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Digital Diatribe

May 4th, 2010 by btrachtenberg100

This week’s article really speaks to an issue that has been eating away at me since the late 90’s. The advent of digital technology and the need to impress with digital effects has severely diminished the esteem of the cinema and detracts, as Anne Friedberg says, from its medium based specificity. It’s not simply the problem of artificiality, or anti special effects. Hell, I love the visuals produced from old school stop motion technology. My problem is looking at film as a historical document, created in the confines of its time. I don’t expect people to stop buying DVD’s, I find that using technology to make film more accessible to the public is positive in terms of giving more people the opportunity to view these works of art in the absence of a theatre. Every time I see George Lucas renovating his old films (he’s only actually made three good films) by injecting them with special effects under the guise of “now I can make it the way I saw it thirty years ago”, I want to scream. People watching the original “Star Wars” films today have a completely different interpretation than those who grew up with the film in its original form and context. The digital evolution is more fluid than the confines of the celluloid or previous representations in that it builds off older forms. The individualistic properties exclusive to the medium are lost in the process of post production manipulation. The identity of the image is lost to the massive data base that pools all of it and makes the image into a malleable entity. To put it in the words of Anne-Mary Willis, with digital “the index will be erased and the image will become pure iconicity”. I don’t want to rule out interdependence of the mediums of the digital realm, restoration of old prints has become invaluable to Cinefiles like myself. Although I would detest if Picasso used adobe photo shop to manipulate an established piece of art or further manipulate a new painting with a computer. This may seem ludicrous, but he is a painter and so should work within the confines of that medium. Filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez who make a movie without its exclusive properties in mind (mise en scene), who don’t think within the confines of the frame and just fill in the gaps with digital technology afterwards, cannot be considered a true filmmaker. He is a film manipulator.
The idea of the VCR as being an agent of time manipulation is a fascinating one. This has even caused some issues for filmmakers. David Lynch is one of those directors who’d rather have his films watched in their entirety than skip to a scene. In this sense I can see how it may be construed as an editing device or even that we are watching a projector rather than a screen. In this sense a dimension is lost from the cinema in its translation to home video, yet the exclusive properties and atmosphere of the womb like theatre will always draw people back because of this discrepancy with home viewing. Watching a DVD in the privacy of ones own home doesn’t necessarily detract from enjoying a film, maybe the experience, but the ability to pause a frame to examine it’s properties is invaluable especially to people who have made the scrutiny of the film frame the center of their obsession. Granted, it is a reproduction, not an original, which some people might say detract from the art o the cinema, yet no one cries about owning the first printing of the bible for otherwise they cannot read it out of some delusional principle.
There is a very fine line between digital preservation, and digital manipulation. I am one of those people who loathe seeing movies as files on a computer rather than in a more tangible form on a shelf. I find the age of Netflix, although a much more convenient one, is destroying the experience of the video store. It’s the difference between visiting a botanical garden and just looking at pictures online. It’s the experience of the cinema that I feel cannot be replicated at home, yet because of the rising cost of tickets and the convenience of the internet, the younger generation is becoming more accustomed to accessible media, making the cinema second to their video monitor.
While I went on this diatribe I forgot to address the specificity of the use of special CGI effects in film. For me the issues of digital effects are bothersome because they are done in postproduction, without the use of having to expose any sort of celluloid. I keep using AVATAR as an example but this split in the film medium between what’s filled in and what’s filmed. In this sense film is becoming what it was originally made for; spectacle. Not that the eye popping 3D effects should send you screaming from the theatre, but to make you see film primarily so studios can display their use of this new technology to transcend the video technologies and viewers expectations. That is why it is not at all surprising that AVATAR’s story sucked. Hearing all this criticism, it’s refreshing to know people still care a little about traditional narrative and film structure.

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A Social Conscience

April 28th, 2010 by btrachtenberg100

The idea that part of the thrill from watching a film, particularly one which exploits the body, of vicariously experiencing a kind of pleasure is something that is very fetishistic and potentially jarring when one analyzes these triggers. Linda Williams’ article delves into interesting points regarding a spectrum of body genres that are chastised for their sensationalist nature without taking into account the various conflicting components that trigger the psychological effect which continues to draw in an audience. She creates a spectrum upon she rates the audience appeal as well as participation. Pornography being appealing to the active male, weepies appeal to the passive female. Most interesting is the horror film that plays with gender creating a sort of androgyny that appeals to both groups and reflects a target audience still struggling to formulate a personal identity. Films that deal with the body and manipulation of emotional states due to the body in the grips of an intense sensation characterize perverse sadomasochism. While I agree to a certain extent that the act of submitting oneself to experience fear, or lust, or sadness is what society would construe as perversity, the root of it’s appeal is in it’s cathartic function. Society puts so much pressure on people to follow the rules and costumes that people become conflicted when their minds propose a thought to consciousness that conflicts with societies beliefs. The safety of the cinema is reflected in the fantasy element that combines the presupposition of these mental states with the possibility of what will happen. The human component of the audience is a contemporary one. The variation of formulas within genres over the years is a response to changes in society. The cinema reacts to the world, just as the world reacts to the cinema, its part of the social consciousness. Moreover I find the cinema represents the unconscious part of society. A part that when it becomes too prominent and direct in its message which violates what’s acceptable, is immediately tried and repressed. The horror cinema allows us to indulge in the sex depicted while objectively pleasuring from the knowledge of the conventions of the genre that they will die and it is fun because you are really safe.
On a side note I feel that may have been a sub-textual message in “AVATAR”, in terms of trying of trying to the technology of the film that puts one safely in the body of a superior being. If so would we be able to make a new category out of the excessive in terms of exploiting complex computer technology in developing new ways to manipulate the body onscreen? They are already considering using the same technology to resurrect dead stars such as Bruce Lee, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, or even make another Indiana Jones film with Harrison Ford looking 35.

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Cinema; a Gender Bender Fetish

April 20th, 2010 by btrachtenberg100

The idea that is proposed in Christian Metz’s article regarding the scopic aspect of the cinema is a fascinating one that helps decipher the drawing power of the cinema and its power to fulfill needs we can’t find in the real world. There is a certain psychological function of scopophilia that I find inherently amusing. If people inherently desire to be looked at with the same desire to gaze then the cinema allows one to fulfill this voyeuristic need. The person sitting in the theatre is using what is described as “senses of distance”, meaning the eyes and ears, the absence of contact between the stimulus and sense creates this chasm of imaginary potential. The idea of the fetish comes into play here, but I would like to explore it with the help of Laura Mulvey’s psychoanalytic take regarding the functions of the gaze that comes as a result of the chasm that the cinema’s physical discrepancy creates. She makes a very bold statement by assuming that the cinema appeals to the narcissistic nature that exists in all people to some degree to allow the transposition of the image into a meaningful idea. The images on the screen satisfy a sexual curiosity, by seeing the beautiful heroine we desire to keep watching her. By identifying with the male in the film combined with the anonymity of the theatre allows us to essentially project ourselves on screen. This seems to be the fundamentals of the fetish idea that ultimately embodies these existing conflicts of the desire to be with the knowing that we aren’t actually there. We know the image isn’t real, the actors are nowhere around, yet we buy into the illusion of the 2d screen. It’s interesting that the fetish idea is derived from castration anxiety considering that half of the people who go to the movies are women, and they too experience this transposition of meaning. Being that film bears the social language of the society it’s made in, it unconsciously creates these gender roles. Being that women and men are in similar roles in life, they can therefore more easily identify with the figures on the screen, despite how exaggerated these roles are portrayed.
The mirror stage and the creation of the ego is an important factor here. Just like the figure in the image is thought to be similar to oneself yet perceived as superior, a model for self realization. This is how both sexes identify with the figures on screen. Granted in real life the roles that people play, gender and social class wise, are more complicated because film is in fact a medium that portrays a subjective vision and I feel that part of the fetishistic aspect that is inherent to the cinema. The film is not just a scopophilic exercise in the characters onscreen, but also the artist who put them there. Christian Metz, says that the unique identity of the director emerges in the form of signature camera angles and shots. This seems like a very shortsighted view, considering that there are so many elements that contribute to the film and that the entire experience is in fact a journey into the mind of another, which is truly the root of the gaze pleasure. This makes the cinema simultaneously more perceptual, in that there is identification with the character or the film itself which allows the exchange of ideas from the screen (visually represented mind of the filmmaker) to where we sit. While it may seem that cinema is less perceptual because of the lack of immediate contact, this is the core paradox of the psychoanalytic apparatus of cinema. With this said, I propose that the camera captures the underlying workings of the artists mind allowing them to be displayed on a screen, just as though we were able to press our eyeballs to that of the director himself and watch the impossible nerve ending peepshow that performs in his skull. In this sense the cinema is a fetishistic object not because of the confirmation and disavowal of the image, but that of the desire to be someone else or see the world through another lens while simultaneously reinforcing our own ego through the refutation of these ideas based on personal experience. I would then raise an issue related to gender. If this identification with the artist is the fundamental desire of the cinema, and most directors are men, does the cinema fulfill the fetishistic desires of women because they’re roles are confirmed through depictions of the desirable woman onscreen, they simultaneously reject these ideals because they are vicariously experiencing it through the psyche of a man. This alluring power may have more to do with Freud’s idea of penis envy that he says girls experience at an early age. Therefore cinema is the regression back to this state of being.
With this question brought to the forefront, I wonder about the difference in the experience of a movie based on gender regarding the sex of the director versus the sex of the audience member and if films made by women have a different psychological function when viewed by women and by men.

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Cinema Melting Pot

March 16th, 2010 by btrachtenberg100

Cinema has developed its own discourse, allowing native audiences to process cues unconsciously and follow a story. A visual language, film’s dialect differs depending on the country. Grammatical rules set up by the Hollywood system have given western movies a distinct stylistic flavor. The tone of which as Robert Stam suggests carries nationalistic tendencies reflecting imperialism and racism as the typical Hollywood film features the “civilized” man versus the “native” beast. I feel that the early pre-WWII films of America reflect a perfect world and distrust for the savage. (After all look how African Americans were treated in films like Birth of a Nation) The beauty of the cinema is that it does not exist solely in the realm of the exploitative filmmaker. Film has grown to serve many functions, escapism being one of them. The ability to compare one countries film with another allows us to get a sense of their perceptions and values. European cinema (the 2nd cinema) sought to defy these set conventions of the Hollywood system, and in doing so has been regarded as avant garde. Films by Godard and De Sica are regarded as being an aesthetic that challenges the viewer, imposing him/her the task of active critical thought. As we make our way down to the Third cinema, the artist moves further away from the commercialized stereotype. This includes cinema that is created in response to suffering. As Julio Garcia Espinosa states, “truth is purged by suffering”. While he believes in an impartial cinema where everyone is permitted to create their own artistic expression, I feel this is not possible. While people may suffer, not everyone can express their torment in the spiritual aspect of society. If films like Battle of Algiers represent the view of one man on behalf of a nation of oppressed people, what would the masses hear if everyone made a film depicting their version of suffering? Not everyone can pick up a camera and make a cogent piece of art. Granted, today with technology as accessible as it is, we can access thousands of videos, all consisting of expressions of the individual, all falling under the definition of imperfect cinema. The question is does anyone really care? Part of the satisfaction that comes from artistic expression is the acknowledgment of that struggle, and connecting with people who understand. The only reason third world cinema is of any importance is because it has gained an international audience to respond to it. In today’s world, acknowledging it in terms of primitive nostalgia is simply ignorance. Film is a controversial medium and to use it as a weapon against the oppressor for the sake of waking up the majority (cinema novo) is third cinema in its purest form, and therefore the most noble.
The medium has evolved to the point where every nation integrates pieces of other nations’ cinemas. Making others aware of these conventions makes us more able to interpret international cinema in their proper context.

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The Auteur and the Film

March 8th, 2010 by btrachtenberg100

While the nature of the relation between shots reflects the objective understanding that evolved from juxtaposing pictographs. It’s a step forward in a sort of picto-linguistics that facilitates a narrative through a rubric of standards. The theory of the auteur reflects the humanity that the individual brings to the screen. Similar to this shared standard for understanding films that we’ve become accustomed to viewing, the films of a director should be understood in the larger context of the rest of his body of work.
There are many theories regarding the nature of the auteur. Peter Wollen breaks the auteur into one of two categories. There’s the one who stresses style and mise en scene, whose works add depth to the directors existing repertoire because themes are developed from film to film. Then there are those who are metteur en scene; products of adaptation whose works are self contained but shows stylistic consistencies throughout their career. This further fragments the initial division between realist and formalist narrowing the definition of what it means to be a true artist in the celluloid medium.
Andrew Sarris sees the director reflected in three independent continuums; technique, personality, and the interior meaning. (Respectfully synonymous with technician, stylist, and auteur) The technician path most closely resembles Wollen’s metteur en scene. It would seem that Wollen views directors in fixed categories. Whereas Andrew Sarris’ definition is more flexible in this respect that he recognizes that directors vary on more of a continuum within three fixed catagories resulting in more themes and variation. I propose that the actual definition stems from a conflict between the three categories of Sarris, each representing the unconscious desires and conscious intentions of the director resulting in an emerging visual storytelling style that represents the individuality is diffused throughout the directors’ work. This is the auteur.
William Wyler says that if you put fifty directors up to the task of filming the same scene with the same crew, and cast you would have fifty different versions of the same thing. While this is true in the immediate distinction, an auteur is ultimately the way they chronicle themes over time. Jean Renoir describes it best when he says that a director spends his life making one film and his life’s meaning can be derived and understood from the thread throughout his work.
The idea of the auteur can be a dangerous one as well for it creates expectations in the mind of the viewer. One who goes into the film of a director he likes, he is biased towards that film. He may attribute his lack of understanding, not as a weakness in the art, but rather as something he doesn’t understand yet. As Andre Bazin encourages, there should be an objective measure for which a film is compared, then an opinion can be formed. I feel this detracts from art, by standardizing the method of viewing. While it’s true that a name on a film creates expectations, a good film is a good film regardless. This personalization of film art reflects society at a certain time and a person’s genius on a single film may be circumstantial. Nor is a good director’s work always on par. a single work can exist independently. After all, a director may make only one or two films. The auteur arises from personal view that spans across their films over the years and therefore is a separate phenomenon altogether. The individual films must be understood separately, as by themselves and as part of the director’s cannon.

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Film Reality

February 15th, 2010 by btrachtenberg100

The psychological implications of film are far greater than that of any other form of art. It goes without saying that our mind processes concepts in visual terms and associations. To remember a name of someone you just met, it may pay to create a mnemonic to create meaning from a name. Otherwise it will drop off your head to the tip of your tongue and embarrass you when you are at a loss for pairing your classmates face with a label. Film is surely the synthesis of a variety of different art forms as Eisenstein would suggest. At face value it’s easy to see the differences between film and early forms of art such as pictographs (hieroglyphics) and Japanese theatre. The Japanese used a very expressive form in the theatre, creating masks that were caricatures of normal human expression to convey the emotion of the character in the context of the pantomime. The process of mental conceptualization, transforming these figures into meaningful interpretations, is the root of all cinematic art.

The distortion of faces by use of masks would seem to be the same function of the film lens, specifically the close-up, which emphasizes and sometimes embellishes the character’s emotive behavior. It goes without saying that film functions as a more direct method for conveying emotion and certainly more powerful as it is the product of montage. Jean Epstein is convinced that the power of the cinema is derived from its ability to orchestrate emotions by reading the wrinkles on a person’s face; i.e. the close-up. Eisenstein argues that cinemas psychological poignancy is derived from the film as a whole starting with the individual shot, which he refers to as a cell. This analogy of comparing the smallest of film elements with the basic component of the human body, illustrates his associative logic regarding the power of film. A close-up is meaningless by itself without a context to derive meaning from. Just as a POV shot requires a cut back to the subject for a reaction, so to any other sequences of shots in a film derive their power by fusing two shots, each with their own individual meaning. When two shots are put together, just like a series of individual pictographs, an abstract concept arises from their juxtaposition that requires the mind of the observer which is forced to create meaning out of the discrepancies in the shots. An interesting comparison Eisenstein makes is comparing the differences in the images to retinal disparity which provides reason for depth perception that we experience unconsciously. The difference in the two shots (color, geometrical shapes, ect.), on right on top of the other, provides a kind of mental disparity which characterizes abstract thought, in order to reshape the way we think about the world around us.      

It’s almost hard to imagine a world solely of realist cinema as imagined by leaders of the Soviet Union, who only saw film as the reorganization of the world; they saw the propagandist potentials of the medium. On the other end of the spectrum, the formalist view, its rise was inevitable. These artists saw the film as a celluloid canvas. I see it as capable means of filling in the gaps in the understanding of human nature and exploring themes relevant in our lives. Even when I watch a film that is supposed to be of realist intentions I find a deeper subtext and find myself asking questions to satisfy my starving mind. Anything that is transposed on screen, despite its original intentions, assumes greater meaning when displayed within the frame.

 Film is a culmination of the evolution of the arts. It contains elements of painting, theatre, and poetry, yet it is more of a concentrated dose of these intellectual mediums. It’s far more complicated and direct. Whereas a painting is a single frame, film is multiple. The mind works in a series of images. We know that smells and particular tastes arouse feelings of nostalgia. This is a complex abstract feeling that taps into our psyche so we can remember a past event as well as the possible emotions that accompanied them. Film serves as a similar cue. A visual stimulus that directs the mind, suggests it to not only tap into emotions because we empathize with the characters in the film but construct new higher form of thinking that like Plato’s cave, film allows us to leave the confines of our personal caves to see the world in a whole new light.

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