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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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