Saturday, May 1, 2010

A Cinema Exploded: Notes on the Development of Some Post-Cinematic Forms, Matthew Clayfield

In his 2003 Variety Cinema Militans Lecture, 'Toward a re-invention of cinema,' Peter Greenaway suggested that the cinema died almost twenty-five years ago, in 1983, with the introduction of the remote control "to the living rooms of the world" [1], a sentiment that, while delightfully provocative in and of itself, I'm not sure I completely agree with. Insofar as I can see it, the remote control, far from killing cinema in one fell swoop, merely marked the first real tolling of its proverbial bell and the beginning of its slow but steady trek towards, while not the grave, a new landscape in which it would be but one of many audiovisual media, lighting a twenty-five year fuse, which is at present shorter than it has ever been before.

As Greenaway suggested in his lecture, the history of art has shown us that the "throwing away [of established cinematic language] in anticipation of a new cycle" of "aesthetic-technologies" is ultimately inevitable. The key word here seems to me to be 'anticipation,' and, along with the funeral procession and bomb fuse analogies, we might also like to apply to the period of innovation that has followed the introduction of the remote control the more biological analogy of foetal gestation, which is perhaps more appropriate given its positive focus on birth as opposed to a negative one on death. This is not a 'death of cinema' essay, and I firmly believe that cinema and post-cinema can and should coexist.

As we shall see, this gestation is taking place all around us: in the mainstream, with DVDs for films like Memento (d. Christopher Nolan, 2001) [2]; in the independent sector, with projects like Bodysong (d. Simon Pummell, 2003) [3]; in the art world, with video art; and in the academy, with praxis-based research projects like those of Lev Manovich and Adrian Miles. These are the true harbingers of post-cinematic forms and often bring together, to greater or lesser extent, two of what I consider to be the most important and exciting aspects of the post-cinematic landscape: non-linear granularity and the possibility for interactive audience participation.

Essentially, we can look at a film in one of two ways: holistically, as a more or less cohesive formal system or emotional experience; i.e., as a sole discursive entity (the film); or atomistically, as a series of smaller constituent elements; i.e., as a collection of potentially discursive entities (sequences, scenes, shots, and frames). The primary difference between the two approaches, to put it rather simplistically, is ultimately a matter where one chooses to place the emphasis in the clause "A film is the sum of its parts." Does one privilege the sum or the parts? The whole or its constituents?

Traditionally, with a few notable exceptions (i.e., the Surrealists), the vast majority of audiences, filmmakers, and theoreticians have chosen to emphasise the whole. This is hardly surprising, nor is it a bad thing. Cinema's mode of transmittal, for the greater part of its history, has dictated that, by and large, films be experienced in this way, presented in their entirety, uninterruptible, to a more or less passive audience. This is not to say that those who prefer to look at a film as a whole (i.e., the vast majority of us) automatically disregard its sequences, scenes, and so on, of course. They don't. But when they do isolate constituent elements, for whatever purpose—be it theoretical or practical—they tend to do so with the whole in mind, looking at the constituent element as just that—a constituent—and very rarely, if ever, as a potentially autonomous entity in and of itself.

Consider a Bordwellian reading of a shot or frame in an Eisenstein film (in contrast to a Barthesian reading of the same) or a digital effects technician's approach to a two-second sequence for the latest blockbuster comic book adaptation. These isolated elements are ultimately recognised to be of less importance than the whole of which they are a part. The constituent elements of an Eisenstein film are nothing to Bordwell if not building blocks in the overall formal system of the picture. The digital effects technician will labour over individual shots and frames for weeks and weeks at a time, but always with a mind to eventually integrate them into the larger framework of the whole.

There are more than valid reasons for this, of course, and these are ultimately the same reasons that interactivity in the cinema—in a direct, participatory sense, at least; i.e., in the sense that the viewer's actions directly influence the form and/or content of the work in question—has necessarily been limited. The theatrical experience, by its very nature, doesn't really allow for a high level of granularity or true interactivity. Sure, a film is made up of sequences, scenes, shots, and frames, but the manner in which they are presented to us—in a predefined and unalterable linear order—ultimately renders this fact, if not meaningless, then at least of secondary importance. Similarly, while there are indeed countless pictures that demand that a viewer at some point consciously engage with the form of a work for it to be understood and appreciated, this ultimately passive-aggressive spectatorship is not what I mean by interactivity.

However, as we have already established, cinema's mode of transmission is changing, and, indeed, changing rapidly. DVD, to take but one example, is a profoundly post-cinematic technology that is currently tied down—perhaps due to lack of imagination, though more likely due to economic reasons (believe it or not, but some people actually like to buy and own movies on disc!)—to more holistic cinematic forms.

The format's primary means of acknowledging the potential autonomy of constituent elements is, perhaps, the chapter- or scene-selection feature, a legacy of the laserdisc era that has taken on a life of its own with the introduction of DVD. A film is no longer simply a monolithic whole, but, as a result of this feature, a series of scenes that can be viewed out of predefined chronological order and in isolation to one another. This has not been warmly embraced by all, and, indeed, some have quite rightly considered it to be a decidedly uncinematic development.

The most prolific naysayer has perhaps been David Lynch, who has clung desperately to his holistic notions about cinema while simultaneously reducing the post-cinematic capabilities of DVD to zero by demanding that his films be released in this format without chapter stops. His films, he has said, are to be watched in their entirety, experienced as wholes; i.e., that the post-cinematic technology is to be a mere means of distribution, not an artistic tool in and of itself, limited by its arbitrary conformity to the cinematic mode of transmittal. This has not only been infuriating for many (and it has been) but also demonstrates an inherent naïvety on Lynch's part as well. For depriving a DVD of its chapter stops only renders a film less granular. It doesn't at all render the film any less susceptible to the whims of the zapper-wielding audience member, who, today more than ever, is often overtly aggressive towards the aesthetic object, particularly when it has been delivered to them by way of post-cinematic technologies.

At its simplest, most base level, interactivity in a post-cinematic context can be represented by the power bestowed upon the audience member by the remote control and its ability to pause, stop, play, fast-forward, and rewind. This is why the chapter-less Lynch discs are ultimately a fruitless venture; the post-cinematic mode of transmittal dictates that the filmmaker is no longer in complete control of the form of his work as it is experienced by an audience, particularly as regards screen-time, which is now almost completely at the mercy of the audience. Lynch's desire to have his films experienced as wholes will be more or less trumped by the audience's ability to fast-forward and rewind them, as they are more than likely to do as they try to work out his complex dream narratives. It is perhaps ironic that it is a Lynch film, Blue Velvet (1986), which is the subject of Nicholas Rombes' quasi-insane (and now discontinued) 'Frame By Frame' blog project, which, if nothing else, demonstrated that attempts to circumvent post-cinematic granularity are meaningless in a world where, if one so chooses, a film can be analysed, with the help of a pause or skip forward button, frame by agonising frame at a time.

Obviously, as I have already suggested, one can be a more or less aggressive audience member as regards traditional cinema as well, but the difference there is that one's aggressiveness—a proactive willingness to enter into a kind of discourse with a picture—can really only reveal the form of a work, it can't actually change or shape it. It is often said that a work of art is completed by the audience, but only in a post-cinematic context is this literally true. Again, this is not to say that a masterpiece like Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) would be better if the audience could actively control its form by way of a multi-angle function that allowed them to edit their own shower sequence in real time. I do not wish to suggest that cinematic forms are any better or worse than post-cinematic forms. Rather, what I wish to highlight, again, is the problematic manner in which our desire to conform post-cinematic technologies to the demands of a cinematic framework limits the extent to which these new forms can develop and grow.

In contrast to the chapter-less Lynch discs—and, to a lesser extent, to the hundreds of other DVDs that merely accommodate the chapter-selection feature as though it were little more than an obligatory formality—the DVD edition of Christopher Nolan's Memento (2001) gleefully embraced the granularity offered by the format. Included on the disc was a function that 'reshuffled' the order of the film's scenes, demonstrating that the picture's structure as a whole (and, admittedly, it was still a whole) was ultimately reliant on the parts that made it up, thus inverting the traditional hierarchy. In time, I think, this will come to be seen as an important milestone for this kind of mainstream content. When it was in theatres, Memento was, despite its convoluted (and in my opinion contrived) narrative structure, a relatively traditional cinematic experience. When it hit DVD, however, it became decidedly post-cinematic. Yes, the project was limited in its scope to the relatively low-granular level of the scene, and, yes, the film was still presented as a whole (albeit a drastically reordered one), but the step taken was a significant one in that the mainstream had begun to experiment with the possibilities.

Of course, the vast majority of film projects are still conceived with theatrical distribution in mind, at least as their ultimate goal. They necessarily and understandably comply, therefore, with the traditionally holistic demands of this approach. Most post-cinematic experimentation, in fact—particularly as regards granularity and interactivity—is actually taking place in the field of DVD special features. Take, for example, the database of supplementary interviews (four-and-a-half hours’ worth!) on the two-disc edition of The Corporation (d. Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott & Joel Bakan, 2003), which, in typically high-granular fashion, acknowledges the fundamental importance of the individual shot (in this case a simple talking head interview), which can be viewed on its own, or as part of either a speaker- or subject-specific sequence.

The problem, though, as with the Memento 'reshuffle' function, is that it's ultimately just a special feature—a high-granular sideshow beside the low-granular main attraction. And I should point out that I love The Corporation and the marvellous DVD package that its makers put together for it. My point is just that, all too often, soft cinema comes second to hard cinema, and post-cinema to traditional cinema—even when the former is trespassing on the property of the latter!

Enter, then, the avant-garde, independent, and academic projects, which are in a position, unlike most mainstream DVDs, to render the special feature the feature presentation. We can perhaps take Lev Manovich and Andreas Kratky's 'Soft Cinema: Navigating the Database' (2005), in which "software edits movies in real time by choosing the elements from the database using the systems of rules defined by the authors," [4] as exemplary of these projects, dedicated as they are to post-cinematic forms and to the primacy of autonomous, highly granular signifying units, be they images or sounds. The formal possibilities opened up by these projects are significant, particularly as regards temporality, montage, soundtrack, and mise en scène, all of which become more or less open to random modulation, variation, and repetition depending on the parameters set by the author of the code. The duration, speed, position on the screen, and frame size of each visual element, and the duration, speed, timbre, and volume of each aural element (to name but a few potentially countless variables), are not fixed in these works but fluid and malleable, marking what Adrian Miles calls "a major paradigmatic shift in terms of traditional cinematic practice." [5]

Miles' own practical work is exemplary in this respect as well, with his computer-based "softvideography" [6] not only granular in the sense that Manovich and Kratsky's 'Soft Cinema' is, but also highly interactive in that the actions of the viewer (or is it user?) qualitatively alter the form of the work as a whole, rendering it so that it never appears the same twice and is constantly in flux. In a piece "as simple in structure" [7] as 'Exquisite Corpse' (2002, with Clare Stewart) [8], which Miles himself discusses at length in an excellent essay on the topic [9], all the aforementioned variables particularly screen-time and duration—are perpetually affected by mouse movement and cursor placement. The film is made up of three autonomous video tracks, all looped, in which a story is recounted verbally by actors. These tracks, depending on which one the user rolls the mouse over at any given time, play at constantly changing frame rates. The track with the pointer over it plays at the standard frame rate, the first track to right at half that speed, and the final track a quarter. The soundtrack, too, is volatile, with the audio of the selected track being privileged over those of the other two. As the viewer moves the mouse pointer around the screen, he effectively creates a complex of different relations among the three visual tracks and between image and sound, causing us to reconsider our received notions about any number of formal concepts, not to mention about the nature of authorship in a post-cinematic environment. Miles' work might at first seem lo-fi and primitive, but it is, in actual fact, extremely complex, extremely probing, and at the forefront of the practical and theoretical exploration of these forms.

In his 1967 Theory of Film Practice, Nöel Burch wrote that "of the two different forms in which the aleatoric can occur, the first (its direct intervention in a work, whether controlled or uncontrolled) seems the more 'organically relevant' to film, whereas the second (its use in the creation of works with multiple modes of performance) seems to be the more relevant to music." [10] He goes on to say that "a film's integrity appears for the moment to be as fundamental to a definition of cinema as music's need to be sheltered from the random sounds of life," but that "prospects for a new type of film . . . are just now beginning to come into view" and that "it will be one of a complexity and richness unprecedented in the entire history of art." [11] The prospects that he describes—most notably "a film with multiple interchangeable facets" [12]—find their realisation in the forms made possible by post-cinematic technologies, a direct result of the autonomous granular unit that will undoubtedly be furthered by the emergence of formally affective audience interactivity. The resultant forms require addressing and pose a whole new set of questions. How does one approach the mise en scène that is never composed the same way twice? What meaning does a work elicit when its montage is one in which any two random shots might suddenly be juxtaposed against one another? What are we to say about screen-time when a film is designed to play forever, on a loop, ad infinitum?

Since 1983, a number of technological innovations have added to the speed at which the fuse we have been discussing has burnt: the VCR and its time-shifting capabilities; analogue and (more recently) digital video recording devices (including mobile phones); DVD, CD-ROM, and other interactive technologies; the Internet as a relatively democratic means of content distribution (issues of accessibility aside). It is perhaps telling that Jean-Luc Godard, one of the most prolific of the death-of-cinema crowd, has said that, in his opinion, cinema 'ends' with Abbas Kiarostami, one of the most prolific proponents of consumer-level digital video, though this is another provocative assertion that I'm not sure I completely agree with.

Kiarostami's cinema, at least insofar as I can see it, isn't really all that close to cinema's vanishing point at all, and it certainly shouldn't be considered the vanishing point itself. His work has benefited the cinema, aiding its formal development, but not that of the post-cinema that has been the focus of this essay. New technologies, not to mention the relative democratisation of the means of production, do not automatically ensure the development of new forms. In many cases, the so-called digital revolution has merely led to a number of filmmakers embracing digital technologies for purely economic reasons, and the resultant films, more often than not, have subsequently failed to do anything new or interesting with the medium. In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably cite myself as an example of this, having often used softcopy tools to distribute my essentially hardcopy film work online. The same can be said of most videobloggers. Similarly, the vast majority of filmmakers who work with digital video are essentially making and distributing cinema with post-cinematic technologies.

This is not a bad thing in and of itself, of course. More people are making movies. Kiarostami's work with digital video may be more valuable to cinema than it is to post-cinema, but it also proves that virtually anyone with a camera can contribute to the art form in ways that were previously impossible. But it must also be conceded that these technologies have a far greater formal potential than our traditional understanding of time-based media allows. One of the major problems with the increasingly redundant film-versus-digital debate is that it's essentially an argument between two parties whose films are virtually indistinguishable on a formal level about budgets, ease of use, distribution, and so-called image quality, when what it should really be about is whether or not the dominant aesthetic forms of our times should remain static or evolve and about the unique qualities and merits of the individual media. Says Kiarostami himself:

I have somewhat lost my enthusiasm [for digital video] in the last four or five years. Mainly because film students using digital video these days have not really produced anything which is more than superficial or simplistic; so I have my doubts. Despite the great advantages of digital video and the great ease of using the medium, still those who use it have first to understand the sensitivities of how to best use the medium. [13]

I am by no means a hypermedia theorist and by no means wish to pose as one. I have ignorantly, if not always intentionally, avoided talking about videogames and video art—two of the more obvious and fruitful pillars in the post-cinematic landscape—and the pressing matter of the philosophical implications of aesthetic forms in perpetual flux—not to mention the potentially democratic and thereby inherently political nature of forms that rely so heavily on audience interactivity—will simply have to wait for another essay.

What I do know about though—or rather what I like to think I know about—is the urgent, vital, and eternal necessity for formal exploration and innovation. We are forever in need of new formal models—new ways of seeing images, hearing sounds, and of being in the world—and the post-cinematic landscape is rife with possibilities. Most of these have not yet been fully or adequately tapped, however, and with post-cinematic technologies necessarily demanding the parallel development of post-cinematic aesthetic forms, the medium's practitioners, from mainstream DVD authors to practicing academics, must now make formal experimentation one of their most central and pressing concerns.

Clearly, I would argue that we are now closer than ever before to the hypothetical explosion of cinema, even though I sincerely doubt that cinema as we know it will ever really disappear. If we are to privilege my earlier foetal gestation analogy, we may well say that recently, after a twenty-five year labour, cinema's waters have finally broken, and post-cinema is about to be born. The results, I feel, will have been well worth the wait. Coexisting with cinema as we know it, they can only be a breath of fresh air.

[1] Greenaway, Peter. 'Toward a re-invention of cinema'. Variety Cinema Militans Lecture. The Netherlands, 2003.

[2] For more on the Memento DVD see Rombes, Nicholas. 'Interface as Narrative'. Digital Poetics. (April 18, 2005).



[5] Miles, Adrian. 'Softvideography'. Cybertext Yearbook 2002-2003. Eds. Markku Eskelinen and Raine Koskimaa. Vol. 77. Jyväskylän: Research Center for Contemporary Culture, 2003. 218-36..

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.


[9] Burch, Nöel. Theory of Film Practice. Trans. Lane, Helen. Secker & Warburg, London, 1974. 108.

[10] Ibid. 108-9.

[11] Ibid. 108.

[12] Ibid.

[13] 'Guardian/NFT Interview: Abbas Kiarostami'. The National Film Theatre, 2005.

Matthew Clayfield is an independent filmmaker and freelance writer currently based in Queensland, Australia. His work can be seen at

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