Sunday, May 23, 2010

Preliminary Notes on Web-hosted Cinema, Alejandro Adams

There is nothing unique about returning to early film theory in an attempt to delimit the creative uses of digital video technology. Comparing the infancy of the first manifestation of cinema with the infancy of its successor is as natural as it is profitable. Invoking, as I will, the elaborate investigations of early theorists such as Béla Balázs and Rudolf Arnheim is a way to clarify my own observations concerning digital cinema in general and Web-hosted cinema in particular. Even so, it is the writing not of an abstruse theorist but of a straightforward filmmaker which seems most pertinently to foreshadow certain limitations and tendencies of this new cinema. Satyajit Ray's Our Films, Their Films, a collection of mild-mannered essays spanning three decades, is a blunt apologia of impoverished filmmaking. An amalgam of light criticism, stirring memoir, and affectionate lecturing, this collection may be the touchstone against which to verify the integrity of amateur visual storytellers working today.

In his critical analyses of Chaplin, Kurosawa, and De Sica, among others, Ray demonstrates a passionate and instinctive—not academic—understanding of cinematic technique. In his occasional addresses to demoralized Indian filmmakers of similar ambition, Ray expresses a fierce optimism which aims to discredit or disregard the often unresponsive movie-going public, the decrepitude of the Calcutta studios, and other inhibiting factors. And Ray's abridged account of the making of Pather Panchali [1] reverberates along the frayed wires of intervening decades to remind us that practical hindrances in the making of art are not necessarily adverse—on the contrary, they may even be advantageous.

Ray, whose unchecked indulgence in Hollywood movies qualified him for the lowly status of aficionado, was the full-time employee of an advertising agency when he set out to make a film without even the most elementary resource of a little vacation time. The result was a cinematic experience of unearthly power. Inclement weather, locations without electricity, the tyrannical "real job," uncooperative novice actors, maniacal weekend shoots, the perpetual tug-of-war with first-time financiers—these insurmountable ills contaminate the production of much Web-hosted cinema just as they contaminated the production of Ray's first film. The most essential thing to be learned from the subtext of Ray's weary reminiscence is that contaminants of this sort should, in many cases, be reassessed as commodities.

Leavened as it is with frank exhortation, Our Films, Their Films is equivalent to the letters of Saint Paul to the leaders of fledgling churches, a smudged mirror of Rilke's warm but heavy-handed Letters to a Young Poet. More than any additional technical or theoretical encumbrance, this is what DV artists and storytellers need now: direction, challenge, encouragement, guidelines—in short, exhortation. Few serious filmmakers have written about their craft in this way, celebrating technical deficiencies and a vulgar, Hollywood-sponsored autodidacticism. In ethnocentric vivisections such as "What's Wrong with Indian Cinema," Ray provides an analogue to the mentality currently needed to distinguish minor Web-hosted cinematic efforts from the Hollywood model.

In his essay "Silent Films," written in 1970, Ray describes:

a sudden upsurge of interest in the beginnings of cinema brought about by a steady stream of revivals of silent films in the archives and cinematheques of the world. A great deal of fresh thinking on the art of cinema has resulted from this. [2]

Strangely, even incongruously, my experiences with amateur contributions to Web-hosted cinema have incited the same sort of fresh thinking on the art of cinema. As I attempt to characterize some of these experiences by swaddling them in the customized commentary of Ray and a few indispensable theorists, I will no doubt reveal a certain prejudice. My tastes are predicated, as far as I can tell, on a concern for the survival, evolution, and perfection of the cinematic medium in its digital guise. Consequently, I have the following outcomes in mind: that the cinema will evolve in a direction of increased accessibility in terms of both production and exhibition; that the prestige of a given exhibitive venue will no longer be inversely proportionate to its functionality and flexibility; and that beguiling legends of Hollywood success will not interfere with the rise of more practicable—and, frankly, more exciting—methods of movie production.

The End of Digital Video's "Silent Era"

The introduction of sound film must be considered as the imposition of a technical novelty that did not lie on the path the best film artists were pursuing. – Arnheim [3]

The possibility that the non-filmic nature of digital video could mandate a truly independent or alternative cinema (those adjectives have been stretched into flaccidity) is being undermined by such seemingly fortuitous developments as 24P and other technologies which facilitate the likeness of DV to film, allowing this newborn medium to draw near to the throne of its tired and spiteful ancestor, interpreting its dreams in the long-standardized language of the congregated audience and consequently into the sluggish modes of distribution and exhibition suited thereunto. Just as early filmmakers patiently negotiated with silence itself to develop aesthetic principles and formal conventions, so the "limitations" of DV—its myriad points of distinction from film—have thus far demanded intuitive workarounds from earnest practitioners of the form. It is unfortunate that, as a race, we strive to eliminate all perceived impediments and imperfections from our inventions, for in doing so we also manage to eliminate very necessary creative challenges. By limiting the variety of possible outcomes, we carelessly malign heterogeneity and individuality.

The temptation to increase the size of the screen goes with the desire for colored, stereoscopic, and sound film. It is the wish of people who do not know that artistic effect is bound up with the limitations of the medium and who want quantity rather than quality. [4]

The Internet has been the sensible receptacle for much visual storytelling since the turn of the century, but that may prove to be increasingly less true as those working in digital video accept the invitation to engage in an arms race with Hollywood and begin to amass the arsenal of tools necessary to ease their transition to the big screen. The acquisition of these tools will be followed by a period of creative stagnation during which certain energies inevitably will be concentrated on the basic practical concern of implementation: we have been trained like lesser primates to busy ourselves with studying each new piece of equipment, each new scrap of software issued under the rubric of an upgrade, and though this rigmarole may not occupy our creative energies per se, it certainly subdues them with formidable consistency.

The explicit goal of 24PHD is to serve as an acquisition medium for film-like images which will culminate in celluloid distribution. Minor DV storytellers who embrace such technologies are accepting the challenge to compete in an arena with which they are completely unfamiliar. As Ray noted of the Bengali film industry,

Even if we did have the money, we would not have the market, and certainly not the know how to compete in Hollywood. That is why—and not because we do not have the predilection—we have chosen for ourselves the field of the intimate cinema: the cinema of mood and atmosphere rather than of grandeur and spectacle. [5]

Is the Cinema Still a Visual Medium?

Today one can actually question whether the introduction of words into films was not in fact an introduction of an impurity undermining the direct visual impact of the medium. There is no denying the fact that with the coming of sound, images and films became, in general, less meaningful in themselves. After all, with sound and with words one can always fall back on speech to convey one's meaning. – Ray [6]

We saw this in the thirties. We watched it trickle down to television. We watched television, in turn, influence the movies. And now we have a visual medium—digital video—in which the storyteller is encouraged more than ever before to dismiss the relevance of exclusively visual content because live sound is so efficiently piggybacked onto the image that it no longer poses any challenge. As a result, sound elements—mostly spoken dialogue, the cheapest and least imaginative member of the auditory whole of a cinematic work—are expected to bear a disproportionate amount of the narrative, reverting the exclusively cinematic to the generically theatrical and literary.

[T]he compounding of different media—for example, moving picture and speech—cannot be justified simply by the fact that in the experience of everyday life visual and auditory elements are intimately connected and, in fact, inseparably fused. There must be artistic reasons for such a combination: it must serve to express something that could not be said by one of the media alone. [7]

I imagine it safe to suspect that this injunction reeks of antiquity to the desensitized faculties of the visual storyteller as he exists at present—and those perceptive few who acknowledge the validity of Arnheim's dogmatic spite for the sound film nonetheless probably question its current applicability. Yet, observably, much of the dialogue in the cinema today serves merely to reinforce what can already be determined by the physical attitudes or behavior of actors on screen, so that every sequence depicting human interaction is teeming with redundancy. Before storming out of an apartment, a woman may yell, "I hate you!" A gangster with a menacing gun may say to his quivering prey: "Tell me what you know, or I'll blow your head off." A woman collapsing into a man's embrace may urge him—verbally—to make love to her. In each of these cases, there is a possibility that the overstatement is true to life. Each of these cases is also, however, fundamentally uncinematic. If the viewer were to close his eyes, he would understand exactly what is occurring on screen. In light of this corrosion of cinema's very quiddity, can it still be considered a visual medium?

Unquestionably, the greater 'lifelikeness' of the later style has robbed the film play of much of its melodic shape. There was, in those early pantomimes, a dance-like quality, which was most filmic and should not remain lost forever. [8]

Physical performances are becoming more and more precious. Those professional actors to whom we can ascribe some inherent physicality are in most cases emigrants from the theater, and even these are quickly tenderized into an irreparable limpness by the omnipotent sledgehammer of the talking-head aesthetic. Is it any wonder that the profoundly evocative phrase "dumb show" has virtually vanished from the language? Balázs obliquely warned that the introduction of sound to the cinema would be a Pyrrhic victory.

An undeveloped medium of expression, hitched to a highly developed one, will drag the latter back to a rudimentary condition. [9]

A sort of poetic objectification of this claim occurs when the purely visual success of certain Web-hosted movies is undermined by problematic audio: the fragile spirit of the silent cinema is vindicated when its robust successor is crippled by its own weight. This happens most often when DV storytellers with insufficient resources inadvisably utilize onboard microphones to capture actors' dialogue, effectively sabotaging whatever house-of-cards visual schema they have carefully arranged. Indeed, the practical limitations of inexpensive production equipment and of the Internet itself serve to isolate the visual from the aural in ways that are reminiscent of the silent era of celluloid filmmaking. When the audio lacks clarity due to poor production values, or when it is poorly mixed or garbled by inadequate compression software, the viewer is jarred out of the rickety diegetic space and reduced to the role of wincing critic. Few movies are good enough to overcome these defects.

It is not as if sound films do not contain moments of purely visual significance. But whether they do they inevitably hark back to the silent cinema. And more often than not they prove to be the moments that stay in the mind longest. [10]

In the case of Web-hosted cinema, it is not a matter of certain visually compelling sequences staying in the mind but of the work often being indigestible as a whole due to its incorporation of feeble sound elements which deflate or countermand the mesmerizing power of the image alone. What we remember of these movies is not their visual success, which is sometimes considerable, but their auditory failure.

Wo & Co.

A good example of a clever if mostly conventional Web-hosted movie spoiled by dissatisfactory audio is Wo & Co.'s Saturday Night. The reason this piece works at all is that its disproportionately long middle relies primarily on visual storytelling, utilizing devices such as slow-motion and split-screen to reiterate its charming premise (less technically, it features a likable actor with a great deal of presence). When live sound elements are re-introduced toward the end of the movie, they pluck the viewer from the reverie of watching and call attention to the inadequate means of production. The most unfortunate repercussion is not aesthetic but practical, not a matter of taste but of comprehension: the indispensable last line of dialogue is washed out by overbearing music and insidious room noise. The visual edifice of Saturday Night is destined to collapse because the clever but under-produced coup de grace is entirely aural.

On the other hand, effective sound design is not merely the implementation of a balanced, uni-directional microphone which isolates an actor's voice from its milieu. Though often undesirable, an auditory cocktail can be used to stratify a cinematic experience. A film often overlooked in regard to bold sound design is Michael Ritchie's Downhill Racer, which, with its patches of swarming dialogue, prophesies the Altman style, though Ritchie outstrips Altman's use of the vocal mosaic by employing it as a specific means of expression in only a few scenes. In Altman's case, the impressionistic "overlapping" style curdles every exchange of dialogue until its lethargic attempts at realism begin to reek of a falsification even more thorough than that of the stilted Hollywood rhythms against which it tirelessly rebels. Rather than regurgitating the entire script in an arbitrary signature style which respects no variation in mood or character, Downhill Racer evinces a precise sound design unique to certain sequences. In airports, at restaurants, during interviews on snowy slopes, Ritchie allows dialogue and ambient sounds to compete for the viewer's aural attention.

During a perfunctory game of ping-pong, the protagonist eavesdrops on a conversation taking place at a table across the room from him. Amid the hollow pops of the ball's collision with table and paddle, only the gist of the conversation can be made out. The effect is desirable because what the protagonist hears is less important dramaturgically than the nervous tension produced by his attempting to hear it. Thus "bad" audio is strategically implemented to great effect.

In a similar scene, the protagonist, again construed as the perennial outsider, is seated at a table in a bar, ostensibly talking business with two men, though most of his attention is directed at a distinctly separate conversation taking place between a third man and a beautiful young woman. The main conversation is straightforward and loud, the other divagating and seductive. Due to the wash of counterpoised scraps of dialogue—dissonant in both subject matter and tone, buffeted by raucous music and the general pandemonium of the tavern—it is impossible to distinguish every word of each conversation. Again, the protagonist and the viewer are equally badgered by the sprawling soundtrack. In a movie that is largely preoccupied with literary characterization (the screenplay was written by novelist nonpareil James Salter), this scene and the one described above are able to accomplish much with their artificially "poor" aural production values.

In an opposite phenomenon, some filmmakers choose to remedy location audio blunders in a way that calls the viewer's attention to the means of production as inevitably as does the suffocated climactic remark of Saturday Night.

In Antonioni's Blow-Up, the protagonist is met in the street outside his photography studio by a desperate young woman who has probably been involved in a murder. The moment is deliberate, careful, spring-loaded. The street is remarkably quiet. The photographer studies the young woman; she averts her eyes. Finally the photographer speaks, and his brief line of dialogue is swallowed by sudden traffic noise which immediately disappears when he stops speaking. After a moment the young woman replies, her voice also oppressed by a gust of unseen urban traffic. Then silence. One can see the sound editor at the mixing board, whipping the volume knob back and forth in order to mute the ferocious swell of background noise. Obviously, our ears are witnessing at least one technical fault among several possibilities: the wrong microphone, the wrong location, the wrong time of day, the wrong orientation along the street—against a noise-exacerbating wall. But Antonioni often manipulates the minutiae of his films, erring on the side of stark artifice even when the result will indubitably sully the viewer's estimation of the film's production values (Antonioni manipulated the hues and tones of Red Desert, his first color film, and in the late Seventies he chose to work with analog video simply in order to continue his precocious experiments with color). It is worth noting in this particular case of audio manipulation that Blow-Up was Antonioni's first non-Italian film, and the practice in Italian film production had long been to record sound after-the-fact, not relying on live sound.

In Downhill Racer, what seems to be a series of technical mistakes is in fact delicate character development. In Blow-Up, conversely, a technical error is crudely refashioned to suit the curious sensibilities of a stubborn, detail-obsessed director: more important than what the characters curtly mumble at one another is the vacuous silence that dominates the space between them. Antonioni does not mind if the synthetic fabric of that silence has a coarse register in the ear of the viewer—after all, every cinematic texture is a matter of deception.

Balázs wrote of the timbre local of sound elements in film:

Every sound has a space-bound character of its own...Every sound which is really produced somewhere must of necessity have some such space-quality and this is a very important quality indeed if use is to be made of the sensual reproducing power of sound! [11]

Without fully perverting the timbre local of synchronous dialogue, a uni-directional microphone does slightly revise the acoustic environment in which the dialogue is spoken. In the case of Downhill Racer, the timbre local is preserved with a rare fidelity, whereas in Blow-Up it is carefully suppressed. Thus, Blow-Up and Downhill Racer utilize acoustic environments with opposite aesthetic intentions. The former restores the entire acoustic environment and forces the viewer to sort through the auditory information for that which best helps decipher the loose narrative. The latter totally eliminates the acoustic environment, though its "shadow" is cast over the dialogue, instantly altering the perception of the space in which the dialogue is delivered. An apparently deserted part of town becomes, when the characters speak, a claustral alley adjoining a ferocious thoroughfare.

Wo & Co.'s loyalty to the unmoderated timbre local of a well-carpeted living room is counterproductive; though, of course, the auditory blunder lurking at the end of Saturday Night does not result from the intentionally unorthodox sound design of a Blow-Up or a Downhill Racer. Somehow DV storytellers with insufficient means must learn how to beat their ploughshares into swords and reinvent their most apparent weakness as a source of strength.

Jarrod Whaley

One Web-hosted movie which manages to overcome its aural limitations is Jarrod Whaley's The 6th Step. The story is predicated on auditory elements which are partially incomprehensible (whether this is due to inadequate recording or to parsimonious file compression is irrelevant), yet the visual elements somehow provide a perfect counterweight, and the result is commendable.

Ray felt that The Bicycle Thief had transcended its technical flaws in the same way:

De Sica's superb handling of actors and unerring instinct for expressive details circumvent such purely technical drawbacks as fogged film-stock, inadequate processing and imperfect post-synchronization of dialogue. [12]

The protagonist of The 6th Step, portrayed by Whaley himself, is awakened by voices in the street below his urban apartment. The voices are vehement, even argumentative. The protagonist's curiosity is aroused; he dresses and descends the stairs to the street. By this time, the conversation/debate/altercation has dissolved and its participants have vanished. The protagonist returns to his apartment, opens a bottle of beer, then sinks into a couch in a small, dark living room.

The fascinating cinematic success of The 6th Step is achieved by the thorough subjugation of its aural elements to its visual elements. The "discussion" in the street is not important in terms of its content (we can distinguish little more than the phrase "the sixth step"); its function is to catalyze action on the part of the protagonist, whose motivations remain completely inscrutable. This idiosyncrasy, though, is the very thing that distinguishes cinema from other narrative art forms. As Ray noted in regard to Antonioni, "Feelings are muted, and there is a genuine attempt at a revelation of states of mind through action and behaviour." [13] Arnheim explains why this method is "cinegenic":

No fairly complicated event or state of mind can be conveyed by pictures alone. Therefore, the addition of spoken dialogue has made storytelling easier...It remains to be seen, however, whether there is, in the movies, any justification for the kind of involved plot that we find in the novel and the play...It was precisely the absence of speech that made the silent film develop a style of its own, capable of condensing the dramatic situation...This had led to a most cinegenic species of tale, which was full of simple happenings and which, with the coming of the talking film, was replaced by a theater-type play, poor in external action but well-developed psychologically. [14]

Somehow, due to production constraints, unresolved Internet phenomena, or an unlikely degree of aesthetic discernment, Web-hosted cinema is exhibiting a remarkable affinity with silent film. A purified cinema is sporadically reemerging and even flourishing in the capable hands of amateurs and hobbyists who, in some cases, apparently understand the essential art of cinema more instinctively than their professional or academic counterparts. In Whaley's case, this is no mere fluke.

The long, slow passages in the epics of Dreyer and Eisenstein are sustained only partially by their purely visual qualities, rich and rewarding though they are: it is the emotional conviction of these sequences, achieved through precision of interpretation, of acting integrated to the director's total stylistic approach, that is finally responsible for their strength, their aesthetic 'rightness'. [15]

In a brief manifesto replete with color-coded amendments, Whaley similarly asserts that "formal experimentation must actually have some expressive purpose." [16]

Whaley is like a poet or painter, toiling alone in his dim apartment, thoroughly documenting his discoveries, developing a consistent style—and a consistent substance—which requires little more than the portable apparatus of a MiniDV camera and a healthy human body. Whaley does not stop at positioning the camera to capture his own image; he directs the camera at himself even while descending a flight of stairs. The theoretical impetus for such abandon can be found in his effervescent manifesto: "[A]rt must begin a process of rehumanization...[C]reative work must seek to create in its audience a sense of individuality." [17] The individualism so dutifully represented by the subject matter and mise-en-scene of Whaley's work is akin to that which saturates Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, a film so painstaking in its apotheosis of the individual that the nauseated Eisenstein, an exemplary Soviet, felt obligated to condemn Dreyer's art as well as his politics. By serially casting himself in the role of the immured individual—in front of as well as behind the camera—Whaley risks accusations of self-fetishism. My accusation is equally severe: he is a pioneer.

Whaley's one-and-a-half-minute Type, an unnerving secretion of cancerous solitude, is far more stylistically overbearing than The 6th Step. In a way, it belongs to the dystopian genre, since its centerpiece is a perverse and destructive relationship between a man and a computer, a symbiosis exaggerated by Whaley's manipulation of light: "I didn't use artificial lighting..., and even went so far as to use a polarizer to darken the image further. I wanted the light to come from the character's monitor..." [18]. The enhanced muddiness of the black-and-white image adds to the optical strain of discarding compression errata, the new labor at which we are still mostly unskilled. Whaley says, "I see a certain warmth in such digital artifacts that is not unlike the warm crackle and pop of LPs." [19]

Type attains a level of creepiness unmatched by literal-minded horror shorts of equal duration. Perhaps most effective is its syncopation, which reminds one of Whaley's other avocation, electronic music. Type is psychologically discombobulated to a degree which evokes the Polanski of Repulsion and The Tenant. In fact, Type is to Repulsion as The 6th Step is to The Tenant. In a sense, Polanski's starring in a film in which he is often on screen by himself (as he is in The Tenant) presaged—and even redeems—the Whaley approach of recording one's own image. There are sequences in The Tenant in which Polanski the director could have benefited from filming Polanski the actor in complete solitude, yielding an atmosphere even more completely barricaded against the reality outside his character's small apartment. Whaley's approach may as well be considered a logical and technological heir of Polanski's work in The Tenant: without a crew, Whaley is able to achieve the same effect of oppressive isolation. Moreover, Whaley's work seems to emanate from a pungently real solitude, a quality that would be jeopardized by the presence of extraneous personnel amassed behind the camera. Because of this sincerity or candor, Whaley has more legitimate and relevant affinity with Polanski than does, say, Darren Aronofsky, who pays such strict homage to early Polanski that the internal components of his first film do not seem candid or even vaguely honest. Pi, like Christopher Nolan's Memento, is a film which is intended to fit succinctly into its genre—what it expresses or achieves beyond that is incidental and probably accidental. Ray condemned this trend among Indian filmmakers in the early 1950s, before he had set out to make a film of his own.

The present blind worship of technique emphasizes the poverty of genuine inspiration among our directors...No amount of technical polish can make up for artificiality of theme and dishonesty of treatment. [20]

Whaley's Dirty Urges falls within the same thematic parameters as Type and The 6th Step, though its sprawl undermines its force. Dirty Urges utilizes Resnais-like ellipticality—a repeating chorus, if you will—to examine "human behavior in relation to the peculiar distinction we make between public and private." [21] Like the work of Resnais, Dirty Urges seems orchestrated to test one's patience; but whereas Resnais aspires to lyricism, Whaley aspires to the grotesque, sketching and re-sketching a topographical map of unmonitored self-interaction. (As of this writing, Dirty Urges is not available for online viewing.)

A recent—though perhaps not final—addendum to this series is Slow Night, which was added to Whaley's Web site after my foregoing notes had already been drafted and finalized. Slow Night comprises painfully long takes which depict a man alone in a small apartment, his "activities" permeated by a moribund languor. He peruses a magazine while hunched on the edge of his bed; sits idly in front of a computer which commands his attention (is he reading?); slouches in a papasan chair while eating a carrot; and urinates. Throughout the movie, the protagonist wears a toboggan which places a masterful emphasis on the desolation of the milieu as well as on the inner "cold." The oppressiveness of the murky, redundant spaces in Whaley's oeuvre has reached its apex in Slow Night. Defying its apparent tranquility, it goes beyond visually compelling or visually arresting to become visually traumatic. And yet, contradictorily, the meaning of the images—their implication—is dictated entirely by off-screen auditory elements, namely the incessant ringing of a telephone which the protagonist is enigmatically loath to answer.

The sulfurous gurgling of the previous three shorts is well-sustained in Slow Night—this is the result of some inner mechanism not unlike cruise control. One wonders how much mileage Whaley can squeeze out of themes such as introversion and solitude. More pressingly, one hopes he will take them as far as he can.

Though apparently not intended to be taken together, Dirty Urges, The 6th Step, Type, and Slow Night compound into a prismatic expression of a monotonous inner condition. While the spiritual ancestry of Dirty Urges and Type may include Klee's Die Schlange, the quiet and insidious natures of The 6th Step and Slow Night are more akin to the Van Gogh self-portrait in which the artist's severed ear is covered with a tasteful white bandage. In any case, Whaley is claiming digital video for the most intimate of all modes of artistic expression: that of self-portraiture.

It is worth noting that these four movies collectively contain only three lines of written dialogue—they are otherwise silent. Ray would have respected such a feat.

Ambitious, imaginative and immensely hard-working, Griffith was so confident of the validity and self-sufficiency of his art form that he made the rash prediction that sound on film was not only scientifically impossible but aesthetically unnecessary. [22]

Ultimately, if the return to the values and techniques of early cinema is being dictated by technological limitations rather than by aesthetic predisposition, it makes no difference. Throughout the history of the medium, such challenges have converted struggle and frustration into unwitting perfection. It was noble of Ray—and, I imagine, difficult for him—to admit that many of the celebrated aesthetic accomplishments of his first film were necessitated by practical constraints and could not be ascribed to an uncompromising artistic vision.

Sound is a problem too. Dialogue has been reduced to a minimum, but you want to cut down further. Are those three words really necessary or can you find a telling gesture to take their place? The critics may well talk of a laudable attempt at the rediscovery of the fundamentals of silent cinema, but you know within your heart that while there may be some truth in that, equally true was your anxiety to avoid the uninspiring business of dubbing and save on the cost of sound film. [23]


The cel-based animation of Warner Brothers' Looney Tunes has been reincarnated on the Internet in the form of short movies generated by programs such as Macromedia Flash. Such Web-hosted animation cannot, of course, be considered "cel-based" any more than visual storytelling in the medium of digital video can be considered "filmmaking." Semantics aside, the tendencies of this new animation are remarkably similar to the imperatives of the form engendered by its counterparts on television, in theatrical release, and on the shelves on video stores; hence, this new animation cannot yet be discussed in terms exclusive to Web-hosted cinema. After all, if Julia Roberts starred in a Web-hosted movie which was photographed by Gordon Willis and edited by Walter Murch, the resulting product would hardly be able to manifest dissimilarities to a mainstream Hollywood movie, save perhaps an abbreviated running time. The properties exclusive to Web-hosted cinema—the very things which make it eligible to be considered a unique form—are directly proportionate to the specific limitations of those most readily contributing to it. I have already compared these limitations with those which defined the early work of Satyajit Ray: "inclement weather, locations without electricity, the tyrannical 'real job,' uncooperative novice actors, maniacal weekend shoots, the perpetual tug-of-war with first-time financiers." Were the equivalent limitations abolished from Web-hosted cinema, the essential character of the form would be bathed, shaven, and deodorized to the extent that when considered alongside more traditional varieties of cinema there would be little other than unremarkable homogeneity between them.

But these limitations have no equivalent in the form which has succeeded cel-based animation. The Flash movies featured on such Web sites as giantheads and Homestar Runner exhibit the same expressive techniques as Looney Tunes and differ from their predecessors only in the slightest degree: from running time to punchline, the blueprint is the same: the relationship of one recurring character to another has its analogue, and the postmodern wit is intact. Looney Tunes installments attained self-consciousness when they precociously referred to their own animatedness, as well as when the characters addressed the audience, thus violating diegetic space. They also contained sly nods to icons of global culture such as Veronica Lake, Humphrey Bogart, and Adolf Hitler, just as the work of giantheads and Homestar Runner refers to eBay, hip hop, and professional wrestling. If the average extroverted reference of Looney Tunes concerned an individual, and the average extroverted reference in the new animation concerns corporations and cultural institutions, that distinction cannot, of course, be attributed to technical differences between cel-based animation and the animations created by programs such as Flash. However, the differences between live-action movies on the Internet and more traditional modes of cinema are fertilized most notably by technical discrepancies.

Lens-based animation, or stop-motion, is more appropriate to the discussion of Web-hosted cinema as a unique formal entity because it is sequestered from the cel-based model, restricted in most capacities to the tools required for live-action movie-making: an image-recording device, a lens set to a certain focal distance, and physical elements situated in physical space. Thus, many of the limitations which season live-action movies on the Internet also characterize stop-motion movies. Two ideal examples of this primitive cinematic form are to be found in Blue Tuesday and The Battle of New Orleans.

Lisa g's Blue Tuesday is an intimate love story featuring two characters represented by Barbie-esque dolls. The movie is contagiously melancholy in its sedate exploitation of erotic nostalgia. Its two-and-a-half-minute running time comprises three key scenes: the protagonist subjects her lover to a drastic haircut; they dance. The third and framing scene, with which the story begins and to which it frequently returns, depicts the presumably abandoned lover performing an auto-erotic act while mourning the demise of the relationship. The success of Lisa g's visual recipe is two-fold: the selection of angles used to express the psychological distinctions between intimacy and isolation; and the relatively deliberate duration of each sequence. Here, sheer technique has magically lent emotional resonance to personified plastic.

The Battle of New Orleans, by Reverend Menacer Studios, is based on the song of the same title recorded in 1959 by Johnny Horton. The movie foregoes dialogue and live sound: it is merely a visual approximation of almost every lyric of the song from which it draws its inspiration, no matter how brief or how irrelevant to the eponymous historical event.

"We took a little bacon, and we took a little beans..."

"We fired our cannon till the barrel melted down
So we grabbed an alligator, and we fought another round."

The Battle of New Orleans is a work of modest means which overwhelms one with its remarkable visual accomplishment. With its tracking shots, focus changes, visual gags and rhymes, and the incongruously dry asides of its epic mise-en-scene, it has much to admire and much to teach anyone interested in the purely visual capacity of DV storytelling, regardless of form or genre. It is so richly layered that multiple viewings are not as much recommended as required.

One can only hope that the successors of cel-based animation will achieve some distinction in the Web context, but one fears that there are too few limitations to coerce this generation of animators into a state of sustained innovation. It should be clear to us by now that durable works of art in any form arise from nothing less than man's dialectical response to his limitations—spiritual, amatory, economic, imaginary. As Cocteau said, "The spirit of creation is the spirit of contradiction."

Nathan Snyder

Like Blue Tuesday and The Battle of New Orleans, Nathan Snyder's Gorilla Snomobilly eschews live sound elements in favor of setting silent action to a single piece of music. It is also, like The Battle of New Orleans, a very silly movie, which makes it a very efficient subject for analysis: it can be discussed easily in terms of the superficial tendencies of the form, without requiring any undue fuss over content.

Gorilla Snomobilly is a roughly three-and-a-half-minute live-action movie which originated on black-and-white Super-8mm reversal film stock. It was filmed with an antique Sankyo LXL-145 movie camera audaciously outfitted with a Cinemascope projector lens and mounted on a tripod situated in an impressive amount of snow. The movie was telecined with a Bell & Howell projector and a borrowed Canon GL-1. No anamorphic lens was used to uncompress the image from 1.33:1 to 2.66:1. The vertical dimension of the image was later reduced by half (to 720 pixels by 240 pixels) in Sonic Foundry's Vegas, in which the film was also edited. "Not a complicated system," says Snyder. "It was very crude actually." [24] This technical aside serves only to demonstrate that Web-hosted cinema can have an elaborate trans-media pedigree.

The story begins as a snowmobile and its rider drift gracefully into the frame. A gorilla waddles up to the idling snowmobile, grabs a stick, and knocks the rider from the seat. The gorilla then mounts the snowmobile and rides away, at which point we have a brief "skip" in film syntax, an unintentional redundancy of action resulting from an insufficient amount of footage (the shooting ratio was 1.2:1 [25]). Moments later, the gorilla attacks a "snowbunny," a woman of indeterminate age extensively wrapped in warm clothing. As the gorilla leaps from the snowmobile to assault the snowbunny, the camera is positioned at a low angle from which the action is slightly obscured by branches in the foreground. The camera then cuts to an clean angle of the same scene, the decisive act of violence having occurred in the interim. The gorilla continues on the snowmobile, leaving the snowbunny unconscious or dead in the snow. At this point, even amid the dancing pixels of file compression, one can see massive flakes of snow gently drifting downward. As the screen fades to black, the contemplative piece of music, until now instrumental, is accompanied by the forlorn lyrics, "I wish it would snow."

Beyond the techniques employed in camera-handling and editing, the hypnotic value of Gorilla Snomobilly may be attributed to any number of its unique qualities: the stark black-and-white image, the contradictory music, the Cinemascope presentation, the surreal but unpretentious charm of the story, the enchanting snow which has greedily swallowed the periphery.

But the technique is even more addictive.

The gorilla is introduced to the story by way of a brief, frenetic montage within which the 180° rule is brashly violated. The brevity of the shots and the disruption of space are more than sufficient to disorient the viewer: four cuts present four distinct angles within a period of three seconds. This burst of editing acumen on Snyder's part does not suggest a clinical application of Eisenstein's gilded theories but rather follows—though not self-consciously—the arrangement and pace of an action sequence in the later work of Peckinpah: an exorbitant number of cosmetic cuts (that is, unnecessary cuts), laced with poetic non-sequitur, excite in the viewer a visceral disquiet. This is a style situated in the belly and not in the head—which explains why Peckinpah has had so few imitators.

The subtle pantomime of Gorilla Snomobilly further challenges our instincts for processing visual stimuli. Though helmeted and visored, the first victim exhibits maleness: he rises to an intimidating static pose when confronted by the gorilla, and for this we unconsciously deem him a "him." The snowbunny, physical features obscured by hat and scarf, flees with a degree of hesitance, arms flailing, the actor's pantomime highly suggestive of femininity. The credits confirm both suspicions.

We cannot understand even words in their exact sense if we cannot see the facial expression and gestures of those who speak. For the spoken word contains only a fragment of human expression...Together with the sounds and voices of things we see their physiognomy. [26]

In Gorilla Snomobilly, there is neither speech nor facial expression; there is only the physiognomy of bodies as objects in motion. It is rare that every character in a film is without a face. The result is a sort of sophisticated puppetry which one-ups the raw physicality of silent film.

Snyder is a craftsman who humbly bills himself as nothing more than the "camera operator." His Web site, too, seems to reflect a technical voracity which thrives at the expense of aesthetic discernment. Snyder's achievement in Gorilla Snomobilly can be measured in terms of the craftsmanship described by Ray:

By craftsmanship I do not mean the superficial gloss, which one can well do without. I mean the most effective use of the means at one's disposal. [27]

If Jarrod Whaley's work feels like a series of intimate confessions, then Nathan Snyder's, by contrast, feels like sublime advertising—it has the empty magnetism of superior propaganda. There is nothing personal about the subject matter of Gorilla Snomobilly, nothing at all thematically compelling. Its silliness is not clever but campy. The thing is simply very watchable. And though it may look like sun-baked crocodile hide, it feels like the moist flank of a bottle-nosed dolphin. To explain this paradox, I reiterate Ray's distinction between "superficial gloss and the most effective use of the means at one's disposal."

It is easy to imagine Whaley studiously imbibing the milestones of cinema (see his Free Film Club), penning and revising every detail of a shot (see the evolution of his script for Pieces), and citing each allusion in a given work, no matter how furtive (see his introduction to Type). Likewise, it is easy to imagine Nathan Snyder gently steering a tripod while lensing a casual enactment of events loosely described by a collaborator; finishing a single take; and moving on without any ado. "While everything else was done impulsively," he admits, "I did plan the framing of my shots." [28]

Post-Production Effects

It is only in a drastic simplification of style and content that hope for the Indian cinema resides. — Ray [29]

Many working in digital video feel comfortable relying on effects-oriented software to supplement their native ability as storytellers—or perhaps they feel compelled to utilize superfluous features on their cameras as well as on their desktops in order to justify the comparatively monumental expense of certain hardware and computer applications. In any case, it is painfully evident that the time and money spent on post-production in most DV efforts is ridiculously disproportionate to the time and resources dedicated to planning and production. Even an unscripted movie which stars only one's family members is likely to contain a fabricated gunshot wound or explosion which appears superior in realization and resolution to the rest of the movie in which it has been carefully but inadvisably embedded. In most cases, plot and characterization have been dispensed with, and the viewer is left with nothing but the proverbial gunshot wound or explosion in which to invest his attention.

Quiet Darkness, a three-minute movie by Dylan and Joseph Conner, is an almost clinical illustration of this click-a-trick syndrome. According to the final composited image, the world is destroyed by conflagration. The problem is not inherent in the fire billowing over suburban rooftops; the problem is that the climactic spectacle informs the plot to the extent that nothing else seems to happen. The only character sits in a bare room, spellbound by a completely uncinematic inertia (the movie's fatalism is distressing), listening to a radio and waiting, as it were, for the special effects to take over. The "live action" is willingly subservient to post-production software.

Though visual trickery has always been a mode of expression in narrative cinema, it has never, in skilled hands, been an end in itself.

Those who have seen Intolerance will know the breath-taking effect of the [crane] shot. This is something which could only have been conceived by someone who had something new and important to say and was stubborn and inventive enough to devise a way of saying it.... [30] There is no such thing as an effect for its own sake in the films of the old masters. The true artist is recognizable in his style and his attitude... [31]

Early film artists from Sjöström to Cocteau eagerly mastered in-camera special effects by using unconventional angles, mirrors, and multiple exposures, working as inventively as Griffith to express something visually which could not have been expressed without the invention of a new technique. But for those of us working with new technologies, such creative challenges have been removed. Our needs have been anticipated. Technological progress has eased our burden as artists, and we can relax. But we should envy the tenacity of Cocteau, who devised certain methods to bring his verbally poetic sensibility to the cinema for a sleight-of-hand which was more inventive—and more expressive of a distinct personality—than any standardized post-production trickery available to us today.

In a John Ford western—I think it is Fort Apache—a platoon of cavalrymen under a stubborn and foolish Henry Fonda faces an onslaught of Red Indians and is wiped out in a matter of seconds. Men and horses sprawl on the ground and a cloud of dust slowly rises to conceal the pain and ignominy of defeat. Examples of such poetisation of violence abound in the work of the best American directors. [32]

Web-hosted cinema in the horror genre demonstrates that now more than ever visual storytellers are interested in the path of least resistance: literal-minded overstatement at the expense of carefully cultivated tension, violence which is reportorially direct rather than poetically suggestive.

In the two-minute Deadwood, a pair of young lovers are interrupted from their steamy interlude by a menacing sound outside their van. The young woman urges the young man to investigate the noise, which he reluctantly does. The young woman waits alone in the van, building tension with her convincingly fearful antics. Eventually she opens the side door to find her lover's severed head impaled on a stick. The head is shown from a variety of angles, allowing us to scrutinize the minutiae of the effect. Finally, it seems we are meant to be impressed with it rather than scared by it.

Blame, a "three-minute chiller," concerns an amnesiac's confrontation with a violent crime he does not remember having committed. As he wakes, his disorientation well-established, he stares at a bound and gagged man whose death seems to have resulted from a gaping, bloody head wound which is shown in various degrees of close-up. The director of Blame apparently does not realize that the emotional or psychological impact of the wound would be increased by showing the reaction of the amnesiac. Forced to stare at the gash, one loses interest in everything else. In fact, one forgets that there is anything else.

As indicated in particular by Quiet Darkness and Deadwood, certain Web-hosted movies may arise from the sheer novelty of producing a given optical illusion. Increasingly, storytelling may have less to do with the artist expressing himself and more to do with the software expressing itself.

Running Time

People take up a book of short stories and say, "Oh, what's this? Just a lot of those short things?" and put it right down again...Literature, it appears, is here measured by a yard-stick.
— Dorothy Parker [33]

"People" react this way not only to the brevity of Web-hosted movies but also to the apparent illegitimacy of their being available for free on the Internet. These conditions are the insignia of the hobbyist. But, I would continue to argue alongside Parker's defense of the short story,

the newer writers are good; they write with feeling and honesty and courage, and they write well. They do not prostitute their talents for money; they do not add words because they are to be paid by the word; scarcely, indeed, do they violate their amateur standing. [34]

My longer-winded recommendation would indulge in similarly gushing tones, though the words "integrity" and "distilled" and "visceral" might pollute the otherwise simple clarity of my affection for a Jarrod Whaley, a Nathan Snyder, a Lisa g, or a Reverend Menacer.

Of Hemingway's first short story collection, In Our Time, Parker writes:

[T]here were a few that went about quick and stirred with admiration for this clean, exciting prose, but most of the reviewers dismissed this volume with a tolerant smile and the word "stark." [35]

Just as Hemingway's prose was an acquired taste for a self-consciously literate public accustomed to the highly discussable slow-motion antics of James and Dreiser, so will short movies on the Internet require some adjustment in our critical perception. These little movies are "stark" because they are confined to a palette of primary colors; they move like muscle and marrow denuded of that succulent fat we systematically over-praise at decadent awards ceremonies in temperate climates. This lack hardly qualifies as a shortcoming.

Comparing Web-hosted cinema to the venerable short story form is a predictable defense. Riskier is a direct comparison with a particularly venerated author.

Mr. Hemingway's style, this prose stripped to its firm, young bones, is far more effective, far more moving in the short story than in the novel. [36]

The visual storytellers responsible for the work I have showcased in this spotty analysis are by no means successfully auditioning for feature filmmaking. Each seems to understand the short form and is loyal to it. Their "prose" is "stripped to its "firm, young bones," and the result is good. In the case of Whaley, my suspicion that a longer movie is, at this juncture, beyond the reach of his powers is confirmed by his 34-minute Short Change, which nobly attempts to be an image-driven story of sibling codependency. As expected, the movie is visually engaging despite being noticeably resource-poor; sound design continues to be a point of creative destitution; there is some kind of hollow-seeming reverberation in the hull of the story. But my self-imposed jurisdiction in this essay does not encompass any sustained nitpicking of work which falls outside the realm of Web-hosted cinema (Short Change is available on a well-produced DVD from Oak Street Films).

A relatively modest running time is, for the moment, mandatory in this new form. There is no question that the scope of an experience should be relative to its physical container, and current information-carrying technology dictates a smallness of scope which rhymes with the native abilities of those who are pioneering this new cinema (I realize there is a chicken-or-egg quandary in this too-convenient relationship, but either solution would be immaterial). Art forms have been known to evolve from preexisting venues—in the most relevant instance, the asocial aspects of the theater were transposed with hardly a modification to the cinema. With that in mind, one would notice that the computer has more superficial affinity—in terms of size and orientation—with a television set than with a movie screen. Why, then, does it seem a foregone conclusion that the Internet would be modified to accommodate an institution genetically bound to the cinema? Because there is an already-exploited potential for visual storytelling on the Internet to be non-commercial and non-serial in nature, it will very likely continue, by and large, to bear a much closer resemblance to the cinema than to television. As commercial Web sites devise new methods to stratify advertising in an attempt to replicate and exceed the Faustian success of television, personal Web sites featuring independently produced movies will grow in number and develop loyal audiences, challenging if not supplanting the view of Internet video as the direct spawn of the television model.

The Messiah of Digital Venues

My feeling has always been that a theatrical venue is perfectly suited to movies under two hours in length. Very long films such as Wenders' Kings of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit) and Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse urge one to divide them into installments as one would do with a long, absorbing novel. Because the subjects of these films are far more intimate than spectacular—an undulant friendship between two dispossessed men, an elderly painter's laborious reproduction of his increasingly invested model—each is amenable to unraveling its predominantly quiet events on a screen of very modest dimensions.

Web-hosted cinema presupposes certain other nuances of "venue" which distinguish it from those still-prevailing ancestors known as "the big screen" and "the small screen." Just as no one could imagine a three-hour opera staged in a small Off-Broadway theater (or, for that matter, a thirty-minute opera staged in a vast national opera house), no one should look forward to streaming Lawrence of Arabia into his starkly fluoresced office cubicle.

With their minuscule casts of characters, notably disparate playwrights of the twentieth century facilitated a terminal shrinking of the stage. From Molière to Ibsen to Beckett, the stage has evolved from the massive spectacles of the aristocracy to a theater of intimacy which haunts small converted garages where audiences hunch on mismatched and mangled bleachers.

The cinema has likewise been shaping itself toward the small since the advent of television. Hollywood's first response to the insidious little box of light was literally to expand in order to offer its patron something the new medium could not mimic: the average screen size in American movie theaters was dramatically increased. Even so, Hollywood was made aware of its own mortality. Samuel Goldwyn's 1949 article "Hollywood in the Television Age" was uncannily prescient in its suggestion that movie studios could send their products along telephone wires directly into the homes of individual viewers. [37] It was probably not quite as easy to surmise in 1949 that the movie-making infrastructure would be distilled to its essence in a bloodless revolution and trickled into the hands of the ticket-buyers themselves. Nevertheless it has happened. However, instead of creating our own venues and offering something that is not offered by the hundred-year-old institution of the cinema, we are choosing to wait in an imaginary line in order, eventually, to present our work to an audience which has already been assembled by this institution. This is a kind of laziness, a lack of both vision and ingenuity. If successful minor playwrights in San Francisco, Houston, or Philadelphia were to wait in a similar line to stage their plays on Broadway, they would simply go unstaged.

This is not meant to imply that Web-hosted cinema is the only acceptable course. There is the more literally analogous microcinema or video festival. But being built on the film festival paradigm, these too show a lack of ingenuity, a lack of eagerness to evolve. The fact that many event organizers are also working creatively in visual media prophesies an eventual loss of momentum: finally, either the artist or the event organizer will weary of his plight. Consider the example of Antero Alli's Nomad VideoFilm Festival: the tedious maintenance of an exhibitive infrastructure is not an office suited to the temperament of the authentic artist. The social engineer will tire of aspiring to art, or the artist will tire of providing for peers who exemplify, as artists often do, an unconscionable lack of practical and emotional reciprocity and fail even to express adequate gratitude concerning their benefactors' charity.

Because they fall within the paradigmatic scheme of mainstream movie theaters and traditional film festivals, microcinemas and video festivals are not fundamentally an alternative cinema. The most fundamentally alternative cinema is that found on the Web sites of individuals and production entities, wherein can be witnessed for the first time an effortless display of the outrageous power of the individual or small group to produce a movie and show it to a physically boundless audience without submitting the work for the dubious approval of a selection committee—without, in fact, performing a qualifying ritual of any kind. With this in mind, it seems that venue-free Web-hosted cinema may be the unrecognized messiah of democratized movie production: instead of choosing one movie from a selection offered by a certain venue—online or otherwise—the viewer instead would visit private Web sites which screen only the work of the site's owner(s). The antiquated neutral venue—a place which makes available movies representing a broad range of resources, genres, and creative personnel—would no longer try to replicate itself on the Internet. Instead of buying one's cheese from the limited deli of a grocery, one would be buying it directly from the farm—without having to drive any farther, without having to pay the egregious mark-ups of a middleman. One could take pride in chaste transactions between manufacturer and consumer, rather than perpetuating impersonal and often fatiguing transactions between supplier and consumer. And finally there is the most appealing reason for viewers of cultivated taste to go directly to the source: to get precisely what they want without having to contend with the unnavigable melee of superfluous variety.

Given these parameters, the Internet may come to be the domain of the most tenacious visual storytellers of the twenty-first century, nor does it need to be theorized or justified into a position of supremacy. As Hollywood encumbers the less astute—and less committed—with the discreet fly paper of perpetual upgrading, those who are most sincerely interested in pursuing their art beyond the aroma of wealth and fame will be satisfied using the distribution channel of a simple FTP program.

(Not Quite) A Theory of Web-hosted Cinema

Web-hosted cinema has shown some promising tendencies, but it is far too early to make dogmatic pronouncements about a standardization of the form. What genres should it encompass? What is the ideal running time? It seems that almost every aspect of digital cinema will be subject to evolution in bold but erratic increments, and where the Internet is concerned, that will be doubly the case. In her book Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray demonstrates that, historically, new technologies have never been fully realized on arrival.

In 1455, Gutenberg invented the printing press—but not the book as we know it. Books printed before 1501 are called incunabula; the word is derived from the Latin for swaddling clothes and is used to indicate that these books are the work of a technology still in its infancy. It took fifty years of experimentation and more to establish such conventions as legible typefaces and proof sheet corrections; page numbering and paragraphing; and title pages, prefaces, and chapter divisions, which together made the published book a coherent means of communication. [38]

Elucidating the potential of a Web-hosted cinema to facilitate great art is not the same as attempting to define its course or predict any characteristics it might manifest in its mature state (if the concept of a "mature state" is tenable when considering technology which seems to ordain its own permutations). Nonetheless, certain things must be taken into account if a theoretical foundation is to be laid.

The most noticeable characteristic of Web-hosted cinema—so noticeable that any mention of it may be a redundancy—is its mortality rate. When Henry Jenkins wrote his essay "Quentin Tarantino's Star Wars?: Digital Cinema, Media Convergence, and Participatory Culture," thirty-eight Web-hosted movies served as references in his "digital bibliography." At the time of this writing, only sixteen of those movies are still available for viewing.

In 1991, Inez Hedges asserted that

[t]he critic who writes about film now does so for a much wider audience. Since the experience of films is no longer limited to their short runs in movie theaters or occasional revivals in art houses, they have increasingly become the subject of discussions and private reflections among the general public. This has meant a growth in the readership of books about film as well. [39]

Delightfully true in 1991. But this new branch of cinema will and does suffer from the equivalent of "short runs in movie theaters." As Jenkins' online references dwindle and fade, his illustrations and arguments will cultivate an unkind patina; their applicability will not endure beyond the abbreviated life span of their antecedents. Hedges' generic "critic," if writing about Web-hosted cinema, may quickly find himself indulging in specious analyses of unverifiable arcana. Nick Rombes has pointed out that

[g]ood teaching always depends on maintaining some aura of mystique, and for film professors this mystique has traditionally emerged from the ability to marshal diverse sources (film clips, screenplays, interviews). [40]

Theorists and professors who are amenable to the ideological dogpile of the Information Age have welcomed the general accessibility of their "diverse sources," thereby defying Rombes' portrait of the professor as invincible guardian of knowledge. But it may not be in the best interest of a great critical mind to devote itself to such fleeting enterprises as the study of individual Web-hosted movies. Esteemed RKO horror producer Val Lewton once remarked that making films was like "writing on water," the cinema being a form more readily subject to expiration than were the forms which predated it. [41] But how much more so a cinema which is not exhibited in "print" form to begin with? A cinema which exists only as a master on a computer which also may "forget" about it?

Beyond this prominent phenomenon of ephemerality among Web-hosted movies is an arguably related trend for which the artist himself is more directly responsible.

In a BRAINTRUSTdv interview, Alí Allié suggests the primary reason that the traditional aura of the initial cinematic experience must not be diminished.

I hear a song on the radio, I go buy the album because I heard the song and I like the song and I want to possess the song, and what I want to buy is the repeated experience, not the initial experience. With film you are selling the mystery of the initial experience. [42]

What happens when this initial experience is insulted in advance?

On the introductory page of Wo & Co.'s Saturday Night (these introductory pages themselves will need to be woven in the nexus of theory), the soon-to-be viewer is notified that "Wo & Co. hopes to re-shoot this whole movie. Now that we have better equipment." [43] There is an unequivocal apology here which grows from certain semantic ovules: "re-shoot," "whole movie," "better equipment." There is no sense of aesthetic maturation or any reason to scrap the first version other than its alleged technical inferiority. But to what is it technically inferior?

We should realize that, while art has a history, it has no development in the sense of growth or increase in aesthetic values. We do not consider the paintings of Renoir or Monet more precious or perfect than those of Cimabue or Giotto. There is no development in the objective side of art but there is development on the part of those who enjoy art or are connoisseurs of art...[A]nd when we speak of a development of subjective human faculties, we do not mean the development of aesthetic values. [44]

Wo & Co., in their prefatory apology, are mistaking technical values for aesthetic values, and so, naturally, they mistake quantitative value for qualitative value. The only technical flaw which inhibits the success of Saturday Night is its reliance on a final line of stylized dialogue. If this detail were repaired, the movie would be functional. As it is, the movie is scheduled for replacement in toto. Just as our learning to use ever-new technology binds us to a state of perpetual initialization, we likewise corral forward-moving creative energies in elliptical holding patterns by considering a single project in terms of multiple renditions.

Nathan Snyder similarly disclaims the first version of Gorilla Snomobilly: "It may get Foley and voice over in the future. If it does a second telecine transfer will also be done as this one is a bit contrasty resulting in a lack of detail in the shadows. Please don't be too critical as only one 50 foot cartridge was used." [45] As of this writing, the bottom of the movie's introductory page features a note urging the viewer to "check back" for a link to download a "redux version" which "includes all the sound effects and dialogue needed to make this piece of camp more campy." [46]

These prefatory remarks, like those of Wo & Co., project a unique sense of futility on the spectatorial act. In both cases, the potential viewer is being warned that the ensuing experience will be subject to expiration and replacement.

Alí Allié, whose Espiritu de Mi Mama is available in a seemingly static version from Vanguard, suggests that his lyrical first film is not in its final state.

[I]t still keeps changing. I feel it hasn't even settled yet. I think DVD is a good final medium for it because the ultimate presentation will have three different versions—not as a gimmick or "just because it's possible," but because the arrival at the different variations has been part of its process and journey. [47]

What I have referred to as the "perennial malleability" of digital video [48] is quickly becoming synonymous with a perennial malleability of individual works created with these new tools. We tend to think of literature as being amiable to editing and emendation, but even in this case, I think of Lawrence Durrell, one of the best English-language prosateurs the world has known, and his ability to write without revision. On the other hand, there is Paul Bowles, whose policy of inserting the "perfect adjectives" only after having the "skeleton constructed," seems to be responsible for the stodgy quality of his prose. [49] But why make analogies to literature in the first place? The visual arts have rarely supported revision. Often, a painter would make a series of studies while cultivating his vision for a painting, but these studies were in no way a surrogate for the final product.

A great use of digital video technology to "sketch a study" can be attributed to the pre-production of Ram Madhvani's Let's Talk, the first Indian movie to be transferred from MiniDV to 35mm for national distribution. Madhvani shot what he calls a "scratch film" using the actors and the script which would be used in the final movie. This initial version was shot over three days and cursorily edited before being shown to a small group of people whose opinions the director trusted. After this intimate screening, Madhvani made significant changes to the script and to his conception of the film, and then set out to make Let's Talk. In a BRAINTRUSTdv interview, Madhvani explains that the precedent for this method can be found in the advertising industry. "This process actually came from advertising. We are doing scratch films all the time, and we are researching them all the time." But both the impetus and the result were different when it came to making a study for a feature film.

I found that when I was making the scratch film there was a sense of freedom that allows you to be a lot less insecure. The two quotes that I like are: one, if you are not living on the edge, you are wasting space; and, two, if you are living on the edge, you might as well jump off. With the scratch film we could jump off and yet have a safety net. [50]

A less flamboyant revival of the notion of the intermediary work is encountered in Jarrod Whaley's Slow Night, which functioned as a template to test certain expressive techniques Whaley intended to use in the significantly longer Pieces. "I'm really glad I tested out a few things with Slow Night first. I'm doing some stuff I've never done before, like stretching panty hose over my lens and experimenting with expressionistic lighting." [51].

The distinction between a "study" and a "version" or "draft" is simply this: the study is an entity unto itself which does not vie with the final product for which it served as a preparation. The study is used to supplement or guide the artist's vision as it escalates to the level of vigorous application required for the commencement of the greater work. If digital video enables us to revive the institution of the preliminary study, which has been integral to visual arts such as painting and sculpture, its perennial malleability will have been put to appropriate use. If, however, it is used merely to issue version after version of a single work, it will merely have retarded our impetus to create anew.

After having seen an early cut of The House of Sand and Fog in March, 2003, I was so enamored of the film that I refused to see it in its official release state eight months later. Nothing could have been improved. Any changes would have diluted the rare moral ambiguity of its otherwise Shakespearean finale. I will likewise preserve my experience of the original Gorilla Snomobilly against its increased "camp." The work may be malleable in the opinion of the artist, but my experience of it is immutable. Inevitably, this leads me to consider a theory of spectatorship: if artistic integrity does not lie in the hands of the visual storyteller, it must lie in the hands of the viewer.

The evolution of the spectator's control over his cinematic experience must be taken into account. Web-hosted cinema did not evolve from television or the cinema of the congregated audience; it evolved from the sensibilities of home-format cinema. Like the VCR throughout its history, Web-hosted cinema gives the viewer unprecedented control over his experience, elevating consumption to a sovereign, individualized act—thus the implications of a theory or ethics of spectatorship.

Had Web-hosted cinema evolved directly from the cinema of public exhibition, we would panic at the pauses which occur when a file re-loads. In a movie theater, a pause means the film has snapped or burned. Only with the coming of the VCR were we able to stop a movie and return to it. The interruption of the motion picture required a new faculty—or an amendment to an existing faculty—with which to read the language of the cinema as it evolved into the era of home formats.

It is a great pity that the scholars dealing with the arts have up to now concerned themselves chiefly with already existing works of art and not at all with the subjective faculties which, created through dialectical interaction, enable us to see and appreciate the newly-emerging beautiful things. [52]

We will continue to develop and refine these faculties, and as we do, new taste-criteria will emerge. At first, aesthetic and theoretical debates will rage. The current minuscule screen will be deemed insufficient for the creation of a plausible diegetic space. But our faculties will evolve, and we will accept the size of the screen, and it will no longer be a property fit for critical resistance—just as we no longer characterize the advent of color film stock as detrimental to the art of film. And these faculties will not tailor themselves exclusively to passive consumption as they did in Balázs' time. The viewer will more actively govern his viewing, thereby increasing his investment and responsibility.

In the cases of Wo & Co., Nathan Snyder, and Alí Allié, we see that the manifestation of art as a consumable final product has capitulated to a serial mentality on the part of the artist: the work no longer exists as singular and immutable but is subject to revision and re-creation over time (the precedent for this may be found in few analogues other than Whitman's Leaves of Grass, which was published in several incarnations, and George Lucas' original Star Wars trilogy, which was re-released including special effects the director could not afford twenty years earlier). The viewer is expected to acknowledge and accept this new ethics of replaceability and adjust his critical perception accordingly. Regardless of syntax, the essence of the disclaimers preemptively offered by Wo & Co. and Snyder seems to be: "Due to a lack of resources or deficiency of vision, I am temporarily offering you an inferior experience." If the artist argues that he is showing us a rough draft of a final version rather than a faulty version complete unto itself, this is not a satisfactory distinction. It brings to mind Nabokov's remark that a rough draft is not intended for any eyes but the author's: "Only ambitious non-entities and hearty mediocrities exhibit their rough drafts. It is like passing around a sample of one's sputum." [53]

There are theoretical elements to be examined here. It seems safe to say that the visual storyteller in the Web context interacts with the viewer in much the same way a director in Hollywood's studio era would have interacted with a producer or studio executive. Though this former relationship would have been created under duress, the new "version" of the relationship has the viewer fulfilling the role of the producer or executive—en masse and anonymously, mind you—at the behest of the creative party. Whereas previously, as the stereotype has it, the pretentious and difficult director would be contemptuously reticent while unwillingly screening his work-in-progress to the less sensitive and less forgiving eyes of the non-artist, now he is desperate to reveal every flaw and make perfunctory excuses for the shabbiness of his results. But this analogy takes us into cultural theory: online journaling is an identical phenomenon: while the institution of the diary was once cherished as a private place to vent frustrations, gestate love, and reveal all manner of secrets to an inanimate confessor, it is now a literary form in which one gleefully performs a burlesque in a small corner of an enormous tent at an infinite circus, aware of one's audience only as a disembodied abstraction. Online journaling and Web-hosted cinema demonstrate that culturally we have arrived at a moment in which privacy—artistic, personal, or otherwise—is unnecessary and undesirable. We are shedding it like the vestiges of a religion we have been talked out of. The explanation may simply be that the cancer of immediate gratification which has come to define us economically may have begun to define us artistically and interpersonally: as storytellers we want an instant reaction from an ever-present audience; as people we want an abrupt, uniform intimacy with everyone who happens by. These relationships—person to person, artist to connoisseur—are created in a physical void. As privacy becomes obsolete and art grows increasingly subject to an instability projected onto it by the artist himself, mankind achieves both spatial and spiritual de-realization, the boundaries of his individual consciousness dissolving until there is a liquid unity of human thought and expression—journal entries are fused with responses and responses to those responses; Web-hosted movies are re-shot, re-edited, re-uploaded until every subtle shade of the viewer's experience is finally robbed of its validity, subjected not to alteration but to deterioration. What is reliable in art is consequently strong; what is unreliable is consequently feeble.

In the golden age of the old visual arts, the painter...could paint the spirit and the soul without becoming 'literary,' for the soul and the spirit had not yet been confined in concepts capable of expression only by means of words; they could be incarnated without residue...But since then the printing press has grown to be the main bridge over which the more remote interhuman spiritual exchanges take place and the soul has been concentrated and crystallized chiefly in the word. There was no longer any need for the subtler means of expression provided by the body. For this reason our bodies grew soulless and empty—what is not in use, deteriorates. [54]

Paradoxically, Web-hosted cinema is also showing a tendency toward a reclamation of these subtler means of expression. As the work of Jarrod Whaley indicates, digital video provides an exceptional canvas for the formerly uncinematic mode of self-portraiture. If this potential is realized and exploited, the interhuman spiritual exchanges which pre-dated the residue of words will be the chief artistic currency once again. The deterioration of the soul which was underwritten by utilitarian applications of language will have been reversed. What early film theorists heralded as dormant potential will finally be awakened.

Psychological and logical analysis has shown that words are not merely images expressing our thoughts and feelings but in most cases they're a priori limiting forms. This is at the root of the danger of stereotyped banality which so often threatens the educated. Here again the evolution of the human spirit is a dialectical process. Its development increases its means of expression and the increase of means of expression in its turn facilitates and accelerates its development. Thus if then the film increases the possibilities of expression, it will also widen the spirit it can express. [55]

If digital video increases the possibilities of expression, it will also widen the spirit it can express.

These first micropsychological self-portraits will strike a "wrong" chord, but eventually we will see them as a warranted function of the new cinematic art. When, in the 1970s, young, inexperienced writers began publishing autobiographies rather than first novels, it seemed ludicrous—and it seems ludicrous still today. But at the time, literature had stalled, and what was needed much more urgently than another "great American novel" was a brief but intense period in which the seeds of honesty and sincerity were firmly replanted into the stagnant soil of serious writing.

In closing this initial compilation of scattered notes, I want to mute my seeming obsession with a limited resurgence of the principles and sensibilities of the silent era of filmmaking. I am not hoping for the reintroduction of a viable silent cinema. Along with Ray, I am merely suggesting that we may have begun to rediscover the inherent magic and the fundamental mechanisms of the medium by invoking its formative essence.

There is a healthy tendency these days to try and restore the purity of the medium lost in the deluge of words, or, in other words, to find one's way back to the original sources of inspiration. [56]

1. Ray, Satyajit. "A Long Time on a Little Road." Our Films, Their Films. New York: Hyperion, 1994. "A Long Time on a Little Road" was distilled from My Years with Apu, a fairly strict memoir which is more informative and less engaging.

2. Ray, Satyajit. "Silent Films." Our Films, Their Films. New York: Hyperion, 1994.

3. Arnheim, Rudolf. Film as Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

4. Ibid.

5. Ray, Satyajit. "The Odds Against Us." Our Films, Their Films. New York: Hyperion, 1994.

6. Ray. "Silent Films."

7. Arnheim.

8. Ibid.

9. Balázs, Béla. Theory of the Film: Character and Growth of a New Art. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1970.

10. Ray. "Silent Films."

11. Balázs.

12. Ray, Satyajit. "Some Italian Films I Have Seen." Our Films, Their Films. New York: Hyperion, 1994.

13. Ray, Satyajit. "Film Making." Our Films, Their Films. New York: Hyperion, 1994.

14. Arnheim.

15. Ray. "Some Italian Films I Have Seen."

16. Whaley, Jarrod. Oak Street Films Manifesto.

17. Ibid.

18. Whaley, Jarrod. BRAINTRUSTdv interview.

19. Ibid.

20. Ray. "Some Italian Films I Have Seen."

21. Whaley, Jarrod. Introduction to Dirty Urges.

22. Ray. "Silent Films."

23. Ray. "A Long Time on a Little Road."

24. Snyder, Nathan. Correspondence with author.

25. Snyder, Nathan. Introduction to Gorilla Snomobilly.

26. Balázs.

27. Ray. Our Films, Their Films.

28. Snyder. Correspondence with author.

29. Ray, Satyajit. "What Is Wrong with Indian Films?" Our Films, Their Films. New York: Hyperion, 1994.

30. Ray. "Silent Films."

31. Ray, Satyajit. "An Indian New Wave?" Our Films, Their Films. New York: Hyperion, 1994.

32. Ray, Satyajit. "Hollywood Then and Now." Our Films, Their Films. New York: Hyperion, 1994.

33. Parker, Dorothy. "A Book of Great Short Stories." The Collected Dorothy Parker. London: Duckworth, 1973.

34. Parker, Dorothy. "The Short Story, through a Couple of the Ages." The Collected Dorothy Parker. London: Duckworth, 1973.

35. Parker. "A Book of Great Short Stories."

36. Ibid.

37. Samuel Goldwyn, "Hollywood in the Television Age," New York Times Magazine, February 13, 1949.

38. Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Boston: MIT Press, 1998.

39. Hedges, Inez. "Introduction." Breaking the Frame: Film Language and the Experience of Limits. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

40. Rombes, Nick. "Professor DVD."

41. Lewton, Val. Quoted in Wheeler Winston Dixon's The Second Century of Cinema: The Past and Future of the Moving Image. Albany: SUNY Press, 2000.

42. Allié, Alí. BRAINTRUSTdv Interview.

43. Wo & Co. Introduction to Saturday Night.

44. Balázs.

45. Snyder. Introduction to Gorilla Snomobilly.

46. Ibid.

47. Allié. BRAINTRUSTdv interview

48. Adams, Alejandro. "The Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall and Rise of Video."

49. Bowles, Paul. In Touch: The Letters of Paul Bowles. New York: Noonday, 1995.

50. Madhvani, Ram. BRAINTRUSTdv Interview.

51. Whaley. Correspondence with author.

52. Balázs.

53. Nabokov, Vladimir. Strong Opinions. New York: Vintage, 1990.

54. Balázs.

55. Balázs.

56. Ray. "Silent Films."

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