What is the shot anymore?

RHETORICAL FRAMES, RHETORICAL SHOTS: Separating Space from Duration

Cinema has really stuck us with some tropes that no longer function. Teaching college students Intro to Film Production, at the beginning of the first quarter I have to define ‘jump cuts’, which means I have to define ‘shot’. I usually come up with something strangely technical and formal for such an intuitive temporal object. Something like: “The Shot, like its namesake of the gun, refers to a single pulling of the trigger… a single continuous series of frames separated only by 24th of a second of real time.” The first part sounds good– for me it evokes those Bond-gun like Super-8 cameras, where you would hold down the spring-loaded trigger, committing film (and therefore real money) second by second to what was in front of the camera. “Shooting it”… it really felt it. Much more gun-like and less surveillance than the video camera which feels more like a hose that you try to spray over everything like fertilizer or insecticide hoping for absolute ‘coverage’.

Even in film, the logical underpinnings of the shot were questionable. Shots popped in to existence either with the mechanical triggering of a set of shutters by horses’ hooves, or with the skilled regular hand-cranking of the early camera man. I think the latter. Muybridge made more of a bear-trap for time, using devices of thread and snapping boxes. It was only after having seen motion reproduced that the cameraman, and therefore The Shot, could exist. That strange process of imagining an absent (not yet found) representation while faced with its real referent… An imagination that television successfully mechanized, so now not just professional cameramen, but everyone has the experience of watching a live video mediation of an object in their video camera or cellphone screens… watching, waiting, and then committing to a recording… a ‘shot’— if you can call it that now. More like a video recording of a live mediation than a gun shot.

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Looking While Reading:

Posted by garhodes on Monday Dec 28, 2009 Under Media & Culture, New Advertising

Looking at an HSBC ad campaign while reading D.N. Roddowick on “the figural”

I am at the Midtown New York Public Library.  I am reading the first chapter of D.N. Roddowick’s Reading the Figural.  His concept of a ‘figural’ seems to be one of those post-modern philosophy place-holder terms for everything and nothing… ‘emergence’ ‘becoming’ ‘excess’ ‘the eternal return’… there are a lot of references to a new understanding of “visual culture,” “death drive,” dream theory, and a post-semiology framework (without frame or work, I suppose… Roddowick compares semiology to Newtonian physics failing to conceptualize relativistic thought). …The book is light on examples. I find writers like this clearly intelligent and studious, but I am never entirely certain they aren’t hacks. It is uncomfortable… either they aren’t saying anything, or I am not understanding, both of which are a little insulting. But I really like all the same people… Lyotard, Barthes, even Deleuze sometimes… so I am still reading and looking.

Roddowick quoting Lyotard:

The figural is unrepresentable, beneath or behind representation, because it operates in an other space ‘that does not give itself to be seen or thought; it is indicated in a literal fashion, fugitive at the heart of discourse and perception, as that which troubles them.  It is the proper space of desire, the stakes in the struggle that painters and poets have ceaselessly launched against the return of the Ego and the text. [p8]

It is everything.

What I call the figural is not synonymous with a figure or even the figurative. It is no more proper to the plastic than to the linguistic arts. It is not governed by the opposition of word to image; spatially and temporally, it is not bound to the logic of binary oppositions. Ever permutable—a fractured, fracturing, or fractal space, ruled by time and difference—it knows nothing of the concept of identity. The figural is not an aesthetic concept, nor does it recognize a distinction between the forms of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. It describes the logic of mass culture itself; or rather a culture of the mass.

It is nothing.

But I am interested in the premise as given in the Preface: that in order to understand contemporary imagistic culture, we have to re-think the opposition of image to language… that we are long overdue for re-thinking Lessing’s opposition of the simultaneous arts and the successive. With the rise of ‘digital culture’ we really really need to critically deal with cinema. Roddowick relates an epiphany, when he first witnessed early MTV broadcasting and how fluidly text was spatialized and space was textualized in the productions of early non-linear digital editing and effects [3]. I am fairly certain that a host of previous examples can be found in animation, but I, too, remember the astonishment of the new form that was photographic, electric, and abstract.

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The new Star Trek is a prequel— it removes itself from the narrative stream of the original series; unlike the original films that took place ‘after’ (a natural choice considering the aging original cast), this film replaces everyone with dopplegangers, re-casting the roles by hair color, and takes place ‘before’.  The prequel creates a narrative problem.  In the film-as-television-sequels there was a natural metamorphosis of characters—their episodic youth replaced by longer narrative form middle-age.  The prequel must tell a story where the ending is known; it is a reverse story, where the ultimate status quo is already known and the dramatic tension is created by disjunctures which mark that-which-must-be-resolved… Kirk is not yet Captain, the Enterprise is not yet launched, the crew has not yet bonded… blah.  

The problem with the remake is that the characters become static; their arcs already known, they exist in a state of fait accompli.  All the characters’ protestations, victories, tears seem little more than gross or comic gesture (certainly Spock comes across as a comedia dell’arte caricature, Zachary Quinto taking on the role of autodidactopath, the Harlequin of science fiction).  

It is like Peter Jackson’s King Kong.  The characters began the film in their post narrative state— the monkey already human, loveable, and redeemed, the Fay Ray characteer already in love with it, Nature in every aspect already dominant, mysterious, and over-powering the greedy machos.  In the first 15 minutes the film had already ended; the cast was left with two hours of comic gesticulations of performing-their-role through the film, like the amateur troupe performing in front of the screen at a Saturday night Rocky Horror Picture Show in the suburbs.  ”Twas beauty that killed the beast.”

 

Star Trek takes a more interesting approach—maybe because of Director J.J. Abrams’ tolerance of convolvement and f time-traveling fated narrative in Lost.   The story begins with the characters being detached from their prequel.  A time traveling villain (traveling back from a movie in the future… Star Trek 12 or such) has invaded this film to destabalize the prequel.  Kirk’s father died early and he is—in Anthony Lane’s words—a dickhead.  Spock seems to be completely un-Spock-like, always on the verge of tears, a constant source of irrationality on the bridge (running off to see his mama die, sending Kirk to his death, having sex in the elevator).  The most Spock-like character seems to be Uhura who, in traditional Hollywood style, has been de-masculated, de-racialized, and subordinated to a pretty face that says “Don’t go.”  The stakes are high.  The imaginary Producers must be sweating bullets— what if the Enterprise never reaches the future franchise?  Maybe all will not return to predictable equilibrium.  The fans will be furious.  …Who will come to save the film?

A visitor from the future franchise, of course.  If there is any human Star-Trek-constant beyond pseudoscience terms, special effects, and federation symbols it is Leonard Nemoy who arrives in the film as if stopping off on his way from ComicCon.  ”You must find the franchise,” he tells Kirk-head.  The characters must get in to role or the universe/film will fall apart.  By the end of the film, everyone takes their correct chair on the bridge, literally in last minutes.  ”Places everyone?  …Action!”

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Watching a segment of Bärbel Neubauer’s work-in-progress, Morphs of Pegasus tonight, I was struck by the critical reversal that had taken place in material film art– the same path that her career had itself transversed. Bärbel Neubauer’s work had existed as paint on film for years, but in the last decades had transferred to the digital realm using programs such as ArtMatic, that render animations of mathematical functions creating fractals, chaos theory shapes, and other serial animated forms. As the name implies, Morphs of Pegasus has a pan-galactic quality, frequently looking like a representation of the maximal mathematical imaginary, outer-space, animating what looks like gaseous clouds, spinning galaxies, twinkling stars, and on. It occurred to me that her work in the digital was perfect representation– unlike cinema computer-generated graphics made to look like dinosaurs, or aliens, or what-have-you, these animations were direct translations of computer mathematics– perfect representations of the code. It is what Pollock did for paint, with numbers.

one of the fractal animations from Morphs of Pegasus

one of the fractal animations from Morphs of Pegasus

[caption id="attachment_142" align="alignnone" width="205" caption="one of the astronomical seeming clouds"]one of the astronomical seeming clouds[/caption]

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a swatch of standard digital camo

a swatch of standard digital camo

This will be the first in a series of footnotes on visual culture. …Shorter than an editorial– just a single critical reference as a sidenote to the ongoing onslaught of all things peculiar that bombard us; ripe for comment, expansion, and forgetting.

I first noticed the change to digital bitmap camouflage in the pattern of military combat fatigues at an otherwise un-noteworthy exhibition of art & war at the Whitney (which at the time made me think how incapable post-modern art is of capturing anything like the spirit of revolution). Checking the tag, I saw it was a photo of deployed Canadian troops from the previous year– but now the bitmap camouflage is used by all major military. The purpose is obvious. Camouflage once functioned to blend the wearer in with the analogue information of light and dark of the human eye and its scopic enhancements. Now camouflage must mix the wearer in with other digital data, to avoid being recognized by computer algorithms, analyzing the streams of data from satellite and other surveillance, or to appear on the screen of the watching military as a possible bitmappy render error… to make the soldier look, not like debris, but literally like digital noise.

At first this seems another iteration of Baudrillard’s critique of Dessert Storm… a war of simulation like video games, where the soldiers and the public all experience the war as a mediated, flat phenomenon. But on second glance, this is something more sinister, more vital, and more true. We learn the truths of this new digital imaging age only as they force themselves upon us. This is no video game– it is the very real protection of life and blood of actual bodies competing in a video game. The bitmap patterns are there to trick the computer that holds the trigger. And it is a very real iteration of how our bodies and lives transformed through our growing efforts to extend them with machines become trapped within those devices we sought for empowerment. While seeking to reduce the world to readable code, our own bodies continue on in their vulnerable, binarily mortal coils, which we must wrap in a bitmap wrapper for their own survival.

digital and analogue

digital and analogue

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The company Tunecore recently announced a promotion that would facilitate distribution for the independent film community on iTunes – for a fee, of course. It’s not the commercial aspect of this situation that interests me, however, it’s the very idea of distributing big-screen films on mobile devices. In the midst of what’s obviously a fervent rush to claim money-making territory in the industry of new media cinematic content, it seems as though no one is considering the actual size and shape of the screen image. More importantly, no one is really discussing the opportunities that arise to create fresh content rather than just shrink commercial cinema into a smaller package. The prospect of creating content for the mobile device screen seems like a perfect chance for the film and video artist to once again re-imagine the moving image, experimenting with forms ranging from narrative to structural to abstract.

Looking broadly at the situation, one can see a general trend over the past decade toward making and marketing new media—and television—projects more “cinematic”. This is a bit problematic, as the established language of cinema (or narrative cinema) is structured on a scale of communication that is subverted, or at least weakened, by the smaller scale of the personal moving image screen. It seems careless to ignore the impact of scale on visual language when creating content for these mobile devices screens, even for laptop screens or regular televisions. If commercial film content for mobile devices is being produced within the visual parameters of most commercial “cinematic” projects, then it is probably following a language of big-screen movies that is built around compositional and stylistic motifs honed and ingrained over the past five decades as a recognizable method of communication. If existing films are simply being shrunk down to iPhone size, then they absolutely follow this bigger-than-life language. The problem in applying such a particular cinematic vernacular to the small screens of mobile devices is that its fundamental impact is built upon relationships of scale that assume a screen size akin to that of a commercial movie theater. A giant Death Star is not the same as a Death Star the size of my fingernail. An enormous close-up of Klaus Kinski’s face does not carry the same visceral impact as the action-figure sized version. Even watching something inherently not commercially “cinematic”, like a handmade Brakhage film, is completely different on a mobile screen.

Is this size dynamic the reason, besides some sort of drive for social status, that people have always wanted bigger and better televisions? Is there something inherently lacking in the impact of cinematic moving images when processed through the small television or laptop screen? If so, what can be done to create content specifically for the small screen explosion, for these mobile and personal devices, that actually plays TO the scale of the interface?

I would contend that a possible solution is not, as some would argue, about interactivity, but about creating content that work with a small scale and employs a symbology of the personal. The scale of traditional cinematic language is based on something more than a personal viewpoint – something embodied, but also bigger than life and universal. The ontology of the personal screen device calls out for another language of visual representation, something small, something intimate. A language that connects with and refers to a culture of personal media identities and image-based communications, and certainly a language that takes into account the subversion of established narrative forms and temporal storytelling. Does that just mean amateur video and diarist recordings? Not really—controlled, stylized, creative content for personal screen devices would still fill a role that YouTube-style videos cannot. It would continue in the tradition of experimental film and video as a testing ground for new forms of perception and visual communication; concepts with inherently limited growth space in the YouTube structure, as most of those videos are inherently rooted in superficiality and created to be seen by way of spectacle and social exposure.

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Obama on TV: wanting a media of change

Posted by garhodes on Sunday Nov 2, 2008 Under Media & Culture

wheat, when not moving, looks like dog hair.

For some reason I find myself fascinated with political media coverage. Perhaps it is my own spiritual yearning, misdirected to political ends (there was an excellent article in the New Yorker questioning why we seek messiahs in our presidents, and when searching for it online, I find a surprising wealth of snarky attacks on Obama as messiah, the most complete, here). I find myself now squinting over a youTube of the Obamamercial—the half-hour spot produced for CBS last Wednesday. I try to listen to the streams of propaganda, as if a radio program, but I keep being distracted by the production choices.
Clearly expensive, this piece is a cut above infomercial but definitely lacking any media innovation. And it is another reminder—this one political—about the disconnect between art and society… the ‘Change we can believe in’ has no ramifications in the aesthetic product which is still reactionary like Obamas coat and tie (the only historical exception to this political fashion reactionary ideology is what we still love about news footage of the late 60′s… side-burns on the news commentator—a real art aesthetic going hand in hand with political movement). Instead here we have the soft-focus fascism… fields of wheat, flags, white-innocent faces… Americana alla 1945 still alive and well in the heartland. And then cut to Obama in those peculiar symbolic dens—do politicians really live in these, or are they fabricated on sound stages in D.C.? Here the furniture is definitely before Obama’s time… instead of IKEA, his study is decorated by Norman Rockwell… a big flag clashing with everything in the room.

At home, circa 1968

At home, circa 1968

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To date, the connection between cinema and emerging forms of mapping has not been explored in any depth through either cinematic or new media discourses. Nevertheless, there is an expansive theoretical and structural relationship found in emerging mapping practices and contemporary cinema art, particularly in terms of their engagement with spatial environments through screen-based mediators. I would argue that a shared logic of hypermediation—that is, mediated fragmentation and multiplicity—exists in both cinema art and new mapping practices, as well as a common engagement with the mediation of space.

The logic of hypermediacy and the hypermediation of space are found in mapping practices and cinema art through the presence of multiplicity, the act of fragmentation, and a constant reference to the presence of a mediator. Simply compared, new forms of mapping and modern works of cinema art utilize objects of mediation to frame disparate datasets of symbols and signs from divergent spaces. In doing so, they elicit the mental formation of navigable space in the viewer/user—a hybrid space created somewhere in-between exterior points of reference and the self-center of the viewer. They mediate and organize divergent datasets to integrate them into a cohesive space of multiplicity—a mercurial location where connections and possibilities may emerge that could not otherwise do so in the ontological rigidity of a finite, determined, single space. Essentially, these practices communicate the presence of space through the aforementioned characteristics of fragmentation, multiplicity, and reference to the medium. In such a way, both contemporary cinematic art and emerging practices of mapping engage in the rupturing of homogenous space and the multiplication of heterogeneous environments, affecting a hypermediation of diverse spatiality that redefines what attributes demarcate a unified space.
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