Monday, April 30, 2007

The Return of Roger Ebert!

After reading the latest over at Observations on film art and Film Art, I am compelled to reflect, albeit briefly, on Roger Ebert's return to the public sphere over the weekend.

Like so many young film lovers, I first discovered my love of film criticism through Roger's engaging and intelligent movie reviews. His work showed me that film criticism is important, that it can be the source of great feeling and knowledge of cinema, and that criticism is essential to the advancement of cinema as an art form. It is a necesary companion to the experience of watching films for those who care deeply about films. When I heard of complications with his salivary cancer and his several surgeries, I was (like many) disheartened and knew that his absence in the film criticism circuit would affect it greatly, not to mention my own experience in it. For years, Roger's reviews (published weekly on fridays) were a staple in my film education and a reflection of my own cinematic pleasures. I sometimes agree with him, sometimes disagree with him. There have been times when I have felt like just Roger and I were the only two people who understood the deeply-felt emotions of movies pegged bad by many critics and viewers. Other times, I have wondered if we even saw the same movie. But over the years, my visits to his website to read his reviews - both new and old - has been as constant and enriching as my experience with cinema itself.

While I continued to visit over the past year, on Fridays and all other days, it hasn't been the same without him. Nevertheless, I continued to read his archived reviews and his great movies column, which is an endless resource for film scholars and lovers alike. But I have always wondered if and when we would see the return of Roger Ebert. Over the past week, Jim Emerson has posted a few pictures of Roger (who unmistakably looks to be in high spirits) at the festival with his wife, Chaz. It's wonderful to see him active again and attending his film festival. After reading the various reports by Jim, David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, and others, I have vowed to one day attend this festival. It seems like a wonderful event at which serious film lovers and scholars can congregate, discuss, and share the experience of watching a true variety of films. Its intimate atmosphere of film scholars and lovers who are deeply informed about cinema, yet receptive toward it as an art form gives it a different quality than most other festivals I read about. In short, it is a reflection of Roger Ebert's unique status and position in film criticism. And I am more than happy to see that position filled again, if not through his reviews, but through the pictures and reports of the festival. It has given me great hope as I continue perusing his archives of reviews, awaiting the Friday (hopefully) someday soon when I see the words "By Roger Ebert" on the front page of

"Summer of the Sequel"... again

Reading the countless entertainment reports previewing the summer box office is just as mind-numbing as the movies they claim to be. These "insider previews" are often hugely hypocritical in their predicatably jaunty critiques of how lazy Hollwyood is, pointing to all the summer sequels as evidence of the creative exodus that is always seemingly looming on the horizon. Amazing how the end is always so near, isn't it?

Let it be known, I will be seeing many of the major sequels released this summer, and I have no qualms about doing so. Will some of them be disappointing? Almost certainly. But if there's one thing I've learned over the past few summers at the movies, it's that a good movie - or even a great movie - can come in any form and in the most unexpected places. (In coming entries, I will explain why I believe some recent sequels are very good, even superb, e.g. Batman Begins, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Spiderman 2.) Nevertheless, some "serious" film lovers would claim that in seeing these Hollywood films and sequels, I am betraying my love of cinema. According to these elitists, the only movies worth seeing are independent and foreign films, many of which are very good. But I think this attitude of film going is quite damaging to someone interested in cinema.

I routinely encourage people to take chances on movies of all kinds and I would agree that too many film goers are stuck on the familiar, cliche conventions of Hollywood fare. But to align oneself on the opposite extreme of the mainstream is arguably just as foolish and close-minded as passive summer sequel film goers. Often, such viewers are equally predictable, comfortably fitting the alternative niche of dominant modes of filmmaking, taking to anything that's "new" and "different" from the pre-determined safe styles of Hollywood films. As a movie lover and critic, I try to see as many films as I can from varying economic, cultural, and social spheres. I am not of the belief that because a story or film treads on established grounds that it's not worth seeing, or for that matter that sequels are inherently a waste of time. Obviously, if one must be selective regarding what she or he sees, sequels or big budget blockbusters in general are obviously not the best selections for someone who loves the art of cinema. But that does not mean that they are fundamentally bad by definition. Vowing not to see a seuqel on the grounds of it being a studio cash-in or a slam to the credibility of film as art is a particularly foolish notion in my mind, as it is almost impossible to separate art from commerce in matters of cinema. Now, I also do not propose that film lovers should be bullied by "the bludgeon blows of mass marketing" (to quote the great Roger Ebert) and onlysee big budget fare or summer sequels either. For me, it's all about balance.

Regarding my own film viewing thus far in 2007, while I tend to get a slow start into the cinematic year, this is the first year in recent memory in which I haven't seen a theatrical release in its first four months. This accounts for why I haven't kept up with the film reviews I intended to write over these months. As I have been working on two substantial research projects (as mentioned here), it's been very difficult to write about matters not related to them. But I'm coming down the home stretch, and in just a few weeks I hope to change direction by providing reviews and commentaries of Hollywood's summer film output, including Spiderman 3, Shrek the Third, Ratatouille, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Stardust, Transformers, The Bourne Ultimatum, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I also plan to review other projects I've been looking forward to, notably Rescue Dawn, The Ten, and possibly Black Sheep. (Note: For an excellent short preview of the true variety of films coming out this summer, check out Scott Balcerzak's recent blog at Dr. Mabuse's Kaleidoscope.)

I think it's important to see a wide variety of films, which is why I must be choosy when it comes to which sequels to attend, which smaller films to see, and so on. When it comes to sequels, these decisions are informed by my experience with previous entries in the film franchise. For example, while I do not love either of the previous "Pirates" films, I liked them enough (each in its own way) to warrant my anticipation of the third film. While I thought Shrek was a very good film, its first sequel lacked its freshness and revealed itself as not so much a movie but a product. While I suspect that Shrek the Third may be more in line with the second film than the first, I will see it based on my interest in the franchise and the small desire that it may be different. My future with the franchise depends on this film, however. If it sinks, so too does my desire for any more "Shrek" films. I could go on about all of the summer sequels, but the point to take from this is that each of the sequels I see is preceded by film/s that are interesting and good. And based on the previous output of" Shrek", "Pirates", The "Bourne" films, "Harry Potter", and "Spiderman" franchises, they each warrant sequel viewing this summer.

I do wish that significantly less coverage was awarded in the mainstream journalistic circuit to the mega-budgeted movies and that more attention was given to smaller, quirckier films, but I suppose smaller films don't pay the bills like Disney's "Pirates" film do. Nevertheless, some of these sequels and big budget movies may be genuinely good. I have learned a while ago that sequels (especially to mediocre films) can be very worth the time and very relevant. Having just completed a paper on the hero myth in post-9/11 American cinema, I can attest from my application of a mythical framework to cinema (something I was not previously accustomed to at all) that many of these big budget movies and sequels are worth seeing and represent revealing reflections and projections of our concerns, feelings, and fantasies as a culture. This is part of the reason why cinema is so important as an aesthetic medium. There are so many ways to consume it as movie lovers, critics, and average film goers.

If one truly loves cinema as an art form and medium for communication, then refusing to acknowledge or partake in particular spheres of it severely undermines that love. Capitalism, consumerism, and political economy are part of cinema as an institution in culture and human society. This much is undeniable. As I mentioned in a previous post, there are innumerable possibilities with regard to criticism of cinema. Why must we limit ourselves as critics? As for those of us who are movie lovers in general, balance is key.

On that note, as the air outside heats up and the days grow longer, may your time in the cooled darkness of movie auditoriums this summer be enjoyable and well-spent.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Thinking in Dualities: Media, Social Space, and Cinema

Although I have touted off about cinematic form and style for months here on this blog, seemingly ignorant to issues of narrative structure and design, I would like to set the record straight. I often emphasize my belief in what can simply be deemed a "form over content" approach to media and cinema mostly out of reaction to what seems to be an overwhelming emphasis on narrative and the medium's relation to it. It is true that I favor form over content insofar that the manner in which a story is told greatly influences the nature of the story itself. Emphasizing the medium and its relationship to content, in my opinion, takes into account a far greater capacity for understanding the relationships between storyteller and audience, between image and spectator. But since I often speak of it as such an extreme alternative to the dominant tradition of favoring story first, my argument may come across too harshly, as if story/content is irrelevant. I do not believe this to be true, nor do I hope to sustain the split between the two (style and substance, medium and message). My belief is that they are inseperable, impossible to discuss individually without accounting for the other. The two act upon each other; therefore, discussing the "identity" of each is inconsequential. I do however believe that analysis of storytelling should be just that. Often, storytelling is confused with story. Even when the two are not confused, narrative studies tend to focus exclusively on story rather than storytelling. Which would explain the current focus in film criticism on story, rather than the telling. It is my belief that an approach geared towards the "telling" end of it would yield a far greater understanding of storytelling and cinema as a medium.

One of the reasons why it remains such a struggle to define the medium is that cinema in its very form is a culmination and coming together of so many technologies and narrative media, which is why a) it's often not viewed in the same respectful light as other more artistic media (this is greatly helped by the fact that filmmaking a strong commercial enterprise), and b) we do not have the appropriate terms with which to define what it is, as I have pointed out before. Cinema has been with us for more than a century now and it too has grown as a medium, along with progressing other forms of media, which have since influenced it. It has ushered us into a new realm of the electronic age, an age of visuality. Now, as the analog becomes replaced with the digital, it is more relevant than ever to challenge and question our conceptions of what cinema is and what storytelling is in the digital age.

I resist calling it a revolution because, like all other things, it is a logical "next step" to the progression of electronic media. Media are and always have been "extensions of ourselves," to quote Marshall McLuhan, and digital images are the next logical step in the evolution of media and technology. but let us not forget that we constitute and shape such media and technologies according to our understandings of them. In his book, Exploring Technology and Social Space, J. MacGregor Wise points out the tendencies to see these matters in dualities, to see humans as being separate from media. But he observes that such a tendency, which spawns notions of technological determinism and social determinism, is more reflective of socialized modern thought than of the media we claim to critique. The problem is in the separation. These media constitute our very existence, our relationships to the world outside and to each other. They dictate the course of social institutions and cultural progress. And let us also note that they didn't just emerge from anywhere. One could claim that such technologies can be traced to the birth of produced electricity or a particular scientific discovery, but each one of those was preceded by concepts and inventions from which others have worked. We like to think of language and technology as being so separate, but they define each other.

The point I am attempting to make is that if we focus on ourselves, i.e. "humankind", and then position technology and media in relation to us, cultural ideology is bound to be locked into dualities of thinking of technology as "other" and seemingly less important. This would be much like focusing on story in attempting to understand storytelling. It creates a linear system within which to work that never really addresses the importance of storytelling and the simplifications of merely focusing on story. However, if we emphasize the "telling," or the media and technologies, and understand "ourselves" in relation to it, we open a whole new realm of thought; one not bound to a single plane of thought but many. Issues of gender, race, media, and culture will be forefronted and understood differently in how they influence each other and are constitutive of human lived experience and ideology.

Cinema, as stated above, is an important medium from an artistic, narrative, social, and technological standpoint. It is the coming together or the collision of so many media (not to mention language and technology) to which its schools of criticism must be attuned in order to provide a criticism it deserves. I may be optimistic in claiming that criticism is important because it provides the bearings through which spectators are introduced the studies of the medium and its other associations. It is utterly important that we as critics address the more crucial issues of media, social space, and ideology that are projected and reflected in cinema. There are so many different avenues through which critics can do this. But they key is interdisciplinarity. Communication studies enhance cinema studies in every regard and vice versa. Within these and other disciplines, such as psychology, philosophy, anthropology exist many other critical perspectives that are grasped differently depending on the discipline: gender studies, media and cultural studies, interpersonal relations, cognitive theory, power relations.... the list goes on and on. I cannot even begin to penetrate the surfaces of the many disciplines and areas of study that are relevant in matters of technology and social space. But the key is that they interact with one another, because only with a truly interdisciplinary approach will we yield new paradigms and planes of understanding, which may therefore shape a greater perspective of media and social relations.

While I would hold that this remains true for the advancement of any of the above specialties and disciplines of study, cinema is at a unique juncture because it precisely is a medium of many media, a narrative of many narratives, an image of many images.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Tarantino Discourse

On the film blogging circuit, I have encountered a number of great discussions/commentaries about Quentin Tarantino and his new film Death Proof. Though I have yet to see Grindhouse, I am deeply familiar with the cinema of Quentin Tarantino. And since the recent discussion about his artistic merit explores many larger and necessary issues in cinema studies that desperately require attention - such as originality and reflexivity in cinema - I was compelled to engage some of these perspectives.

Over at The House Next Door, Matt Zoller Seitz and Keith Uhlrich have put together another wonderful point/counter-point about Quentin Tarantino, discussing everything from his notions of violence, East vs. West narrative structure, and his reflexive quotatations of the films and film styles that influence his films. One of the most interesting segments of the article is Seitz's comparison of Tarantino to The Simpsons:

"My daughter is really into The Simpsons, which in a strange way I think has a sensibility that's closer to Tarantino's than that of any single filmmaker. There's a scene in this one episode where the Schwarzenegger muscleman character, Ranier Wolfcastle, appears on Springfield Squares, and they introduce him by having him talk about his latest film, which is about a businessman who goes to his old college where his son is now enrolled and is horrified to discover that his son has become a nerd. The host, the newscaster Kent Brockman, says, "That sounds very funny," and Wolfcastle says, "It's not a comedy." My daughter laughed at that, then she said, "Dad, why is that funny?" And I thought: Wow, now I've got to explain seven or eight different things to her. I've got to explain Hollywood Squares, the idea of Kent Brockman the newscaster doubling as a game show host, the whole subgenre of back-to-college movies and the obsession with nerds in the 1980s, and the entire career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, just for that one joke. The Simpsons is probably going to outlast all of the things it's making fun of, and in making fun of them, it's going to preserve their memory.

I wonder if Tarantino's movies aren't serving a similar function. He's like a one-man Smithsonian of schlock. The Kill Bill movies in particular are like a widescreen pop culture equivalent of T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," a museum of 20th century genres. For a lot of college students studying English literature, their exposure to certain early and pre-20th century events, ideas and works of literature comes about because they had to read "The Waste Land" and research its footnotes, not because of initial exposure to that which inspired Eliot."

Matt raises a keen point in highlighting the spectator's relationship to Tarantino's films and influences. While this issue may be getting away from focusing on the images of the films themselves, but it's interesting to note that Tarantino's legion of fans by and large understand the cinema and culture that Tarantino evokes in his movies through Tarantino's presentation of them. Obviously, not all of Tarantino's admirers fall into this category, but I have no doubt that Tarantino's status over the last 15 years as a bona fide auteur (one of a very chosen few to emerge within that time span) is evidence of his appeal to the new generation of "independent" filmmakers and film viewers. However, I sense a great disconnect between Tarantino's passionate reconstruction of these cultures of cinema's past and the manner in which that is interpreted by his admirers. Which is why the Simpsons comparison strikes such a strong chord.

Even though Tarantino has only made a handful of feature films, his filmmaking career is now taking shape to the extent that there appears to be an growing divide between early Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and to an extent, Jackie Brown), and present Tarantino (Death Proof, Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2). While early Tarantino no doubt was influenced heavily by Scorsese, Allen, DePalma, Leone, Asian Cinema, etc., such influences were less reflexive and less an active part of his filmmaking in the sense that they are much more so now. For all their style, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are strongly character-based. They seemed fresh and vibrant when they were received because Tarantino made them at a time in which more films were playing it safe and were nicely pre-packaged into categories such as "blockbusters" or "serious adult dramas." Tarantino is often thought of as one of the auteurs to kick-start the independent scene, and these two films could not have been more appropriate, offering a fusion of various influences, overt expression of style, and subtle interaction and compositions.

His newer films, some would argue, feature a more open embrace of these influences. Kill Bill and (from what it seems) Death Proof are films in which he makes the viewers blatantly aware of such styles and influences. This has spurned a recent discourse about Tarantino focused on an idea of originality and how artistically valid these films are. How can a filmmaker that makes his own work (at least recently) so blatantly full of homages to other films call himself original? It's a tough issue, one that needs to be talked about more in-depth on a critical level. Getting back to Matt Zoller Seitz's comments, I would argue that viewers who are deeply aware of cinema history and its practices are more likely to understand Tarantino's work not so much as empty pastiche of such traditions but deeply imbued with a new aesthetic. Viewers less aware of cinema history and studies may be more proned to appreciate Tarantino purely on a topical, stylistic level. But I would argue that there is much more going on in his films that would seem obvious to your "typical" critic.

David Bordwell recently wrote about the nature of pastiche and plagiarism, essentially claiming that when it comes to moving images and narrative conventions, it's hard to pinpoint plagiarism. While this doesn't directly apply to Tarantino, who reflexively calls attention to his influences, it does bring up a larger issue of coming up with new images and whether pastiche efforts like Tarantino's Kill Bill, for example, offer anything unique to itself. But what film is capable of living up to the idealistic notion of originality that some viewers expect of films or narratives? Even the most seemingly original work is inspired in some form or another by previous films. No film exists in a vacuum. Images are made based on what a filmmakers has already seen. A good filmmaker has a keen knowledge of the images previous films conjured, yet can also work within such stylistic and narrative devices to expand upon them and form new styles and images. Tarantino recognizes this, and he offers a unique perspective to reflexivity in cinema.

Another point/counterpoint discussion touching on these very ideas is posted at Kim Morgan's blog, Sunset Gun. In her defense of Tarantino, in particular his Kill Bill films, Kim offers a unique perspective:

"He's not just cataloging favorite scenes from Asian cinema, spaghetti Westerns, Brian De Palma, giallo, exploitation and redneck road movies; he's actually building on them, mixing the aesthetic and thematic elements into a feverish work of grand geek opera. And he knows we know that. He's not, like some other "inspired" filmmakers, simply copying Terrence Malick or Martin Scorsese or Robert Altman; he's tweaking and amplifying what he truly knows of life -- movies -- and Tarantino is a fan of cinema from the Grindhouse to the Art House. In that sense, he's a lot like Godard. And, really, a lot like Woody Allen, who also riffs on his influences (Stardust Memories? Fellini, anyone?) and continually chats about movies and music throughout his films. Maybe April March's "Chick Habit" (used at the end of Death Proof) isn't as classy as George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" (used in Allen's Manhattan) but ... oh what the hell, the brilliant Serge Gainsbourg wrote it, so maybe it is. I truly believe Tarantino is (ahem) "shedding light on the human condition" via Kill Bill and Death Proof in that the human condition is not only comprised of what is real but what we fantasize about. When I watched Uma break through that grave in Kill Bill, I was significantly moved. And when Traci Thoms turned her Challenger around to pursue a murderous Kurt Russell, I was inspired. Why is that response, even in the most fantastical of scenes, any less meaningful than watching a movie where someone does something mature and responsible?"

She goes on to add the following:

"Amidst all the Sergio Leone, Kinji Fukasaku, "Twisted Nerve" ecstatic beauty of "Kill Bill," there's real emotion there. And, as much as he riffs and synthesizes and fetishizes, I can safely say I've never seen a movie like "Kill Bill." He makes these psychotropic mélanges all his own."

I'm inclined to agree with her insofar that with these films, Tarantino is essentially breathing life into the influences he's evoking. Kim's comments hint at deeper issues of how viewers familiarize themselves with images or narrative conventions. This issue of originality seems to be processed on a very topical level. If we are focused only on visual trademarks and details, we may be preventing ourselves from feeling what they are doing. Like I mentioned previously, only those who understand cinema history and these past styles deeply enough are aware that Tarantino is not simply replicating them. The temptation with Tarantino's more recent films such as Kill Bill, as they are obviously made as tributes to old filmmaking styles and traditions, is to interpret them exclusively within that pastiche mold. If we do this, we are greatly limiting our ability to see beyond the surface details of the intentionally familiar images. That is the danger of viewing films like this and it is also the danger of making them. But I believe that Tarantino is more than just a one-trick pony and that within these familiar stylistic frameworks he is allowing older styles to grow and interact differently, thus yielding a new aesthetic style and a new way of seeing experiencing cinema.

Tarantino is still experimenting with composition, violence, and character interaction in his recent films; only now he is self-awarely operating within narrative and stylistic frameworks of cinema's past. But there is much more going on than a simple hop-scotch from one cinematic style to the next. These styles push up against each other in their odd juxtapositions, exploiting the beauties, artifices, and nuances of them. This is only possible through understanding them in relation to each other, as well as in relation to an acknowledged present in which these styles no longer exist. By this I mean that Tarantino knows that the spectator is aware that these conventions are no longer in practice. By putting them back into practice, he is framing more contrasts and relationships to how viewers understanding certain images, styles, and conventions.

Any filmmaker can do this can call it artistic, but Tarantino's unique style is in how he allows the artifice of these styles to yield sensation that is simultaneously real and superficial. He clearly loves cinematic storytelling, enough to show off its artificial nature. In so doing, he also taps into the beauty and necessity of not just narrative, but cinematic narrative. His reflexive playfulness with cinematic style then serves as a springboard for exploring cinematic absolutes such as pleasure, violence, revenge, love, and sensation in ways exclusive to cinema.

Digital cinema: the debate rages on... Or is it just beginning?

I recently made the distinction between "film" and "cinema" and observed why these terms are crucial to how we constitute, understand, and build upon the medium. David Bordwell brings these issues to light in the latest entry on his blog by mapping a cinema in relation to its influences. He points to the fact that cinema is a fusion of various media, technologies, and aesthetic traditions, which in turn provides a wide number of theoretical frameworks through which to engage it. Of particular interest to me in relation to my recent discussion of film versus cinema is Bordwell's mention of the photographic properties of cinema and how they have influenced our notions of what cinema is:

"The great film theorist André Bazin claimed that cinema’s photographic basis made it very different from the more traditional arts. By recording the world in all its immediacy, giving us slices of actual space and true duration, film puts us in a position to discover our link to primordial experience. Other arts rely on conventions, Bazin thought, but cinema goes beyond convention to reacquaint us with the concrete reality that surrounds us but that we seldom notice.

I think that Bazin’s idea lies behind our sense that long takes and a static camera are putting us in touch with reality and inviting us to notice details that we usually overlook in everyday life. (I try out this line of argument in relation to the tactility of Sátántangó here.) Moreover, you can argue that in treating cinema as a photographic art the filmmaker surrenders a degree of control over what we see and how we see it. Bazin made this claim about the Italian neorealists and Jean Renoir: creation becomes a matter of an existential collaboration between humans and the concrete world around us.

An example I used in my book Figures Traced in Light pertains to a moment in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Summer at Grandfather’s, when a tiny toy fan falls between railroad tracks as a locomotive roars past. The fan’s blades stop, then spin in the opposite direction as the train thunders over it. The blades reverse again when the train has gone. (This detail might not be visible on video.) Did Hou know how the fan would behave? Isn’t it just as likely he simply discovered it after the fact, making his shot a kind of experiment in the behavior of things? Conceived as a species of photography, cinema can yield visual discoveries that no other art can.

Interestingly, cinema didn’t have to be photographic. Many early experiments with moving images were made with strips of drawings, such as the Belgian Émile Reynaud’s Praxinoscope. You can argue that recording glimpses of the world photographically simply proved to be the easiest way to obtain a long string of slightly different images that could generate the illusion of movement. Some filmmakers, such as George Lucas, hold that filmmakers are no longer tied to photography, and that the digital revolution will allow cinema to finally realize itself as a painterly art."

This last paragraph is particularly resonant because it dares to suggest that perhaps cinema is not interchangeable with film. Perhaps we have been using the wrong terms to discuss cinema, in so doing shaping a very limited approach to what constitutes a moving image. Somewhere along the line, it seems as though with use of terms like film we have conditioned ourselves to understand cinema exclusively in terms of photographic. As Bordwell mentions, there is a myriad of narrative conventions, technologies, and media that have contributed to the birth of cinema. Why must our understanding of cinema be limited to what can be captured with a camera?

The emergence of digital technology directly calls into question what constitutes a produced moving image. Interestingly, we often refer to digital cinema as digital effects in movies, in which a digital component is added to the photographically captured image. The digital is often understand within a culturally cemented understanding of cinema as film in that digital technology is often understood in relation to photographically captured images. But what constitutes a pure photographed image? While a camera captures "actual" reality, that reality is represented on film differently than it may be perceived by the eye. While the camera is an obvious technological extension of phisiological components of the eye and the brain, as is all of cinema, but what can we account for as truly being "real." Digital images on film represent a component of cinema outside of "film," yet it is often comfortably situated amongst our ideology of cinema as film. Therefore, digital images are meant to "stand-in" for the real; they synthetically add elements to a composition that the camera did not capture, but they are still positioned as such. Shilo T. McLean elucidates these matters in the essential book, Digital Storytelling: The Narrative Power of Visual Effects in Film.

But I am particularly interested in an oft-forgotten (and arguably more important) aspect of the digital cinema: digital video. With digital video, you have a digital treatment of a medium that was dominated with a photgraphic understanding of the analog. Therefore, digital video has its roots in film, only it represents a different form of photographically capturing an image. Movement is captured, constructed, and presented differently, therefore relations of time are understood differently (since, according to Deleuze, space creates time, not the other way around) via new synaptic possibilities of presenting movement within a space as digital video enables. With digital video, then, we face a problematic issue of defining film or cinema and, more importantly, how those definitions greatly influence how we interpret the images it produces and understand the techologies through which such images are constructed. Of course, this is an oversimplified summation of concepts and analytical approaches that require far more in-depth examination. Nevertheless, this necesary overhaul of how we understand cinema begins with identifying the tensions within our current ideologies regarding the medium and recognizing the problem. We must first start by asking the question: what is cinema? Perhaps that is harder to answer than we think. And maybe we can't answer that question sufficiently because the tools with which we build our conceptions of cinema have constructed an ideology of cinema that ignores a great variety of other possibilities that would alter how we define the medium of cinema and how that medium grows.

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.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

A Month Without Movies

I'm about to do something I can't ever recall doing. As of tomorrow, I am officially taking one month off from seeing "movies for pleasure." I carefully worded that phrases within quotations because I will of course be watching films for the month of April and the early days of May. But that will be restricted to films I'll be analyzing for the two research projects I'm currently working on. I have a little less than a month to complete both of them, and starting Monday I will be moving into the next stage: writing, writing, writing. I've spent months reviewing literature, organizing ideas, and brainstorming. Now it is time to put these ideas into action and see where it takes me.

I mentioned in a previous post that I hope to continue updating this blog with rough sketches and ideas for my projects, and I fully intend to follow through with this. I will also be seeing my last "movie for pleasure" this evening (Grindhouse) and reviewing it within the next couple of days. I would also like to write a short piece on another film I recently watched (Dressed to Kill (1980)). But other than these two entries, this blog will be be concerned with two subjects: Myth and Jungian Archetypes in Contemporary American Cinema, and Digital Cinema and its relation to "Film Language." For the Myth in Cinematic Narrative project, I will be focusing a great deal of my anlysis on Batman Begins (2005), a film which I believe reflects a deeper struggle in its depiction of the hero myth and how we (the collective) relate to "the hero" in a post 9/11 America.

For my Digital Cinema / Film Language project, I will be writing a great deal about Miami Vice (2006), a film that has been written about quite extensively in the blogging realm, which has partly inspired my decision to focus my analysis on it. As many others have said, the film offers a wide variety of ideas and topics for discussion in relation to digital cinema, classicism, and visual narrative. And I hope to contribute to that larger discussion.

As always, I welcome any and all comments. With these topics, there are an infinite amount of places to go, and I would love to read about other individuals' perspective as I begin shaping my more focused research questions and intellectual puzzles. After May 7th, I anticipate moving on to reviewing more films and writing commentaries about topics other than digital cinema and hero narratives. But until then, this blog will be all about hero myths and digital dream-weaving in contemporary American cinema.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Film or Cinema?

Some would argue that words are just words and that we need not fret over specifics and details when it comes to defining concepts and objects. Others, myself included, would argue that words are just about all we have concerning our capacity to understand that which we see and provide meaning. Words may not be much more than the fundamental elements of the system of signification we know as language, but it is through that system that we are able to perceive and interpret lived experience and external stimuli in the way that we do. Language therefore both enables and limits lived experience as we know it. It mediates and forms our experiences, allowing for the existence of memory, problem-solving, technology, various media, and social institutions of all forms. Those in opposition to this viewpoint often cite that such an approach to communication puts no emphasis on the chemical components of perception, phisiological make-up of our bodies, and physical matter existing so as for us to perceive. My only response to this rebuttal is that while such things most certainly contribute to perception and relating to the world outside one's body, we can only understand them within language.

Analyzing the word choices within the practices of criticism describing the medium as either "film" or "cinema" reflects these larger issues of communication as well as how we collectively understand film/cinema as a medium and its capacities. By now, one can tell that on this blog I prefer to use the term "cinema" when discussing, film/cinema. However, the dominant word choice of these studies seems to be "film." One might ask, what's the difference? They mean the same thing, don't they? In general terms, yes. But in light of my recent post on forming new kinds of images in the digital age, I could not help but wonder whether film is the appropriate term for this discipline. Furthermore, I considered that perhaps why so many seem to be reluctant to embrace digital cinema/film is because "film" is such a common term for describing cinema.

I have observed that many film scholars and writers describe the digital age in cinema as a cheapening of the art, as if digital video and effects somehow represent everything that cinema is not. In his book, The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich offers a unique perspective to understanding the digital revolution that all of cinema finds itself in. He traces the history of cinema to animation, a narrative medium that never involved film. It was technically a digital medium, as opposed to analog. Manovich argues that medium of cinema is thus rooted in the digital, but not digital in the technological sense. Cinema was then born from the traditions of animation as a means of capturing motion, only it marked the beginning of photographically capturing images within a certain time and space.

The film/cinema relationship operates similarly to the square/rectangle relationship. Film is cinema, but cinema (in my view) is not necesarily film. The term "film" supposes that the means through which a moving image is presented is on film, meaning that the images were photographically captured by a camera from some moment in actual lived space and time. But now that cinema has technology evolved technologically over the last century, technological media have made it possible for cinema to return to the digital, as some films now aren't photographing something real, but are in a sense creating it. Herein lies the problems of definition. The logic of this definition of cinema "as film" doesn't hold up very well for a number of reasons. First, consider the home entertainment market of DVDs, movie downloads, and various other media for experiencing "films" outside the theater. Even if a film isn't shot digitally or employs digital effects, it is transfered digitally into other media so that it may be experienced outside the theater and on a television screen on a computer. "Film" leaves out the digital in many ways, whether that's digital effects or digital video.

Manovich argues that digital media will alter film/cinema significantly and that it may soon enter the realm of animation, which itself is something entirely different from the realm of film, because film requires that something be captured in "reality," after which it is manipulated to suit the means of a narrative. While Manovich's pinpointing of the cyclical track of cinema is fascinating, I find his understanding of digital cinema and film somewhat off the mark. Film/cinema, by its nature, is a manipulation. While digital cinema puts that manipulation into a different realm, one made up of graphics and pixels, I do not believe it compromises the integrity of the medium. But the medium is understood differently based on how it's defined. If one believes that film/cinema depends on capturing real movement and lived reality essentially, than digital cinema is a bastardization, no doubt. But I adopt the view that since cinema creates its own world rather than representing it (a Deleuzian idea, as mentioned in my previous post), therefore, the means by which its images are forged is not limited to what is captured photographically. Nevertheless, this debate is becoming more relevant as we push into the digital realm of cinema, which is why terms like "film" and "cinema" are utterly crucial, despite being seemingly arbitrary terms. However, what something is - in this case a medium - largely depends on how we understand it. How we term its principles and its categories to a large extent determines what that medium actually is. That is why I prefer to employ "cinema" as the term for describing this medium.

As I develop these ideas further for the purpose of one of my research projects, I will continue to work from these concepts and arguments over the course of the next month. This post only scratches the surface of the digital debate within cinema studies.