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January 06, 2009

BD Live.

Writing about web page

The New York Times give something of a preview to the Consumer Electronics Show, which starts on Wednesday in Vegas.  "Nearly two million square feet of convention hall will be stocked with the latest mobile phones, portable music players, digital cameras and expensive flat-screen televisions."  I don't know much about the event, but I expect it involves a lot of dudes in suits and shades telling anyone who will listen that they represent the next big thing. 

This article focuses upon the challenges facing Blu-Ray in the market.  A central difficulty is how to tell audiences that Blu-Ray is significantly better than DVD (because, well, I'm not convinced that it is).  One of their strategies is to introduce a 'BD Live' service:

Analysts say they expect companies to announce more support for a feature called BD Live (as in Blu-ray disc live), which lets people download additional material from the Internet and interact with friends in text chats that appear on the television while playing a movie.

I often find it annoying enough when I get distracted by a real thing when watching a film.  Let alone a chat box unexpectedly intruding upon the experience.   This feeds into a model of how audiences consume films as digital media that is often propagated in discourses - as one of many 'competing elements', to borrow Aylish Wood's phrase, jostling for perceptual position.  I haven't used XBox live all that much, but in my experience it is less interesting for the social opportunities it provides and more so for how it enhances collaborative gameplay.  I want to talk to people so we can figure out how to shoot these zombies up, not so they can tell me about their day - I have friends to do that with.

It could be interesting to imagine how such a BD Live feature could be used to create collaborative, real-time film criticism - like a user-initiated director's commentary, a phenemenological commentary.  This seems to be more thought and imagination experiments though, as I imagine the appeal and utility would be novel but short-lived.

July 16, 2008

an alternative strategy for state–funded film production

It struck me earlier this week that, from door to door, travelling to the cinema in London takes just a little longer than travelling to Gracie Barra in Birmingham.  So right now I'm taking the BFI's 'Japanese Gems' season as an opportunity to see my first ever Kurosawa films. 

On the train yesterday, towards a screening of Rashomon (aces), I was reading an article by Luisela Alvaray from the latest Cinema Journal about the institutional structures of contemporary Latin American cinema ('National, Regional, and Global: New Waves of Latin American Cinema' Cinema Journal 47:3 Spring 2008 pp48-65).  She describes her area of research as "the interactions and exchanges that, since 1990, have enabled the development of a continuously expanding corpus of Latin American films." (49). 

This fact however struck me as unbelievably odd:

Many of the films sponsored by Brazilian EMBRAFILME and Mexican IMCINE in the 1980s manifested a qualitative, rather than a quantitative, crisis.  Along with a few critically acclaimed films, hard-core porn dominated Brazilian national production, while formulaic and mediocre comedies populated Mexican screens. (51, my emphasis)

It's possible that the author is exaggerating by using the term 'hard-core porn' but, if she is not, what type of jokers were running the state-funded EMBRAFILME in the 1980s?!?  It's ridiculous and hilarious.

In general though, Alvaray's excellent article is filled with facts and figures that I wish I had access to (or discovered myself) when I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on the topic back in 2005.  It perhaps would have help me avoid some of the statements and formulations in there that, when I think back, feel extremely naive.

April 02, 2008

essay writing.

I'm only about half-way through the writing I need to do today, but wanted to stop by and share some things on here.  The chapter isn't going badly (thanks for asking), so far I've written: an introductory anecdote, an explanation of 'the science of digital video', a long methodological consideration, and an orientation to films that have been filmed on digital video.  I was worried, and voiced this concern to JZ last night, that this was all ground-clearing guff. 

After thinking about it more today, it actually makes a fair amount of headway into the chapter and case study.  I'm so used to the way I used to write as an undergraduate (and Masters student, I think): 'introductory paragraph, discuss something someone else has written about this film, extended textual analysis to disprove aforementioned someone else, conclusion'.  If I haven't started writing up analysis of a primary text, then I still feel like I haven't even started the chapter.  On the contrary, I guess that 6000 words worth of 'ground-clearing guff' must actually be quite important to scholarship - otherwise there wouldn't be 6000 words worth of things to be said.  If the reader has no idea about the types of films that have been filmed on digital video, then the 'orientating map' is necessary and actually is primary (and preliminary) work and analysis.  I would take this as a sign that my work and writing is maturing - but instead I'm going to think of it as something that I'm doing wrong.


I'm casually reading 'Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia', an edited collection by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin, at the moment.  I'll study it more intensely as my work returns more generally to the topic of cinephilia, but right now I'm just reading passages every now and then (the form of the book actually lends itself to this).  I came across a couple of paragraphs by Martin, and thought that maybe they rhyme with my past 'on cinema for the sake of it' entry.

Because what is democratic in this video culture is precisely the capacity (or at least the potential) to suspend normative judgement about cinema - reminding me of one of my all-time favourite critical mottoes, the attitude attributed by Louis Seguin to Ado Kyrou of seeking 'surprise rather than satisfaction' and preferring 'discovery to certainty'. (7)


There is a recourse to the high moral ground - and to a certain lamentable purism - in a lot of film criticism today, even some of the most advanced.  We read or hear far too often that there are only half a dozed directors working today who fulfil - or might one day fulfil, if we're all lucky - the potential, the promise of this dazzling medium...As heretical as it sounds, even within this very cabal, I like the sentiment of Deleuze's casual prefatory remark in Cinema I: The Movement-Image: 'The cinema is always as perfect as it can be'.  Meaning that its potentiality, its virtuality is, in some way, right here now - if we know where to look for it, how to maximise it, why it matters, and how to make it dance, for us and in us, like Rouch's privileged, shamanic figure of the dancing Socrates. (7-8)

I'm not sure I would interpret the Deleuze quotation in exactly the same way (and I don't understand what he means by 'virtuality' here), but I don't know the Deleuze text so it is just an aphorism to me.  I like it though, and I didn't think I'd ever say that about a Deleuze quotation. 


Some other things:

I had a nice time at my friend James' birthday party yesterday, although because of work and an impending cold I wasn't on particularly amazing form.

tom and becky 1st april This photo of Becky and I from the party does make me laugh however.

I was pointed towards The Big Think today, which looks like an interesting project.  Like YouTube with intellectual (and slightly elitist) leanings.  I haven't had time to look through it yet, but the one video I did watch was interesting and clear.

The Marlins beat the Mets 5-4 in extra innings last night although Vanden Hurk was pulled in the 4th inning (he'd already made 76 pitches!!!) which isn't particularly promising.

My friend Mike wrote a couple of nice entries yesterday: 'The Pre-Socratics were totally awesome.' (“This world neither any god nor man made, but it always was and is and will be, an ever-living fire, kindling in measures and being extinguished in measures.” - Heraclitus) and 'Roving sample robot' ("And I love the idea of a simple thing like this, the sole purpose of which is to rove about and find sounds and make rhythms, and treat it like its the most important thing in the world.")  Tell him I sent you.

I've made a couple of bets on UFC Fight Night this evening: Din Thomas (-183) over Josh Neer, Frank Edgar (-207) over Gray Maynard, and Kurt Pellegrino (+132) over Nate Diaz.  I always seem to bet for Din Thomas, and against Nate Diaz.  I really like the Lauzon vs Florian main event as well, it's two guys who seem awesome.  There's a fantastic article about Kenny Florian at Sherdog: 'Highbrow brutality' by Joe Hall.  

On the note of UFC, if anyone is geeky enough to get it, this post at Fightlinker is mean but hilarious: 'The most awesome thing EVER

Go look at the new releases by Fantagraphics and buy something!  If I do enough work today, I'm going to treat myself to the new softcover edition of 'Safe Area Gorazde' by Joe Sacco and 'Ganges #2' by Kevin Huizenga.  Only if I do enough work though, yeah?

On that note, I need to get back to work.  I'm on my fifth cup of coffee... 

March 24, 2008

introduction to conference report.

As I had anticipated, the New Developments in Stardom conference at King’s College was a stimulating and enjoyable day – both in intellectual and social terms. I got to see a fair amount of old friends who have worked in the same department with me in Warwick at one time or another (Jon Driskell, Louis Bayman, Tom Brown, James Bennett & Richard Dyer), as well as spend a lovely day with my current department peers Laura, Jim and Sarah (I had written ‘colleagues’ instead of peers, but that sounds professional and horrible; then I changed it to ‘friends’ but that would imply that Jon, Louis et al reneged upon our friendship when they left the department – which is just a lie!).

The highlights of the conference itself were Su Holmes’ brilliant keynote address which, first thing in the morning, persuasively argued for the crucial need for scholars in celebrity studies to account for history, and Sarah Thomas’ fascinating paper about her research in Peter Lorre’s radio work. In her introduction to the conference, Ginette Vincendeau emphasised that this was the first major event organised by graduate students within the expanding Film Studies department at King’s, and the proceedings fortunately felt like a success. I think that I’m going to write three entries about the day (one about Holmes’ keynote, one about the ‘Contemporary Film Stardom’ panel, and one about the afternoon sessions I attended), which will appear gradually as this week progresses.

I have also been reading a fair amount about this week's WEC event, and will try to write a little about at least the main card (in addition to my lengthy preview of the main event) before the event on Wednesday evening.   A few recent articles have appeared since I posted that: 'WEC Champ Marshall is calm before the storm'(MMA Weekly),  'Marine Stann seeks mixed martial arts title' (New York Post), and 'Stann stands for more than himself' (Newsday).  The difference in the media outlets that are covering the two fighters should be pretty evident.

March 22, 2008

New Developments in Stardom conference.

Writing about web page

I'm away in London this weekend, attending the New Developments in Stardom conference at King's College London.  It has been organised by a trio of graduate students, including Jon Driskell who spent a year with us at Warwick (we both did the same Issues of Representation MA module with Richard Dyer back then!).  I'm looking forward to spending time in an extra-cirricular academic environment, and seeing some friends who I haven't hung out with for a little while.  I tend to find functions such as this, places where academic film studies will be discussed, quite exciting and it inspires me to get going on my own work.

The programme for this conference is commendable for its diversity across the scope of media studies.  The panels are ordered by disciplines (TV stardom, film stardom, non-cinematic stardom and, more generally, 'celebrity), and it appears that the keynote speakers, Su Holmes and David L. Andrews, will be talking broadly in areas of TV and film studies respectively.  Of course, these intra-discipline divisions are not exclusive or solid.  I anticipate attending the panel about cinematic stardom (because most of my work is in areas of cinema), and non-cinematic stardom (because my friend Sarah is giving a paper!).  Andrews' keynote, entitled 'The New Hollywood?: Sport, Stardom and the Celebrity Economy', looks particularly intriguing to me, if only because I have been unusually interested in sport recently.  Hopefully I'll take decent notes, and be able to write some here about the conference.


March 17, 2008

i'm trying to properly understand technological determinism and film cultures.

I'm just entering a 'writing phase' at the moment - the end of term gives me that opportunity.  This is a period of time when I plan to write a large amount of words in a short period of time, hopefully enabling myself to give my supervisor a substantial piece of work that we can discuss at length.  These are periods when things begin to come together, on paper rather than abstract and disconnected thoughts and conversations.  I'm working on a planned chapter about the introduction of digital video to cinema production, and the different connotations that it accrued along the way.

One facet of this particular project is the investigation of different film cultures, how a technology travels through different cultures of cinema (in the case of digital video, it is very broadly 'dogme to modern auteurs to hollywood').  This compels me to read some work about film cultures (on which Barbara Klinger's 'Beyond the Multiplex' is the best book I've read so far).  This weekend I've spent some time reading Janet Harbord's 'Film Cultures'.  

There was an observation and an argument that I read last night that interested me - partially because it was the most difficult part of the first chapter, and so I spent much longer handling these ideas than others.  Here, Harbord is investigating the earliest formations of film cultures (defined, broadly, as 'sites where the value of film is produced' [2]) and their relationships to existing socio-cultural formations.  One of her main arguments here is that film cultures are always fluid, constantly susceptible to being altered or reconceptualised.  To illustrate this, she describes how Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer wrote about cinema in the 1930s, and suggests that it shifted away from existing conceptions.  To sketch out the context into which these discourses enter:

The reintegration of life and art in film, however, was to occur in the mainstream if it did at all, a film culture of psychological realism and narrative drama soliciting audience identification.  The formally 'radical' aspects of the cinema of excess, the Melies tradition of magic and trickery, was to take root in the avant-garde tradition of art and aesthetic experimentation, splitting once again a culture of mimesis from a culture of formal play.  It is a split that, I would argue, lives on in what becomes a reconfigured relation of avant-garde and mass culture in specific film cultures. (28)

Her point about Benjamin and Kracauer is that they, as Modernists, both wrote about cinema in a way that attempted to collapse any distinction between art and life - I think (and I'm perfectly prepared to accept that I've misread it) this means that they had in common a belief that, as an art, cinema was not 'outside' of life, and that the two could mutually affect one another.  Harbord references Benjamin as writing that "vision here is not an optical mechanism akin to the camera, but a bodily response, an 'intimate fusion of visual and emotional enjoyment'" (31, Benjamin quote between apostrophes).  The 'bodily response' of the cinema spectator occurs in reality, creating a link between art and life.  In comparison, Kracauer is quoted as saying 'What they [spectators] really crave is for once to be released from the grip of consciousness, lose their identity in the dark, and let sink in, with their senses ready to absorb them, the images as they happen to follow each other on the screen' (quoted on 31).  On writing out that Kracauer quotation, it feels less like collapsing any distinction between art and life rather than enforcing a distinction (the experience of watching a film like losing your identity in the dark?  sounds like escape from life to me...), but Harbord continues:

What we find in their work is a return of 'art' (or here mass culture) to life, a mixing of these Kantian divisions within practices of cinematic, mass culture: memory and screen image, street-life and cinematic narrative overlap, and converge at the point of the spectator....The potential for film to endlessly replay events, to present images and scenes from different moments and contexts in juxtaposition, butting up against one another, offered both writers an allegorical way of reversing the inevitability of history. (31)

The impetus for these writers to engage with history, its inevitability and society is said to be the rise of Nazism, the historical setting for this critical work.  Harbord goes on later to make the point in a different way when she writes, "From Benjamin through to Charney and Friedberg [two contemporary scholars], the cinematic form is itself endowed with the ability to transform audience perception to various political ends." (32)  These writers describe cinema in a way that, through the concrete figure of the spectator, conjoins it to life - this is, I believe, in contrast to the classic Kantian description of the aesthetic observer as maintaining a critical distance from the work, somehow 'outside' of life and within the aesthetic experience.

The most interesting part for me is when Harbord states her problem with this line of thinking about cinema.  She writes:

Yet, the difficulty of these theses which propose a shifted structure of perception attributable to cinema is a latent technological determinism.  The political potential lies in its form, and its effect on an undifferentiated mass; for Benjamin this is manifest in the shock of the viewing experience.  Yet, as Gunning and Huyssen argue, the shock effects of early cinema live on in both the avant-garde and mainstream cinema with no guaranteed return (special effects, for example, can claim no inherent radicalism).  For my purposes, this attribution of the political to the cinematic apparatus relocates politics within a generalized effect of technology. (32-33)

Technological determinism is a concept that I encounter frequently, and I'm trying to determine a precise, working meaning for it (hello, blog entry!).  Why are these conceptions of cinema technologically deterministic?  In Harbord's terms here, it is because the political potential is attributed to all cinema and all audiences, just by virtue of being cinema and cinema audiences ('the political potential lies in its form, and its effect on an undifferentiated mass').  Benjamin, Kracauer et al here create a 'generalized effect of technology' - whereas what Harbord implies is that we need to understand the different things that filmmakers can do with this technology, and the different types of audience that value the results.  These are the film cultures, I believe.  I've just finished work as a teaching assistant on a module about Italian neo-realism - and I do see films such as Roma citta aperta or Bicycle Thieves as having political potential, but it is to do with the way they use the cinema technology (rather than because they are cinema in the first place).

Harbord therefore utters the dreaded phrase technological determinism to criticise a methodology that theorises cinema, as a technology with specific common effects on spectators, in a particular way and therefore reads all uses of that technology along the same lines.  One aim of my investigation of digital video therefore should be to avoid characterising the aesthetic attributes of the production technology (i.e. digital video is used to make films that are somehow closer to reality) and then assuming that that applies to all uses of the technology.  As I mentioned at the beginning, digital video has travelled through different film cultures and so has potentially been used different in (and within) each. 

I need to look at some different works in which people describe something as technologically deterministic.  Because I would cry if someone called me that..         

That was a bit longer than I originally intended.  Oh well, I feel like I understand it a little better.  Do comment if I've made an error, or you can help me understand some of this stuff!

There is a report at Shooting Down Pictures from a conference that took place at NYU last weekend, about Film Criticism, featuring Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin.  They've got some good things to say.  

The 'sweep from half guard' demonstration about half-way down here illustrates what I was describing on Saturday.  Rosie and I drilled it to death yesterday, and we worked on the same technique again this evening in class and I think I've got it down a lot better.  I was shooting the wrong arm through the legs, and not keeping my head low enough (both reasons why my back kept taken in sparring).  Chiu has taught us three different ways to sweep your opponent once you have their foot and leg trapped - I think I've done them all pretty successfully.


February 15, 2008

the old–ness of competing elements.

This is an issue that I have been meaning to write about for a little while - probably since I read 'Digital Encounters' by Aylish Wood, an interesting and clear book.  There is an idea about aesthetic differences in cinema galvanised by digital technologies that I have been testing in probably every film I've seen since.  It struck me again yesterday when watching Little Miss Sunshine whilst eating take-away pizza - as a sort of forgetting-Valentines activity.

In the introduction to 'Digital Encounters', Aylish Wood writes:

I will argue that digital technologies have led to an increasing appearance of competing elements in digital effects cinema, games and gallery installation art, and that the degree to which viewers have to distribute their attention varies within the organization of the interface. (4) 

This idea ties together aesthetic developments across several different media.  Digital aesthetics have concurrently developed, according to Wood, towards increasing the freedom of the viewer/user; towards providing the viewer/user with more "embodied agency".  It's important to note that this is posited as a general  trend (rather than a rule), and Wood does acknowledge that "the opportunities for agency available to a viewer depend on the different ways interfaces distribute a viewer's attention" (82).  We can find a similar idea in Mark Hansen's Philosophy of New Media, although his focal point is gallery installations.

My principal interest is what Wood calls 'digital effects cinema'.  I personally dislike the 'effects' in that term but can't offer a better one here - what we're studying is any films that use digital technologies.  Wood translates her idea to reference this cinema when she writes:

...when effects are visible on screen in a way that competes for a viewer's attention their impact is different, generating both a spatial and time-based engagement where watching one thing means not watching another. (86, my emphasis)

Most obviously, this can refer to a film such as Timecode (Mike Figgis) that has four different frames on-screen at the same time.  The notion of 'watching one thing means not watching another' seems to work here, when there is more than one frame - and Anne Friedberg has developed a similar line of argument about digital technologies in her (ace) book The Virtual Window

Wood also sees this broad aesthetic trend in blockbuster films that use a lot of CGI, because digital technologies can give 'life' to objects or entities.  For example, in the film Twister the tornado, although not personified per se, acts as if it is 'alive' - Wood describes it as a 'dynamic element'.  She writes:

The tornadoes are made credible by being integrated with the human figures, but at the same time they compete for a viewer's attention, redistributing it between the character and non-character elements.  As spatial objects they have meaning beyond that given to them by character actions. (54)

Therefore we can see how the same broad theory about digital aesthetics describes both Timecode and Twister within the terms of Wood's argument.  The central characteristic is a mise-en-scéne that contains 'competing elements', parts of an image that distribute the viewer's attention; in other words, to make a shot more complicated or layered by the presence of more-than-one potential focal points.  My question is: is this a characteristic of digital technologies in cinema?  Or is it just a relatively common characteristic of cinema?   Is 'pre-digital' cinema, or even post-digital cinema that doesn't use digital tools in overt ways, characterised on the whole by images with a single focal point?  Or can we find more examples of 'competing elements', separate from aesthetic developments engendered by digital technologies?

Let's look at a shot from Little Miss Sunshine, taken from what is in my opinion the film's most moving sequence.   As the family's van nears their destination, Olive is passing the time by giving her brother Dwayne an eye test from a free card taken at the hospital.  It transpires that Dwayne is colour-blind, and therefore unable to fly a jet in the air force (his dream, towards which he has taken a vow of silence for 9 months).  He freaks out, the family stop the van, and he runs down a ridge screaming whilst the rest of the family remain at the top.  I remember seeing this sequence in the Ashford cinema with my hand over my mouth, at a time when I was really worried that studying films had removed some of their emotional effect for me.

Olive, his sister, walks down to comfort Dwayne - and just gives him a simple hug, resting her head against his shoulder.  In the shot that depicts this beautiful gesture, Olive and Dwayne are in the foreground on the right side of the frame.  Further to the left, in the distant background, we can see Richard, Sheryl and Frank standing at the top of the ridge looking on.  Olive's gesture lasts several, almost silent seconds before Dwayne says, "Okay, let's go."  To me however, this shot contains at least five 'competing elements', that is things that a viewer could pleasurably look at whilst missing other potential pleasures, in the form of the characters. 

little miss sunshine screen grab

We can concentrate on Olive, walking towards Dwayne (which creates suspense, as Sheryl has already failed to comfort him and we are unsure of how she is going to act towards him, and vice versa) and then quietly making the aforementioned gesture.  Looking at her, we can see that she understands and cares for her brother.  Or we can look at Dwayne - and notice his sharp intake of breath when Olive touches him, or how he stifles a cry, or how he lightly shakes his head in a way that implies "Life has fucked me over, but Olive's competition is important right now and I've got to accept that".  Or Sheryl's worried and nervous glances from side to side in the background.  Or the direct contrast made between Frank and Richard: Frank keeps his arms tied behind his back, remaining composed and respectful, whilst Richard has his arms by his side in an impatient manner.  Richard doesn't want to be late, he doesn't want Olive to miss the contest because then she (and, by extension, he) will be a loser.

The shot is carefully composed in a way that ensures that all the characters are visible simultaneously.  In our view, Richard's left foot stands directly behind Olive's right shoulder - not one character is placed in a way that would impair our vision of another (or, indeed, the still camper van).  I've gathered this information by pausing, re-winding and watching the 10-15 second shot three or four times over - I don't think you could glean it all from one single viewing.  Yet it is all there, several elements are presented to the viewer to choose from - each potentially at the expense of the other.  And not one of these elements are given their central qualities, their heart, by a digital technology - these are provided by excellent performances, one of cinema's most traditional tools.

I've chosen Little Miss Sunshine because I watched it last night, and this shot struck me.  It could be argued, I suppose, that Little Miss Sunshine is a contemporary film, and that the aesthetics of contemporary cinema have been changed, as a whole, by developments in digital technologies.  The logic of this suggests that, thanks to trailblazing films such as Twister, audiences now expect competing elements otherwise they view images as too simplistic.  I would refute this argument by pulling a copy of La Regle du Jeu from the shelf - which is full to the brim with comparable sequences.

I do really like a lot of Wood's book, but I'm just not sure that, in the process of marrying ideas about different forms that have all been profoundly affected by digitalisation, she hasn't created a theory about digital technologies in cinema that is too broad to be completely useful.  As it is, it just isn't a new aesthetic phenomenon.   

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