we begin to understand the motivations of the individual members of these cultures and institutions.

In a DVD market which typically offers dumbed down public relations advertisements masquarading as "behind-the-scenes" features," this short documentary film is an insightful inquiry into these issues and a commentary of our global culture. It is a perfect companion to Children of Men, offering an intellectual perspective to the very same concepts that are visually and emotionally explored in Cuaron's fictional film.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

New Ways of Seeing

Though I only watched the first hour long segment of The Discovery Channel's new miniseries, The Planet Earth, I was completely amazed by its images. I was reminded of the 2003 documentary, Winged Migration, in which filmmakers followed various species of birds migrating across the natural and technological world. It's a beautiful documentary containing little narration or accompaniment of textual information. In the film, the camera seems to live with birds, flying with them through the sky, diving through canyons. The major accomplishment of the film though is how it uses its technological capabilities for the purpose of exploring an abstract observation or connection with nature from the very refined perspective of birds and their migration. The Planet Earth doesn't adopt the same narrative approach, but it does use its technological capacity as an integral part of its storytelling, which is in this case the natural world as a whole. It is not merely embodying the styles and methods of nature documentaries, but becoming something new altogether with its technologies. And it does so solely through the images and the viewer's engagement of them. As I will discuss later, this is not without an attachment to old conventions, styles, that potentially hinder the results of these technologies from growing organically, but programs such as this represent the beginning of what I think could be a revolution in visuality and media.

While watching the first segment, I asked myself the question: how does manner through which these images were "captured" through various technologies constitute what the viewer is seeing? I thought of the concept that what one sees is more the result of how it is captured and represented rather than the object itself. How I see something is more the result of how its presented and positioned within various technologies and social and economic institutions. Regarding The Planet Earth, it's quite clear that its images were only made possible through the technological advancements in film and photography. We are in the age of High Definition, and it is greatly influencing images and their representative abilities, as well as how we viewers and makers relate to them. Thus, what we see is (in a sense) a "new" image.

HD in most cases is used merely to accentuate detail, to provide a more crisp and vibrant picture to images already familiar. For example, sports coverage is almost exactly the same, shot-for-shot, as it was before HD, but HD has become so popular because of it brilliantly it captures the picture and the experience of being there. This feeling of immersion was always a defining aspect of cinema that separated it from television, but with quality of the advancements of audio and visual technology, the cinema experience is becoming more widely available in your own home. HD has moved television yet another step closer to bridging the gap between cinema and television. Interestingly, while sports coverage remains mostly the same, other areas within the television realm have come to embody the aesthetics and visual styles of cinema, not just in a stylistic sense but also concerning the nature of the narratives. Sitcoms and Reality TV excluded, television dramas are more gritty, more daring, and more intense than ever, which is in part due to the mass improvements made in television audio-visual technology.

There are countless places in which such a discussion can go, most of which is very relevant, but right now I'd like to focus on images themselves - how they're captured and why television increasingly is becoming an appropriate medium for programs such as Planet Earth, which are in many ways revolutionizing the medium itself, thus altering the content and how viewers relate to it and understand it. My fascination with HD concerns not just the context of these images, but also the pristine quality of the images themselves, something that has long been around concerning still pictures. But what we have here are moving images captured in the most vivid color and definition.

The visual experience of The Planet Earth is hypnotic. Every image is sublime, every composition beautiful. The viewer simply can feel the images and their atmospheres more. While this program uses the aesthetic styles and conventions of nature documentaries as a springboard, it nonethless launches into a new realm of nature documentary. Where sports coverage has only experienced a minor expansion in terms of forming new images, this program was clearly made with intent of revolutionizing how, in this case nature, is seen and therefore understood. Without HD and other technological advances in image capturing (which I will not go into detail about, as I am still learning their details), this program would not have been made. Which is why I consider this program among others to be the beginning of a revolution. How this effects the medium itself in an economic sense remains to be seen, but there is no question as to the brilliance and beauty of the images presented on The Planet Earth.

Regarding cinema, a different revolution is currently in the midst: the digital revolution. While HD allows allows a camera to better capture an image, digital technology is altering how that image is captured, or in some cases constructed. No longer is the medium reliant on capturing a real moment in space and time for the purposes of narrative. Digital technology enables filmmakers to create those images and alter the photographed reality that the camera films. As mentioned above, the two media (cinema and television) are bridging together in many ways. HD is a large part of cinema technology, and digital technology is creeping into more television. All of this has happened because of technologies and media themselves, which are now understood and experienced so similarly that the content is likewise similar. The cinema will always have the theater and television will always be more personal. The shear locations of these media in terms of where a spectator acquires and experiences the content keep them apart. Yet, with the booming popularity of DVDs and the emerging realm of movie downloading as well as the more theatrical experience of watching television, even the economic aspects of location and marketing are converging, thus bringing about new understanding of their content, which will therefore alter the content.

Where this leads, I don't know. I do know that this revolution of how we see images and experience narrative has a long way to go. The presence of the intrusive voiceover in The Planet Earth is the greatest signifier that images are not only bound to familiar narrative structures in mainstream cinema and television, but that images are consumed in a very literate sense. We remain somewhat uncomfortable to interpreting images outside the familiar realm of classical narrative structures as well as language. So long that this discomfort continues, viewers and filmmakers will remain aprehensive towards seeing and creating new images, allowing the images to work upon us without telling/being told how to interpret those images. But the process has already begun in how images are captured, constructed, presented, as is seen in The Planet Earth and the film, Winged Migration. I would hope that eventually these new ways of seeing may result in more bold and daring images; images that challenge and provoke viewers rather than lull them into complacency and comfortable numbness. I'm confident that such technologies can take us in that direction, but it's a long road ahead before we're there.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

An Aging Hero in Contemporary Hollywood: Rocky's Self-Conscious Finale

The original Rocky (1976) was gem of a movie. It captured a city and a man so well, conjuring a light of hope in its subtle images. Sylvester Stallone's screenplay was an execution of formulaic storytelling, but it resonated due to the sincerity of the character and the viewer's easy identification with him as he metaphorically journeys through an identifiable world of cynicism refusing to let it defeat him. Stallone's archetypical hero struck a chord within the collective unconscious. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has since become a site where anyone who has ever been, young or old, has triumphantly ascended the steps for thirty years.

Through the Reagan 80's, Rocky somehow lost his roots - his humbleness and earnestness - and came to embody an indestructible image of America that was never true to the character with whom viewers originally connected. Every film after the second (which itself was a rather hollow clone of the first film) had Rocky battling a new implaccable enemy to overcome all obstacles. The films became increasingly hollow; shallow parodies of their own cliches. They boasted more montages, more extreme editing and close-ups, and more pounding jingoistic scores during the bouts... and more distance from the quiet, subtle magic of the original film. Like so many other endearing archetypes in American cinema, Rocky was reduced to a Hollywood commodity for demographic consumption, much like what's currently happening to a certain captain of a certain Disney pirate ship. The Rocky films would drift into embarassment and eventual oblivion after the fifth entry in 1990. (Note: The Rocky franchise to that point still did not hold the title for biggest drop in cinematic quality from original film to last in a series. That title went to the Jaws sequels.)

However, last year saw the release of a brand new Rocky picture, a fully thirty years after the original film, entitled Rocky Balboa. Representing Stallone's attempt to give the franchise and the character a worthy send off, the film depicts its hero once again beat down now that the world has passed him by. Interestingly, the fact that there were so many bad sequels between this film and the original film makes the experiencing of viewing this film all the more fascinating since it mirrors the original in so many ways. Stallone is able to make the character sympathetic again - Rocky is once again lovingly dumb. And despite that he wants to recreate the atmosphere of the original film, Stallone manages to squeeze in as many inspirational messages, speeches, and stylistic devices as he possibly can, making this film an odd hybrid of the original's framework and message suffused with the latter films' pretentiousness.

Though the film is set primarily in the run-down streets of South Philly, Stallone never achieves the visual sublimity of the original film. That is because he is so steeped in the current aesthetics of mainstream films that any attempt to give the film visual flair feels all the more awkward due to the simplistic "talking heads" method of editing, among other things. While Stallone clearly wanted to imbue his film with a unique visual style full of light, shadow, and color, the attempt doesn't work because the editing makes every encounter artificial, bringing out the hokiness of the dialogue and the performances rather than enhancing them; the same goes for the dramatic lighting. I may not have noticed this as much in another film, but when Stallone depicts the same character and same general story in the same place with the same themes, it's hard not to notice how much the contemporary styles stick out among Stallone's attempt to recreate the feel of the original film. And no matter how many sad close-ups there are of Rocky remembering Adrian, the film's awkwardness due to its pedantic visual style and execution of its narrative conventions smothers any real moments that could have emerged.

Structurally, the film is textbook screenwriting (much like the original film), echoing the original film's framework of building up to the big fight. While this wasn't a problem for the former film, these conventions are exploited for their simplicity in how Stallone shoots and puts together the end product. I got the impression that even though the film is about aging and becoming different, Stallone wanted to create a feeling of sameness, one that just isn't possible, especially given the character's now cultural presence. I recalled reading Ty Burr's excellent review of the film, in which he refers to the film as Stallone's own crisis of age, rather than an apparent mature treatise on acceptance of age and mortality. The passage of time and the film's struggle for naturalism - even in making its absence for 16 years part of the storytelling - results in a disjointed viewing experience. The viewer's relationship with Rocky is now picked up some twenty years later in a world that occupies the same temporal existence as our own. For all that time, we've been without Rocky. Now that he's back for one final bout against all odds in a film with the best of intentions, embracing this character and likewise the film just isn't the same.

Therefore, while the film consciously represents the metaphorical journey of redemption and coming to terms with moving on from past glory, it also inadvertantly represents that struggle of the "then vs. the now" in its confused visual execution and narrative tendencies. Despite this strange tension that dominates and defines the film, there are a chosen few moments in which Stallone seems to effectively grasp this struggle and thus rekindles the magic rather than trying recreate it. In these moments, I felt a little bit like the character I suppose, relishing the rush of emotion to the visuals of Stallone running through snow and the tune of Bill Conti's famous theme music. I speak of course of the inevitable training montage, which somehow captures the past and the present in ways that the rest of the film cannot. Its rushed cuts and seeming impatience to unleash the training as seen in the faster editing is evidence of the overall strange self-consciousness with which Stallone made this film. Even when the film is becoming looser with itself and the tension alleviates, it still demonstrates an adherence to contemporary editing and shot composition techniques that isn't conducive to the film's more traditional montage. But despite my reluctance and resistance to these better constructed, yet still awkwardly self-aware moments, the laughably delightful sight of Rocky running the steps once more proved that on some level the story still connects, even if one is seemingly too removed to consciously appreciate it. There is an undeniable and inexplicable sense of ridiculousness to this surge of energy; a surge that Stallone still manages to capture in all of its pompousness and enjoyment.

But in the end, his film is confused, sloppy, and hopelessly positive. The experience of watching it is both welcoming and discomforting, resulting in a film capable of a few fresh bursts of old energy surrounded by a hollow shell of a movie bent on recreating a magic that's long gone, thus prompting reflections of how such energy ever existed in the first place and how genuine it ever was.

Rocky Balboa never quite operates outside the world of the past to occupy its own time here and now. Then again, I suppose that's a problem most sequels face. In light of the more recent sequels, this film can be commended for its shear desire to recreate the feelings of the original film. But, as compared to the original alone, we quickly realize that the current film is damaged more by its insistence of recreating that magic from thirty years ago.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A Blogger's Reflections

In one of my first entries on this blog, I said that this site would feature mostly film analysis and criticism of specific films. I also said that interspersed with these reviews would be reflections on cinema, criticism, media, communication, and blogging. After almost two months, I don't think I've posted a single film review, despite my discussions of many films. To be honest, I've been exposed to so many perspectives on communication, cinema, and criticism in my classes and reading other blogs/web sites that I've been so compelled to write commentaries and discussion pieces focused on theory and thinking about cinema as an aesthetic medium, communication device, and artistic expression. I wish to continue coming up with things to write about, but I always hold the fear that I will run dry. But I find that things often come to me when I'm not stressed out about things coming to me. As anyone who has read a single entry here will know, I have a lot to say. But when I'm reflexive of that, I often find myself asking, "What do I have to say? How can I possibly contribute in any meaningful way to film discussion that is featured on so many great blogs?" I suppose this is the blogger's life. I look at the variety of blogs out there, each fitting its own niche and employing different styles and approaches to cinema and criticism that I am often downright envious. But, like many writers, I often come across decent ideas when I'm not consciously worrying about coming across decent ideas. But, one of the fascinating things about blogging is that someone else's ideas can bring about one's own. The danger of this medium and its immediacy is to reduce oneself to a reactionary, commenting on other blogs and linking to them. While this can be a good thing, we wouldn't want the stamp of sameness stamped on blogging that currently plagues mainstream journalistic criticism. But I want to hold off on those thoughts for now...

I suppose if I were to adopt a more positive perspective, I really enjoying pushing myself to do this. I haven't had the time to think through everything or provide the best structure to my pieces, but in a strange sort of way, that's what I like about blogging. This site represents (I hope) a growing inquiry into cinema and criticism from varying rhetorical and critical perspectives that in due time will hopefully come together as I open more areas of discussion. I cannot emphasize enough how much I would love anyone and everyone to comment. It makes for great discussion not only on this blog, but sometimes it erupts on others. And that is the beauty of this big experiment of blogging. It is a reflection of who I am cinematically. Like me, the blog will always be growing. I have already mentioned in a previous and extremely long post that I am new to the blogging experience both as a reader and a writer and that I lack the technical know-how to provide the best aesthetic experience with this blog. But I'm hoping my relative inexperience may actually translate into a fresh and somewhat different perspective. I've already learned so much, and since form often decides content, how I put this blog together greatly affects the content - content that I don't want to pin down to any specific approach or method. I'm sure this will be a strength and a weakness, as I will be adopting certain norms of blogging and internet communication while rejecting others, likewise academic and journalistic film writing. So far, I have played it safe, offering stream-of-conscious treatises and theoretical approaches. In the future, I'd like to address the issues facing criticism as manifested through internet media such as blogs and how it relates to academic writing/publishing and popular film criticism.

In coming months, I'd like to do pieces on postmodernism, feminist approaches to film criticism, and the art of film scores and sound, as well as critical accounts of films bridging both journalistic and academic critical norms, I hope. Despite this downtime of the past few weeks after only a few months of blogging, I'm itching go get to all of these things and hopefully allow this little experiment to grow. I've had some encouraging feedback, and it has been a pleasure to frequent the blogging circuit and come across new sites and blogs every day. As you can see, my links list is always growing. And I hope it always will.

Currently, I face two substantial research projects for my graduate classes that will be occupying the great majority of my time over the next month and a half. When I have time, I will be brainstorming and presenting ideas here on the blog about film technology, film language, and Jungian approaches to heroism mths and popular American film genres, which are the ideas and driving concepts behind my projects. I hope to learn not just from the books and articles I'm citing, but from my experience interacting with fellow bloggers.

As I have great faith in this new frontier of film studies, I encourage any and all feedback in hopes that other film bloggers like myself make comments and spark discussion, both here and elsewhere. Because that is the beauty of this new vehicle for film criticism and discussion; not only does it enable discourse on such an immediate level, but the nature of the discussion can vary immensely and invites paradigm shifts. I say we - the film bloggers - utilize it and keep letting this medium grow in prominence and importance as cinema moves into new territory. So shall discussion and criticism. Ultimately, a perusal of film blogs will teach readers is that there really are endless manners of participating in discssuin of cinema and shaping how we as critics/lovers of the medium constitute an understanding and participation in it. Therefore, I look forward to reading and responding to comments as well as being provoked and engaged by other film blogs.

I'm not the first to claim the importance of blogging to the future of cinema and its criticism. But I hope that my own contribution to the blogging community, along with the participation of all other film bloggers, will account for its growth and fruition. I'm more than honored to be a part of it, and I look forward to sharing my cinema experience here so shall such growth in cinema studies may transpire.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Revisiting The Departed

[Note: the following criticism contains many spoilers.]

Having seen The Departed again over the weekend, some of my initial criticisms of the film (summarized in this post) came into focus. It wasn't until this second viewing that I really noticed two general things: 1) that the film is more character-oriented than I initially thought, and 2) Leonard DiCaprio's performance is not only incredibly passionate and subtle, but the heart of the movie. I recall an interview with Martin Scorsese in which he explained that the reason DiCaprio is such a good actor is because of how expressive his eyes are. Though I don't have a problem with DiCaprio, he's never been in the upper echelon of film actors. Now I'm beginning to understand what Scorsese was trying to say after studying DiCaprio's emotional performance in The Departed. His character, Billy Costigan, seems to be on the verge of a breakdown throughout the whole film. Interestingly, there are clues to his demise throughout not only in the structure of the film but in the expressiveness of his eyes. In that sense, the film essentially depicts his tragedy. The deeper he goes into his false identity, the more he is giving himself over to death. His performance suggests the character's acknowledgement of that on some level.

I think the film's real climax and emotional center is midway throgh, when Costigan visits the psychiatrist for the first time. This scene has strong tragic undertones (with beautiful music by Howard Shore) as Costigan tells his "still hand" story, which is intercut with his encounter with the only two police officers who know he's a cop. In moments of utter vulnerability, Costigan still isn't telling the truth, signifying his inability to escape from the persona he now embodies and inevitable demise. Nevertheless, the images depict Costigan in a moral crisis as he witnesses one of Costello's men kill a man without blinking. Costigan is incapacitated, paralyzed from doing anything. The first time I saw the film, I recognized its themes of identity and how individuals come to embody it as well, but I thought they were overpowered by the somewhat intrusive plot. This time, however, I saw more nuance to the character relations and more going on in the performances. Every major character in the film does things against her or his better judgement. We see characters with ideas, dreams, and aspirations, all with a vision of how the world works and how they can contribute to it and get something out of it. Sullivan (Matt Damon) stares at the golden rotunda and Costigan wants to shed the image of his family name and bring justice to gansters. But eventually they make moral compromises and suddenly the world isn't so black and white. Cops and gangsters aren't so different after all.

But what is it that makes one person a cop and one person a gangster? It's amazing to consider how all of us are defined by our surroundings, not by what we think are the seemingly free choices we make in our lines of work, circles of friends, areas of study. To think that we have an underlying identity informing those choices and that we truly know ourselves apart from our conext is the great mistake many of us make. But the greater mistake is to really believe that there is something behind those choices and those surroundings that reflect who you are, when in fact it's often pure chance. By refusing to examine the relationship of the mob and the police or the struggle of good versus evil and instead focusing on two characters engaged in both sides, the film is actually examining the choices (and the impulses that drive them) which lead one to allign him or herself with a side and, more importantly, really believe in that side or order.

The film is about the death of idealism. The two main characters are dreamers who make a symbolic journey within both the "good" and the "bad" side. Their journeys, identity crises, and choices to work within those systems expose the inconsequentiality of such terms. When Costigan is suddenly killed not in the heat of battle or in a climactic showdown but in the most surprising of circumstances, the film's themes come together. Corruption rules both the "good" and "bad" sides of the spectrum. The only way to survive within that system is to compromise one's moral identity and make decisions she or he knows isn't right. People must to do this to survive, no matter what lifestyles in which they are involved. Eventually, morality and ethics disappear when one becomes more comfortable with making choices that compromise morality. Eventually, the guilt is gone and killing a man is nothing more than pulling a trigger. 70-year-old mob leader Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) represents a man who may have been in the position of either Sullivan or Costigan earlier in his life, made those compromises, and entered into the politics of corruption and knows how to work within it and achieve success. In that sense he is fascinating, almost humorous. Like many of Scorsese's films containing violence, this film isn't about the violence so much as it is a deep examination into the souls and minds of violent people. And a close look at these three characters shows how different, yet inevitably connected they are.

The film spends its time building a blatantly symbolic narrative about duality, leading the viewer to think there will be an ultimate showdown at the end, either physical or emotional. And then out of nowhere the desire for closure is suddenly shot dead, quite literally. This initially bugged me, but now I think I understand why it bothered me and how it relates to the themes of the narrative, which are deeper than I originally thought. Costello is merely a survivor, one who has chosen to kill rather than be killed. The police/mob model of the film is rather arbitrary. To be in his position of power and to survive within that system is suppress moral justice and embrace the corruption that defines every aspect of lived life in our political economy of capitalism and consumerism. The film seems to be arguing that it doesn't matter "whose side you're on," because the only difference between them are the empty images of good and evil behind them, which are just archetypical representations in place to sustain a more innoncent and morally just vision of the world which doesn't exist. We would all like to believe in them - many of us do - which is partly why they exist. But the film's major thesis is that the only "real" world is one of power and corruption. Whose side you happen to be on is not the result of your moral choices but rather more decided by chance; being in a specific situation and possessing a limited number of choices upon which to decide. And when it comes to survival, morality doesn't enter into the logic of making those choices. Suddenly the vision of a morality and justice slips away and, like Nicholson's Costello, we engage and build a much different world than the one into which we thought we were born.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Hollywood's New Genre Films

My limited time has certainly been a contributing factor to my absence at the theater over the past several months. But even if I did have the time, I don't think I would have ventured out to see Wild Hogs, Norbit, Hannibal Rising, Primevil, or whatever else has been released. It's been so dreary of late that I haven't even kept up with the journalistic criticism I usually do. Usually, I like reading good criticism from the likes of David Edelstein, A.O. Scott, and others, even if the movies don't interest me. But I've even lost interest in that. Recently, however, that interest has been re-invigorated. While I still don't have a great amount of time, it's nice to see some movies arrive at theaters that actually may warrant some attention; movies that compel me to make time in my schedule for a trip to the movie theater.

One film that really caught my interest is Zack Snyder's 300. It has opened to mostly positive reviews, but the real reason I want to see it is because of how good Snyder's last feature was, the remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004). It was a refreshing horror-action made with skill and energy, something sorely lacking from many contemporary American horror films. It lacked the social commentary that permeated George A. Romero's horror masterpiece, but it did so intentionally. Snyder wanted to make a horror film stripped down to its bones; a down-and-dirty survival pic, the kind rarely made made nowadays. And it was a gem. I remember being so enamored by the first ten minutes of that film that when it finally stopped to breathe, I realized there was still a whole movie to play out, one I was flat-out giddy to be watching. I know very little about 300 outside it's striking images of bodies and violence in trailers. But because of my enthusiasm for Snyder's last film, I look forward to possibly seeing his latest this weekend.

Also, on the topic of horror, Bong Joon-Ho's The Host was released today. I remember reading about the film during the Toronto Film Festival last Fall, but I never expected that its positive reception at that festival and otherswould result in a semi-wide release in America before coming to DVD. (On a somewhat related note, I have also read that Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn, another hit at Toronto, has targetted a late March theatrical release as well, which is encouraging if true.)

After reading Jim Emerson's recent post, What If They Didn't Spend Millions to Advertise "Norbit"?, in which Jim responds to the comments about film critics from the director of Norbit, I felt positive about the fact that The Host has been given a theatrical release. This simple fact gives me hope that some studios are intent on releasing good films rather than assembly line garbage; the cinematic equivalent of fast food, which is now often mistaken for real movies. Jim's post elucidates some very important issues concerning the state of film production and film criticism that are scary to think about. Therefore, a foreign horror film given a theatrical treatment is so encouraging since a) foreign films, by and large, are thought of as arthouse films and are released only in small movie houses before going to DVD, and b) horror and action films are in a slump right now, to say the least. Outside the major summer blockbusters, which are often so sanitized for family viewing and little more than studio vehicles educating the masses to be good consumers, action/horror films have become practically inconsequential. The ones that are being made are usually so bad and proud of it, boldly turning a cold shoulder to critics before being released in the January/February wasteland of theatrical releases.

Sparing the critics from seeing and writing about such awful films is actually a good thing for critics, since they can focus their attention on films in which their voices are important, such as The Host. Were it not for the critical response to the Host to begin with, it would not be seeing a release right now. So, in my mind, the question regarding the relevance of film critics depends on the film and its context. With context, we have a whole other plethora of considerations, especially considering the issue of critical impact.

There seems to be a division in Hollywood when it comes to genre films. They are either mass-marketed venues for product placement that people like me would hardly consider movies or bad, unimaginative genre flicks with no imagination or originality. And since critics are only influential in ciricles of film audiences, studios are now more prone to ignore the critics and remain content making garbage so long that people will continue buying tickets. Unfortunately, this has become a major problems such as these divisions in Hollywood films. As films are either plugged with multi-million dollar ad campaigns made with slick production values or made with virtually no support and are cringingly awful, interest in actual quality is no longer the issue. In fact, viewers' notions of what consitutes quality is shifting ever so slowly as genre movies are becoming worse. The bar is moving lower and lower, and so many people just don't know it and now come to expect it. Now, the alternatives to the mass marketed films of the summer are comedies like Norbit, horror movies like Primevil, and dramas like Hannibal Rising.

That's why I am always so enthusiastic when a good genre film actually makes it through the Hollwood system. For example, Batman Begins (2005) is a rare big-budget movie that doesn't feel like a commercial or a mass-assembled television show slopped together and made most easily consumable for viewers. Seeing a Hollywood film with actual vision and passion for the cinematic craft is rare and refreshing, which is why films like 300 and Zodiac look good to me; based on what I've seen, they appear to have that quality. Their directors somehow work within the system to defy its current output, and it shows in what I've seen of them.

Then again, I may be wrong about them. They may not be truly great films in the traditional manner of defining good cinema, but I am fairly certain that they are more than studio schlock that is frequently pushed on and swallowed by the moviegoing public. But I think that film quality is often measured not by how effectively a film structures its script or draws its characters, but rather by how interesting its images are and how it tells its story. I think it's more important to ask questions about how a certain image or scene, maybe one that doens't feel right, rather than point out its weaknesses, or what you perceive to be weaknesses.

One would hope that quality films (as defined under such terms) are more successful at these times of year, when studios are experimenting a little bit more before they unleash the "safe" blockbusters into multiplexes this summer plugged with a $40 million advertising campaign. Maybe - just maybe - the success of overseas foreign films like Host would mean that studio execs are willing to take more chances and make real films with real filmmakers, so that we can have more young directors with vision like Zack Snyder.

I should note before singing the praises of films like 300 and Zodiac that I have yet to see them and their marketing campaigns were both very extensive. As I have said before, though, March and April usually represent the studios experimental time. Last year, good genre films like Inside Man and V For Vendetta opened to good box office numbers. (Inside Man was directed by Spike Lee and is a great example of a director working within a studio system and genre conventions even, to tell a good story.) Hopefully, if these films and others are of similar quality, studios will front have more confidence in directors who care about cinema.

Perhaps I'm being overly optimistic, but movies refusing to be defined by the current two-pronged spectrum of Hollywood genre filmmaking could remind viewers of the freshness that genre films can actually exude, which could then increase the output of good genre films. Genre pictures don't have to be static; they don't have to be horrible if they don't have huge marketing campaigns or are watered down into safe blockbusters. They can still be good, and they can have an audience. Hopefully now that the field of theatrical releases is becoming a bit more interesting, audiences and studios will realize this.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Interpreting Cinematic Images (Language and Cinema II)

Over at Observations on film art and Film Art, David Bordwell recently posted an excellent piece on the nature of interpreting film images and creating meaning; in this particular entry, he looks at the creation of suspense. Adopting a more cognitivist approach to cinema, as he has done before in several other essays, Bordwell closely examines the relationship of the moving image and the brain's ability to interpret that image.

Depending on your field of discipline, cognition is defined very broadly to fit any number of interpretations. Some simply define it as making sense of stimuli through experiences with senses and making sense of that experience. But how this actually occurs is often the subject of great debate. Personally, I would argue that there is are strong social factors contributing to the interpretation of narrative images. In the hypothetical scenario that you have someone who has never been exposed to moving images on a screen, which is almost impossible, I'd be interested to see what kind of sense that person would make of the images. While the brain allows for such systems of communication like language to exist, it is through language that human beings are able to make sense of anything in the unique manner that we do. Even an illiterate individual is part of a very literate world; one that has spawned insitutions and an entire social reality that exists for everyone, even those without language. Therefore, we are all languaged in a sense.

Taking this into the realm of images and cinema, language and communication has conditioned us to be "pattern-seeking animals," to use Jim Emerson's phrase. Therefore, when it comes to interpreting cinema, the relationship between then image and the viewer is such that there is not only a literate context in which those images exists, but there is an agreed upon relationship specifying that images are made to be consumed and understood, and from those patterns do image makers condition their own capacity for making those images. In other words, viewers and producers of images participate in a mutual relationship meant to form understanding. Hardly ever does a produced image just exist without a context or without meaning. It must have purpose; one that reflects the purpose that language itself provides. An image must "mean" to exist, whether or not that meaning is instrinsic to the image itself, which I would argue that it isn't. Out of these patterns and ways of seeing, perceiving, and interpreting arise certain tendencies, both in the structure of narrative and how its components are visually presented. Therefore, image interpretation, despite being a fundamentally more complex experience than communicating via language, it is subject to many of the same conventions since visuality has emerged from orality, literacy, and textuality.

One of the greatest factors in determining interpretation in both language and images is context. Every element of these system only takes on meaning when judged in relation to other components. Therefore, while the technologies and media used to create moving images are relatively new, narrative has existed as long as language has, because to use a language is to engage in a narrative. Therefore, the way in which images are positioned in relation to what is seemingly a built-in desire and understanding of narrative is crucial in the assessment of cinema and its interpretation. No film, no image exists in a vacuum, and one's experience with it depends upon experiences had with previous narratives, images, and experiences within the realm of literacy and visuality that define or beings and conscious selves.

I'm not trying to shortchange the details of how images are interpreted by the brain; the study of these things is actually crucial to understanding the role of images in cultures and individual existence. David Bordwell and his wife, Kristin Thompson, are front runners in the rhetorical approach to film studies. They propose that critics turn their analyses inwards toward the specific details of images and how they work upon us. Some may think that they propose to disregard Jungian, psychoanalytic, or feminist approaches to criticism, but they actually claim that in order to make sense of these areas of criticism, it's best to first understand the medium itself and then branch out to its theoretical, philosophical, and psychological implications regarding how it constitutes the production of meaning.

Now that cinema has ingrained itself in our collective conscious and unsconscious, it's essential to look back through its history to observe these stylistic techniques that have cemented themselves in our minds regarding how we see the world, and how grander ideas have emerged from them, one being (as Bordwell notes) suspense. In his book, Visual "Literacy": Image, Mind, and Reality, Paul Messaris analyzes the relationship between the images of electronic media and the images that human beings interpret through their eyes and brains. Obviously, electronic media have been designed as extensions of ourselves and our eyes in the sense that the camera functions "like an eye," capturing depth perception in similar though distinctly different ways. But now that cinema and visuality are such a strong component of our social makeup, it's becoming harder to make the claim that from our perception and interpretation of external stimuli via our eyes and brain in "lived experience" stems these other forms of seeing through technological media. Quite simply, these media constitute our ability to understand and perceive anything. So in terms of the question of which influences which, the issue has become increasingly clouded, since much of lived experience is now processed based on the conventions of how we understand seeing through these various media.

McLuhan stated that media are in fact extensions of ourselves and define how we relate to and understand ourselves. Therefore, is it not fair to assume that with the increasing amount of visual media, humans' relationship to language and our understanding of identity, perception, and culture are different, and the means through which we process those meanings have shifted? To me, these are crucial areas in the context of visual and verbal communication and cinema. Cinema after all is a visual dreamscape in which feelings of the collective unconscious are manifested (which is a Jungian approach to criticism, I'm aware). That is why it is so important to consider each advancement made in how images are made and consumed. In light of the dawn of the "digital revolution" of cinema, these issues are ever so important as we move ahead as critics.

I make no claim to have the key to the process of interpretation and meaning production. And to attempt to do that in a series of posts would be impossible. I instead would like to stress the importance of such issues as cinema and criticism further evolves. It is important to ask these questions of the medium itself as well as address thematic aspects of narrative. But the current more literary approach to academic criticism is in need of a shift back towards the mechanics of interpretation and the fundamentals of literacy, narrative, and perception.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

The Gospel According to St. Deleuze

To follow up with my previous post on the problematic notion of film language, the following quote comes from Gilles Deleuze's indispensable book, Cinema 2: The Time-Image:

"Cinema is not a universal or primitive language system [langue], nor a language [langage]. It brings to light an intelligible content which is like a presupposition, a condition, a necessary correlate through which language constructs its own 'objects' (signifying units and operations). But this correlate, though inseparable, is specific: it consists of movements and thought-processes (pre-linguistic images), and of points of view on these movements and processes (pre-signifying signs). It constitutes a whole 'psychomechanics,' the spiritual automation, the utterable of a language system which has its own logic. The language system takes utterances of language, with signifying units and operations from it, but the utterable itself, its images and signs, are another nature. This would be what Hjelmslev calls non-linguistically formed 'content'... Or rather, it is the first signifiable, anterior to all significance, which Gustave Guillaume made the condition of linguistics."

If had come across this quote before I wrote that lengthy post on the subject, I would have been spared the effort. This just about explains why cinema cannot and should not be classified as a language. "Film language" limits one's understanding of the medium; it is a medium that deserves to be freed from such an idea.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Minority Report: Shameless product placement or scathing social commentary?

Steven Spielberg's 2002 science fiction film, Minority Report is one of the most purely cinematic films released by Hollywood in recent years. Both a think-piece and great entertainment, the film offers a throwback whodunit plot in the tradition of film noir set in a very disturbing not-so-distant future. The film works so well because it balances all of its elements - character, plot, themes, setting, background details, striking images - and makes them all relevant to each other. Spielberg's vision of the future is dissimilar to popular cinematic representation of dark, futuristic societies (e.g. Blade Runner (1982)) in that it seems to offer a more straightforward mystery plot with the details of a more real-looking future pushed to the background. A closer look reveals that this may not be the case, however; in fact, I may argue that Minority Report is arguably more disturbing than the more overtly dreary representations of communication in the future. The corruption of this society isn't suggested in dark images of decay or a plot involving mind control. This future is one that oddly resembles our present and seems to be coming true with each passing day. Advertisements are no longer bound to billboards, newspaper pages, and television screens. They literally jump out at you in holographic form, both invading your space yet occupying none. Eye scanners are implanted in every faction of society so that your every movement can be tracked. Your shopping patterns, everyday traffic route, and essentially every movement you make is essentially monitored and transformed into commodification. Walking in public is literally an assault of advertising images, a form of hell that one cannot escape if one is to be part of society.

This is all in the background of a plot that focuses on a new division of government called Pre-Crime, in which police officers can predict murders before they happen and arrest the guilty. There are no trials, no appeals, no questions. But the amazing thing is, people appear to be happy. No one is ruthlessly trying to bring down the walls of society. It's never an issue in the film. When the main character, John Anderton, is accused of a murder he doesn't believe he will commit, he seeks to prove the system wrong. But in terms of this future world, one in which personal freedoms do not exist, every character in the film reacts to it and is part of it without question. The characters aren't knowing in the way that a good-hearted character in a period piece can see right through barbaric traditions of an old culture and bring democracy and Western ideals; one that only a screenwriter in today's culture can be aware of. That's what makes this film unique and utterly scary. Because right now, we are apart of that world. Technology is used by those in power to create more power and greater division between those with power and those without it, thus preventing those without power from even knowing it. This could have been a film like The Matrix (1999) in which "The One" can fight that system and people can free their minds; not so here. Minority Report is brutally scary because no one questions, much like no one wants to question now. In fact, the main characters in the film perpetuate that society and feel that what they're doing is a good thing. And while the Pre-Crime system is abandoned at the end of the film in a "happy ending" sort of way, the world still exists as such and, in my interpretation at least, the world is still tailspinning into oblivion, not because of institutions like Pre-Crime, but because how society has conditioned its participants not to question the motives of those who yield power within it, which is rooted in its celebration of invasive advertising. And yet, interestingly, that world without freedom in the film is downplayed in terms of plot, it is the story.

Which brings me to a potentially troubling issue. The advertisements featured in the film are actual advertisers who payed money to be appear in the film. Among these companies are Lexus, Guiness, Aquafina, The Gap, and various others. Given this fact, it's hard to figure out if the film is shamelessly perpetuating its own depicted horrors or whether its using them as a form of commentary supporting its thematic bases in the storytelling. Like I said before, the future depicted in this film is one of the most disturbing visions ever committed to the science fiction genre. The manner in which these advertisements appear is uncomfortable, disturbing, and downright nauseating. They are everywhere, around every corner, constantly interrupting each other and layed on top of one another so as to embody a bombardment of stimuli. People in this world aren't being sold on a product or a lifestyle so much as are being brainwashed into thinking in advertisements. Advertising seeks to control every aspect of how people live, which is true of today, but this film sees it culminate in a sick barrage of images.

Steven Spielberg and the producers of the film could have very easily made up advertising companies so as to play into the product placement that the film seems to be commenting on. However, they chose to use actual advertisers in fronting this vision of the future. Of course, none of the companies cared about context; they just wanted to have their product name appear in the film, practically embodying the very notion that the film depicts its characters falling victim to. So, does that make the film a shameless, toothless "commentary" on advertising, which ultimately amounts to nothing more than what it claims to examine? Or does it utilize such advertisements to proverbally "stick it to the man," using them to depict how awful they are. It's troubling issue, one that is not easily addressed. Of course, when you address cinema as an economic enterprise, it's easy to look at the film, distributed by 20th Century Fox and DreamWorks, and realize that companies such as Coca-Cola and McDonalds work through them to get to people. So, is the film an embodiment of what it so scarily depicts? It's extremely difficult to say, because while one can see cinema as nothing more than an economic enterprise, there are other ideological perspectives one can adopt when approaching cinema, taking into account aesthetic and artistic value rather than seeing everything as a matter of political economy.

I think it's too simple a summation to blindly allign oneself with one side of the issue because of the many potential factors involved. As I have attempted describe in my previous post, interpretting images is a highly complicated action that involves so many potential contributing and confounding factors. I acknowledge the political economy approach to media studies and the power capitalistic creations of the market and their way reducing every person in society to a consumer, yet I cannot help but advocate a slightly more positive approach to art and human thought. If one is exclusively to adopt the approach of political economy to media, than that person is cutting her or himself off from other ways of acknowledging the problem. From that perspective, Minority Report is just another slave to the system; but then again what isn't? The makers of the film may think that it's doing a good, but in the end it's merely recycling the problem and enhancing it, which again goes back to the political economy approach of viewing people as consumer subjects that are essentially hopeless. Therefore, any act we do to work within these massive systems of the corporations that run the "free" market to turn their own elements against them is just playing into them further.

I think this discussion is particularly relevant in discussing the validity of the internet as a credible form of writing and communication, as I mentioned in my post on blogging earlier this week. A great deal of material on the internet is useless, inconsequential, and an embodiment of what's wrong with the medium itself. However, regarding the blogging community, I can name several bloggers who don't allow themselves to fall victim to the system and thereby use the system for good. I'd like to think that I am attempting to do this as well by offering a serious approach to cinema and communication studies. I acknowledge that what I do isn't revolutionary, but in interacting with other bloggers fighting for a good cause, we are using blogs to their potential of discussing issues that are relevant and enriching to individual perspectives. Now the hopeless person, one that sees the problem of our poltical economy and sees humans beings in a hole, would say that such a cause is useless. Yes, we can all fight the pressures of the corporate system by boycotting something or refusing to by anything brand name, and I'm sure it would make people feel good. But one of the best ways to reach people is to work within such systems and attempt to change them from the inside.

Films are certainly a huge economic enterprise, but should we dismiss them on those grounds? Is it not possible to use the elements of an unacceptable system to in a sense comment on it and potentially reach the people that it manipulates? Call me an optimist, but I think so. Keep in mind that Minority Report is a rare example. Other films that feature "clever" pop culture references to advertising agencies such as Shrek (2001) are in a whole different arena and would be what I consider shameless product placement advocates masquerading as witty pop culture references. Minority Report, on the other hand, is an intelligent commentary.

I'm not hearing any of the arguments claiming that "Steven Spielberg has so much money, he didn't need to have product placement in the film," or that studios are just scraping for more ways to make money. First off, no one is in a riteous position to dictate what others should be doing with their money. Also, to say that the almighty viewer and/or critic is excused of playing into these systems is somewhat hypocritical considering that many of us "play the game" in some form or another. It's unavoidable. I've often said that the image/viewer relationship often breeds the notion that the viewer, as a voyeur, is privelaged to observe the images and be "apart" from them. She or he is in a position of omnicient authority as the see-er rather than the seen, as if excused from the whole meaning making process that requires the viewer's participation. The point is that we are all walking advertisements in some form or another. So to try to make a moral or ethical case against the filmmaker or the studio is a mislead, idealistic idea that simply doesn't work. We need to consider the political and economic environment, definitely, but we cannot let such factors cloud our interpretation of the text itself. I feel that using such advertising agencies was a conscious, deliberate choice - agree or disagree with it - and a way for those who use that system to jab at it in subtle ways. Simply observing the film's marketing campaign is nice evidence of this. The film was marketted as a macho action film, when in fact it's nothing of the sort. The studio buys into its own fantasy, and Spielberg and his crew in the process have used its elements to their advantage and made a good film with a huge budget, something quite rare these days.

Think about the problem we would face if we are to turn our heads to advertising in cinema. I'll use the example of the list of companies I named above: Lexus, Aquafina, Guiness, The Gap. By merely mentioning these titles, I am suggesting their products, but am I endorsing them? By today's standards, yes I am. So what do I do about it? Do I say, "several big corporate juggernauts" rather than naming them? Because it seems to me that by not naming them I am still bowing to their power. By naming products themselves, products known to you and me, it forges a relationship and an importance in the narrative. I don't think if the film was set 300 years in the future that they would be using these companies. Spielberg wants to forge a world similar to our own; he wants to create our world. Acknowledging that product placement is the new standard of advertising that is giving way to this particular future where personalized images jump out at you, he strategically utilized it to forward his disdain for it. Making up advertisers to front this brutal depiction of a very real future would seem like shortchanging the relevance of the theme.

Minority Report speaks to the increasingly commodified notion of culture and society that we are coming to possess. Apart from being a celebration of classical film style and a amazingly balanced viewing experience, part of its storytelling is precisely that world that is just in the background. It being in the background is the most disturbing aspect of it. With this film, Spielberg's vision of the future and the consumer culture is not something that he pushes or really hits home in terms of the plot; but by being relegated to the background of the plot, he makes it a huge element of the storytelling, as it is the background that puts the foreground of the plot into perspective and gives it meaning. This consumer culture is instead subtly worked into every aspect of each character's life without him or her - or even the audience - knowing it. And that's why the film is so brilliant. It depicts this world almost nonchalantly by not explicitly calling attention to these details, in so doing making it more relevant and (strangely) significant.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Breaking Down Film Language

[The following argument is a broad encapsulation of ideas that require greater exploration, consideration, and scrutiny. I don't propose to possess the key to challenging our interpretive sensibilities or comprehending stimuli, but it's a place to start. I'm sure there is much I have left out, as this was a sort of "stream of conscious" experiment, so feel free to challenge, expand upon, or downright call me out on anything. Again, I stress that this is a broad overview of some of the introductory concepts of visuality and language. I steered clear of dropping names and citations, as it would have become too cluttered. So here are a list of scholars and thinkers who I credit for allowing me to think about such concepts. They are Deleuze, Metz, Barthes, Thayer, Berger, McLuhan, Ong, Burke, Mitchell, Messaris, Bordwell.]

As terms such as "media literacy" are routinely being pushed down our throats, now is as relevant a time as any for a greater discussion of the notion of "film language." Some accept the term without question, and I would argue that such a mindset can be incredibly damaging in the increasingly visually culture of which us internet users are now apart, and most other people for that matter. Of course, saying that visuality is replacing textuality is perhaps too broad a claim to make. However, a rigorous review of that claim and its potential implications reveals a greater discussion about language and images that is currently only being considered in the academic realm, but is even rather spare there. Just thinking about language and images as systems of representation inevitably brings to mind their relationship, one that we quickly realize is too problematic to simply accept without questioning. These very issues are at the center of cinema studies and criticism and they are a great focus of what constitutes our social environment and ability to interpret anything at all, which is why it is so crucial to consider them no matter how frustrating it may be.

How do images work? Certainly, the answer to that question depends on which of the various disciplines and divisions amongst those disciplines to which one subscribes, because, ultimately, a broadly stated question like that boils down to ideology. Some attempt to study the mechanics of images (how they are produced, the elements within them and how they are positioned, etc.), whereas others would claim that interpreting images is more reliant on social environment; still others claim that its narrative familiarity and being able to accept conventions of narratives and certain images associated with particular narrative styles or genres. While there are many possible ways of answering the question, there is no one right answer. Because, quite honestly, images are incredibly complicated in how they create meaning. There are surely components that are cognitive, social, phisiological, linguistic, and who knows what else. It would be impossible to treat this situation in a vacuum because, like anything else related to development and functioning as a member of society, perceiving, interpeting, and understanding a given stimulus requires the interaction of many different things, not the least of which is language.

A fully functioning human being can (in very simple terms) see. Systems of communication such as language allows us to break down what we see, to understand it in a certain way, and have it make sense. Therefore, our social, economic, and cultural institutions are constructed around and according to the principles that language deleneates, the most prominent of which is separation and categorization. But language came from somewhere, and our ability to form it at all is rooted in the brain, obviously. But given that we know so little about the brain, it is more important to analyze the systems through which all stimuli are interpreted and understood, which are rooted in communication and language. But the important thing to note is that human beins were born seeing before talking or communicating. Now, this is a bit different since all of us are born into this great web of discourse. But for the sake of making my point, I am discussing "the caveman." Since human beings could see before communicating, the need to communicate arose from the ability to see and interact with the visible and aural world. It is no surprise then that the roots of language, for thousands of years, are in oral traditions; sounds, noises. We see the beginnings of systematically interpreting signals. Noises became more refined, more accessible over time and oral culture began to take shape. All of this communicating was a way for humans to make sense and order of the stimuli to which they were exposed. Whether the need for order was intrinsic or resulted from language is another argument entirely.

From there, oral became literate, and when the written word was used, represented the oral aspect of language in visual form. A word somehow exists in a more permenant way that the sound of one doesn't, which is more dependent on memory of that sound. So as we understand language as a visual and oral representation of systematic categorization and translating the world into forms, technology further developed and gave us the printing press, which represented the visual emobodiment of the visual aspect of language. As cultures became literate, oral traditions never died. That's why it's so important to understand that media and technologies, even today, emerge from previous knowledge of existing media and technologies. From orality came literacy. From literacy came textuality. And with electronic media, from textuality came visuality. The important thing about these four components is that although they represent a progression, each one depends upon the other in order to exist in any kind of meaningful way.

Now that I've covered human communication over thousands of years in one paragraph (well, maybe not all of it), we can now explore the relationship of visuality to how we currently constitute time and space and make sense of "the world outside." Since I don't want to write a dissertation here, I'll limit visuality (for the time being) to cinema. How does cinema work? Certainly, in a narrative sense, it has emerged from the traditions of literature and theatre, both of which are heabily influenced by orality, literacy, and textuality in different ways. Many spectators had an understanding of storytelling based on those media and were able to interpret film images, most of which were based on the theatre. The camera rarely moved, rarely edited, and demanded little from the audience in terms of interpretting a space and time. As it has evolved, however, cinema has progressed in an infinite amount of ways, at least regarding the relationship of the image and the spectator. This has resulted from the advancement of many electronic media and technologies, for sure, but also from a greater knowledge of the practices of cinema, of positioning elements compositionally within a frame and allowing the spectator to understand the narrative. It should be noted that even non-narrative films borrow heavily from narrative tradition.

When current norms are challenged and stretched, it's often met with skepticism by some and embrace by others. Gradually, audience expectation in terms of style and narrative techniques were stretched and whole genres became associated with the visual aspect of cinema, such as the film noir. But more to the point, how do we interpret images? Quiet simply, interpreting an image is very much like interpreting letters and words. The elements are different, of course, but seeing images in the context of a narrative is a similar system of representation to language. However, I would argue that even though cinema and visuality is informed and made possible by literacy and textuality in many ways, they can and do function differently, and are an entire different system of representation altogether. Of course, terms like "new," "original," and "different" are being used here not in the sense something being entirely new, because that's not possible. What I mean by new or different is stretching the capacity of understanding that previous conventions of that understanding allow, thus forming a new understanding.

With language, you have a series of pre-determined elements with which to work. In terms of the English language, you have 26 elements, or 26 digits. With those 26 components must one communicate thought. Being that language is a symbol system and exists for the purpose of interpreting outside stimuli, it is based on the idea of seeing. But, language also structures experience so greatly that it by and large determines what we see to the point that so much of the physical matter we see is a direct result of media, technology, and literacy in general. Taking this into the spectrum of cinema, the spectator familiarizes him or herself with the images based on how images are typically presented, a knowledge that influences how not only they are seen, but how they are created. There is most definitely a strong relationship between spectator and image maker; they exist because of the relationship they share and are defined by each other. Therefore, the images of a film are very much made to embody a system of representation very similar to a language, but the components that make an image, while limited to an understanding of language and communication, can indeed transcend it. There is no end to the componenets that make up an image. Only through our understanding of language, one that we really cannot escape, do we understand and make sense of these possibilities. Like all other aspects of the stimuli we comprehend visually, cinema images are broken down, categorized for comprehensive consumption. They do not intrinsically exist as such, however; something that language does. So, while images of cinema may be byproducts of language and literacy, they encompass a much greater way of seeing, comprehending, and experiencing. With the emergence of "new" images, we can aesthetically consume images and narratives in new and challenging ways, transcending the confines of language to the greatest extent that we can. Ideas represented by language become abstract, unintelligible by way of the old way of seeing, thus moving into a new realm.

Only if we let go of this ideal of film language or media literacy can we come to embrace such new ways of perceiving, interpreting and understanding images, feelings, and thoughts. While our visual media and technologies will never be totally removed from literacy and textuality, they can transcend their current positioning and represent new ideas, new feelings, and new images.