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Oko artysty. Fenomenologia zmysłów w filmie Młyn i krzyż Lecha Majewskiego [Polish]

Iwona Grodź

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp. 13-26.

 

Iwona Grodź

Uniwersytet im. Adama Mickiewicza w Poznaniu

 

 

 

Oko artysty. Fenomenologia zmysłów w filmie Młyn i krzyż Lecha Majewskiego

 

Abstrakt

Tematem artykułu jest tajemnica widzenia „zaszyfrowana” w filmie Lecha Majewskiego Młyn i krzyż (2010) oraz obrazie Pietera Bruegla z 1564 roku: Droga krzyżowa, który był dlań inspiracją – analizowana w różnych kontekstach, odsłonach, planach, poziomach, relacjach. Tajemnica widzenia dzieła sztuki rozumiana jest bardzo szeroko, ale przede wszystkim jako „wartość dodana” do tego, co pierwotnie podlegało oglądowi, analizie, zestawieniu. To, co jest wypowiedzią metatekstową wobec, zarówno wypowiedzi malarza, jak i reżysera. Jest także autorską interpretacją wskazanego materiału wizualnego.

The subject of the article is the mystery of vision “encrypted” Pieter Bruegel’s 1564 painting: The Way of the Cross and in inspired by it Lech Majewski’s film Mill and Cross (2010) where he analyses Bruegel’s painting . in different contexts. The practice of seeing a work of art is understood very broadly, but above all as “added value” to the primal act to viewing, analysis, compilation. It is a metatextual statement to both the painter’s and the director’s works. It is also an original interpretation of the indicated visual material.

 

Słowa kluczowe: zmysły i kino, Lech Majewski, Młyn i krzyż, Pieter Bruegel

Keywords: senses and cinema, Lech Majewski, Mill and cross, Pieter Bruegel

 

 

 

To zadziwiające, że obraz jest trwalszy od ciała, ślad trwalszy od życia, tak jakby całe skomplikowane królestwo tkanek, komórek, cząsteczek i atomów wzrastało jedynie, aby się rozpaść, a ślad, zaledwie kilka reakcji elektromagnetycznych na cienkim pasku taśmy – trwa[1].

Czyż sztuka nie jest najbliższa tajemnicy poznania wszechrzeczy? Lech Majewski powiedział niegdyś, że wierzy filozofom, który twierdzą, iż to właśnie dzięki artystycznym przekazom „dosięgamy gwiazd”, zbliżamy się do metafizyki[2]. Do tego, co dla „oka pasywnego” – a więc takiego, które może być „widziane” przez innych – ukryte, a dla „aktywnego” – widzącego – jawne. Nie jest novum stwierdzenie, że oko zostało okiełznane, ujarzmione właśnie przez artystów, dzięki sztuce, która oku patrzącemu przydała świadomości, przemieniła w oko widzące i rozumiejące, w końcu – w oko miłujące[3]. Spowodowało to też bardzo ważne rozdzielenie ról w „dramacie widzenia” oraz zjawisko tzw. wymienności perspektyw, które zachodzi między:

  1. artystą‒autorem, którego oko jest zawsze okiem aktywnym, ale ukrytym w artystycznym przekazie lub za nim;
  2. bohaterem/bohaterami świata przedstawionego dzieła sztuki, którego/których oko – w zależności od zajmowanej pozycji czy etapu wewnętrznej przemiany – może być aktywne i ujawnione albo pasywne, również ukazane;
  3. widzem/widzami, którego/których postrzeganie może być pasywne, bo świadomie projektowane/modelowane (przyjęcie roli bohatera, choć będącego poza światem przedstawionym dzieła) albo aktywne i ujawnione (wejście w rolę „powtórzonego” artysty).

Wymienność perspektyw w dziele sztuki jest przedmiotem zainteresowania m.in. teoretyków zajmujących się zjawiskiem autobiografizmu, biografizmu i autotematyzmu[4]. W niej „zaszyfrowana” jest też metafizyka, gdyż to właśnie w ruchomych granicach między: „ja” empirycznym, porte-parole i „ja” sylleptycznym[5] – ukryte jest „oko metafizyczne” artysty‒autora. Magdalena Podsiadło przypomniała te trzy typy wypowiedzi autobiograficznej i wyjaśniła je, odwołując się do literaturoznawczych badań Ireny Skwarek i Jerzego Smulskiego[6]:

  1. porte-parole – „wycofanie się autora z diegezy i umieszczenie w niej swojego reprezentanta”, tworzy się wówczas relacja nazwana: „związkiem podobieństwa”, objawia się ona przede wszystkim w świecie fikcji, a preferowaną formą jest: „wyznanie”[7];
  2. „ja” empiryczne – „będzie dążyć do zachowania tożsamości między bohaterem, narratorem oraz bohaterem”, powstaje wówczas „związek tożsamości”, typowy dla dokumentu, filmowej awangardy, dla których preferowaną formą jest „świadectwo” (głównie za sprawą wprowadzenia do filmu samego reżysera)[8];
  3. „ja” sylleptyczne – „będzie starało się wprowadzić osobę autora do opowiadania, a równocześnie zaprzeczyć jego tożsamości z twórcą”, tworzy się wówczas „związek autentyczności towarzyszącej niepodobieństwu”, typowy dla filmowej fikcji łączonej z rzeczywistością, standardowo przybiera on formę „wyzwania”[9].

Tematem artykułu jest więc przede wszystkim tajemnica widzenia – „zaszyfrowana” w filmie Lecha Majewskiego Młyn i krzyż (2010) oraz obrazie Pietera Bruegla z 1564 roku: Droga krzyżowa, który był inspiracją dla reżysera – analizowana w różnych kontekstach, odsłonach, planach, poziomach, relacjach. Tajemnica widzenia dzieła sztuki rozumiana jest bardzo szeroko, ale przede wszystkim jako „wartość dodana” do tego, co pierwotnie podlegało oglądowi i analizie. Artykuł jest zatem wypowiedzią metatekstową wobec zarówno wypowiedzi malarza, jak i reżysera. Jest także autorską interpretacją wskazanego materiału wizualnego.

***

W kontekście omawianego filmu ważny jest niewątpliwie temat, a więc podjęcie zagadnienia percepcji sztuki i zmysłowego aspektu jej odbioru, który mniej lub bardziej łączy się z zagadnieniem autotematyzmu. Magdalena Podsiadło zauważyła, że „Artystyczna biografia – prawdziwa bądź fikcyjna – otwiera się na losy twórcy poddającego ją interpretacji. Nawet jeśli narracja nie odsłania autora dokonującego aktu wypowiadania, postać artysty staje się sygnałem kierującym uwagę odbiorcy w stronę twórcy filmowego obrazu”[10]. Często bywa tak, że „(…) dzieła i życiorysy konkretnych artystów zostały zagarnięte przez osobiste doświadczenie twórcy kinowego (jak w biografiach filmowych Szpilmana czy Caravaggia)”[11] – pisała Podsiadło. Wówczas „Losy reżysera i bohatera łączą się w subiektywnej interpretacji autora, tworząc złożoną, dopełniającą się wzajemnie wypowiedź na temat sztuki”[12]. To przypadek Młyna i krzyża[13]. Wspólnota twórców ujawnia się wówczas, gdy przyświecają im te same idee, np. artystycznej wolności, wiary w moc sztuki i wpływania za jej pośrednictwem na widzów[14]. Takie ustalenie przypomina o podwójnym kodowaniu na każdym poziomie dzieła artystycznego. Artysta‒reżyser (podmiot utworu) staje przed „wyzwaniem”, jakie stawia mu inny artysta. Mamy więc do czynienia z relacją: „oko aktywne artysty‒malarza” kontra „oka aktywne artysty‒reżysera”, dla którego to pierwsze było inspiracją, a więc zamieniło go także w odbiorcę. Tutaj ujawnia się kolejna podwójna płaszczyzna: oko aktywne, ale ukryte przechodzi metamorfozę i staje się okiem pasywnego, bo już ukrytego (modelowanego) odbiorcy. Artysta staje się również bohaterem – w Młynie i krzyżu pojawia się oko pasywnego, widzianego porte-parole: malarza (postać ze szkicownikiem w filmie) i reżysera (można założyć, że w jakiejś mierze jest nim młynarz). Takie spojrzenie umożliwia więc wskazanie dodatkowo oprócz – oka metafizycznego artysty – także oko metafizyczne bohatera filmu i oko metafizyczne projektowanego widza. Każdorazowo poszczególne role muszą być zestawione z innymi, żeby w sferze ich przenikania się można było zobaczyć tajemniczą nić związku-porozumienia, a więc:

  1. „oko” bohatera: bohater–artysta; bohater–inny bohater; bohater–widz.
  2. „oko” odbiorcy: widz–artysta; widz–inny widz; widz–bohater.

Uzasadnia to konieczność zadania pytania, czy sztuka komunikuje się z siłą wyższą. Odpowiedzi na nie udzielić może zaproponowanie spojrzenie na film Majewskiego przez pryzmat sensualny, uznanie, że to poznanie zmysłowe może uwrażliwić odbiorcę na pogłębione doznanie estetyczne, dzięki któremu możliwe są nie tylko przyjemność, ale i wyzwolenie, owa metafizyka. Potwierdza to także reżyser, który w 2002 roku przy okazji realizacji innego filmu: Ogród rozkoszy ziemskich (2004; dzieło zainspirowane obrazem innego znanego malarza – Hieronima Boscha) wydał książkę pod znamiennym tytułem Metafizyka. Warto ten fakt odnotować, bo choć dotyczy innego artystycznego wyzwania, innego czasu i „materiału analitycznego”, uświadamia, że odbiorców twórczości Majewskiego cechuje do pewnego stopnia wiara. Przeżycie estetyczne urasta w jego filmach do rangi zbawczego, metafizycznego fetyszu. W ten sposób również film utrwala życie, przeciwdziała zapominaniu, ale też jest narzędziem obnażającym okrutny mechanizm przemijania i śmierci[15].

Młyn i krzyż Lecha Majewskiego był projektem, który zabrał reżyserowi sporo czasu. Magdalena Lebecka przypomniała, że ta „filmowa próba wniknięcia w uniwersum obrazu Pietera Bruegla Starszego Droga na Kalwarię (olejny obraz na desce, obecnie znajdujący się w wiedeńskim muzeum Kunsthistorisches Museum), tylko na etapie postprodukcji zabrała reżyserowi aż dwa lata”[16]. Lebecka zauważyła, że „Można by przypuszczać, że eschatologiczna wizja Boscha wytyczyła drogę Majewskiego do Bruegla. Jednak tej hipotezy reżyser nie potwierdza. Przyznaje natomiast, że Petera Dziwnego zawsze zaliczał do artystów dla siebie najważniejszych”[17].Z propozycją współpracy, po obejrzeniu Angelusa (2001), pojawił się Michael Gibson – „uznany autorytet w dziedzinie flamandzkiego malarstwa”[18], który pragnął zrealizować film edukacyjny, dokumentalny na podstawie wydanej w wersji polsko-angielskiej książki Bruegel. Młyn i krzyż[19]. Ostatecznie jednak powstał filozoficzny esej, a więc gatunek, który dawał większe pole do pracy wyobraźni.

 ***

Ironista, w przeciwieństwie do metafizyka, który wierzy w istnienie prawdziwej natury, zarówno świata, jak i człowieka, utrzymuje, że człowiek jest jedynie „pozbawioną ośrodka siecią przekonań i pragnień”[20].

 

Od wieków przyjmuje się za prawdę twierdzenie, że sztuka to jedyna sfera, a artysta to jedyna ludzka istota, która może „działać przeciw nicości ziemskiego świata”[21]. Immanentnie przyznaje się jej pierwiastek metafizyki, a więc czegoś, co jest ponad fizyką, naukową możliwością wyjaśnienia zjawisk dzięki wierze w rozum, doświadczenie czy choćby zmysły[22]. Takie podejście umożliwia również wspomniany obraz Droga krzyżowa, od lat skłaniający do stawiania kolejnych pytań, przykładowo, dlaczego cierpienie Jezusa jest na obrazie Bruegla niewidoczne? Dlaczego zostało celowo ukryte? Jak uzasadnić użycie aż siedmiu perspektyw w obrazie?[23] Wskazać można przecież punkt widzenia: malarza, jego mecenasa, młynarza, sprzedawcy chleba, płaczącej grupy kobiet, Weroniki, Estery, tłumu ludzi. Polifoniczność spojrzeń jest niespotykana i może odsyłać do zmian sposobu widzenia, które w nauce zainicjowały odkrycia choćby Mikołaja Kopernika (De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, największe zdarzenie naukowe epoki, ogłoszono w 1543 roku)[24].

Warto kilka uwag poświęcić samemu obrazowi malarskiemu. Powstał on w czasie gdy filozofia nowożytna dokonała rozdzielenia nauki i metafizyki. Był to czas kontrreformacji i panowania katolickiej Hiszpanii we Flandrii. Gibson przypomniał jednak, że za dwa lata sytuacja miała się odmienić: „w sierpniu 1566 roku zwolennicy reformacji przystąpili do kontrataku i Flandrią wstrząsnęła fala brutalnych, masowych napaści na kościoły katolickie. W oczach protestanckich kaznodziejów malowidła i rzeźby kościelne były równoznaczne z bałwochwalstwem: w trakcie zaledwie trzech tygodni lud Flandrii, doprowadzony do ostateczności, zdewastował w całym kraju ponad czterysta świątyń, niszcząc rzeźby i paląc niezliczoną liczbę malowideł”[25]. Tak więc historycy sztuki dość jednoznacznie sugerują, że Bruegel wprowadził do swoich dzieł elementy narodowościowe, o wyraźnie historycznym znaczeniu[26]. Ponadto zrezygnował z jednej perspektywy na rzecz wielu punktów widzenia, a więc wielu płaszczyzn w obrazie. Pisała o tym szerzej Maria Rzepińska: „Zdarzenie główne jest zawsze umieszczane tak, że bardzo trudno w pierwszej chwili je odszukać. Czytelność akcji w jego obrazach jest w ogóle utrudniona z góry przez wprowadzenie owych »równouprawnionych« w skali grup i epizodów, rozrzuconych po całej płaszczyźnie obrazu, nie poddanych ani hierarchii umownej, ani perspektywicznej. Aby odczytać wizualnie takie obrazy, jak Przysłowia flamandzkie, Zabawy dziecięce czy Walka karnawału z postem – trzeba wodzić okiem po kolei po różnych strefach obrazu i oglądać każdy epizod. Jest to inny sposób percypowania niż ten, jakiego wymagają obrazy typu włoskiego czy też obrazy flamandzkie przed Boschem – stworzone wyraźnie dla oglądu całościowego”[27]. Dlatego tak trudno jest nam dostrzec Jezusa na obrazie Droga krzyżowa, choć znajduje się na przecięciu przekątnych obrazu. To paradoks niewidzenia cierpienia, jego „przeoczenia”, zbagatelizowania, choć dotyczy najważniejszej postaci. Czy chodzi o „beznamiętność” czy „bezradność” bohaterów z obrazu[28]? To kwestia godna uwagi. Hiszpanie okazali się bardzo okrutni i obojętni wobec protestantów – Flandrów, tak jak postaci z obrazu malarskiego wobec męki Jezusa.

Zaproponowana we wstępie metafora oka sugeruje istnienie szeregu wątpliwości, typu: która z postaci obrazu i filmu „widzi” albo jest częścią „historii/narracji drogi” (1), „młyna” (2), „krzyża” (3)? Przypomnę, że zwykle droga symbolizuje trud i zmianę. Młyn – oznacza życiodajny „przemiał” (przemianę) i ziemskie, rutynowe życie. Krzyż odsyła do idei ofiary i cierpienia. Następne pytanie to: którzy z bohaterów w końcu są mediatorami między wskazanymi opowieściami? Przynajmniej na kilka niejasności można odpowiedzieć już na tym etapie[29].Jakie zatem wydarzenia widzą poszczególni bohaterowie utrwaleni w obrazie i filmie? Malarz przede wszystkim cierpienie Jezusa? W filmie jego ogląd jest szerszy, bo – jak sam mówi – postępuje jak pająk, ogarnia wzrokiem szerszy horyzont, dysponuje większą wiedzą, dystansem. Dostrzega więc także cierpienie innych, przykładowo Matki Boskiej i zgromadzonych wokół niej kobiet. Może w tajemniczy sposób (gest ręki) porozumiewać się z młynarzem. Podobnie większym horyzontem postrzeżeniowo-poznawczym względem obrazu dysponuje mecenas malarza, młynarz, sprzedawca chleba i Weronika, choć nie do końca zwykli ludzie (tłum), którzy w filmie zajmują się po prostu swoimi sprawami, a uwiecznieni w obrazie wpatrują wytrzeszczonymi oczami w przestrzeń przynależną potencjalnym, przyszłym widzom. Niewątpliwą tajemnicą owiana jest także perspektywa Jezusa. Nie jest ona dana odbiorcom – jego twarz jest niewidoczna, a ofiara początkowo niezrozumiała. Zgodnie z monologiem wewnętrznym Matki Boskiej, który słyszymy w filmie, Jezus rozumiał, co to znaczy „nie widzieć” zmysłami rzeczywistości i żyć w ciemności: „Nie rozumiem. Kiedy dorastał, jego życie było pisane ognistymi literami na niebie. Obwieszczał, kto ma umrzeć, a kto żyć. (…) Dorósł i wszystkich zadziwił. Bez draśnięcia. Doszedł do bram nieba. Ogień przeznaczenia oświetlał mu drogę. Jezus przyniósł płomień losu. Rozjaśnił, wszystko zależało od niego…”. Po scenie ukrzyżowania natomiast słyszymy z offu: „Nie urodził się bez powodu. Wniósł jasność w ten świat, zagrożenie dla głupoty, rutyny, zwyczaju, ludzi żądnych pieniędzy, władzy, pustych słów. Rutyna i przyzwyczajenie odniosły zwycięstwo. Nie rozumiem tego”. Niezwykłość syna Boga polegała właśnie na tym, że miał on moc zgładzania ciemności, którą w jego czasie stanowiły obrazy (niebezpieczne, bo jednoznaczne, wyuczone schematy poznania albo „wizualne pułapki” stworzone przez cudze postrzeganie), a nie ich brak. Chrystus „rozjaśniał” świat. W ten sposób przeciwdziałał stereotypowemu postrzeganiu, rutynie, skostnieniu.

Kulista, a więc tradycyjnie doskonała budowa oka pozwalała zrozumieć mechanizm odwróconego widzenia. Tajemnicę obrazu ukrytego jakby pod powiekami, widocznego dopiero po jakimś czasie. Widzieć to rozumieć, ale nie spontanicznie, a często poprzez wyuczenie, „zaprogramowanie”. Dlatego w oczach patrzącego „gnieździ się” ciemność. Obraz uobecnia się nieświadomie w swoim rewersie na siatkówce. Dopiero w wyzwolonej głowie rodzi się rozumienie–widzenie. Tak jak metafizyka rodzi się niejako po zanegowaniu fizyki, a więc tego, co poznawalne. Na tak określonej granicy można rozpocząć poszukiwania oka artysty, bohatera i widza zarówno w obrazie Petera Bruegla, jak i filmie Lecha Majewskiego. To nie tylko granica wyobrażona w postaci prostej linii, ale także ukryta za życiodajnym młynem (przywodzącym na myśli wieżę Babel pomieszanych języków, nie tylko werbalnych, ale i wizualnych) i uwikłana w „niedoskonałość” naturalnej pajęczej sieci.

***

 Prawda jest tym, co wyklucza się wzajemnie,
a fizycy dopowiadają, że dobra teoria musi zawierać swoje przeciwieństwo
[30].

O ile Bosch jest wizjonerem i prorokiem,
to Bruegel – filozofem najwybitniejszym wśród malarzy.
A także uważnym obserwatorem
[31].

Poszukiwanie „oka” autora‒artysty w filmach o sztuce, o artyście, a więc w relacji artysta–inny artysta wiąże się z sytuacją podwójnego kodowania. Korespondencja między malarzem renesansowym– Pieterem Brueglem Starszym– a współczesnym reżyserem filmowym jest niewątpliwie fascynująca, ale i obarczona wieloma trudnościami. Przede wszystkim trzeba pamiętać, że malarz dysponuje okiem aktywnym/widzącym, ale chodzi o świadomość podstawową, umożliwiającą mu, po pierwsze, kopiowanie widzianej rzeczywistości ze wszystkimi jej fizycznymi i metafizycznymi właściwościami (stąd element zdziwienia), po drugie – tworzenie parabolicznych jej interpretacji. Takie możliwości są typowe dla autorskiej strategii świadka. Oko drugiego, tj. reżysera filmowego, przez swą wtórność jest bardziej świadome; Lech Majewski nie tylko widzi, rozumie, ale także kreuje, stwarza nowe sytuacje nadawczo-odbiorcze, np. zmienia czas, miejsce akcji, medium i narzędzia, służące kreacji obrazu. Na tym etapie ważna jest również pamięć o znaczeniu dla wizji reżyserskiej inspiracji pomysłodawcy całego przedsięwzięcia, współtwórcy scenariusza Młyna i krzyża Michaela F. Gibsona, który przyjmuje rolę narratora, choć w skończonym materiale nie słyszymy jego głosu. Innym artystą, z którym współpracował Majewski, był autor zdjęć – Adam Sikora. Zarówno Gibson, jak i Sikora realizowali autorską strategię artysty‒kreatora[32]. Tak powstał wideo-fresk, który można oglądać w nowej przestrzeni – w muzeum.

W relacji artysta–bohater ponownie ważne jest podwójne ujęcie, a więc pamięć zarówno o autoportrecie Bruegla ukrytym w obrazie Droga Krzyżowa, jak i autobiografizmie „zaszyfrowanym” w filmie Młyn i krzyż. Sprawę komplikuje trudność utożsamienia reżysera z konkretną postacią w obrazie czy filmie. Dlatego warto wskazać kilka osób i bliżej przyjrzeć się ich punktom widzenia. Przykładowo młynarz – ma szeroką perspektywę, mieszka na górze, ale działa wyraźnie „na rozkaz” malarza. Obrazuje strategię świadka, co najwyżej pomocnika lub psychoterapeuty artysty. Ten z kolei każdorazowo postrzega coś innego. Dysponuje „okiem ruchomym”, „żywym”, bo „wieloperspektywicznym”. Przykładowo jako malarz widzi cierpienie Jezusa – ziemskie, pozornie bezsensowne. Jako sprzedawca chleba dostrzega znaczenie pracy młynarza i wartość wypiekanego chleba. To też rodzaj cierpienia – ziemskiego, potrzebnego, bo sprowadzającego się do konieczności produkowania mąki, tego, co jest skojarzone z codziennością, dobrobytem i bezpieczeństwem. Spoglądając na świat przez pryzmat młynarza, artysta‒reżyser widzi, ale tylko to, co jest związane z życiem doczesnym, nie dostrzegając cierpienia Jezusa. Z uwagi na to jednak, że młynarz jest „artystą” w swoim fachu, ma władzę niczym ziemski bóg. Można się zastanowić, czy tak naprawdę nie jest ślepy, jedynie „udając” widzenie, lecz jest też kreatorem (ziemskiej) rzeczywistości.

Przejścia w filmie na wyższe piętra wtajemniczenia umożliwia kilka postaci, przykładowo malarz to porte parole reżysera, który przestaje być tożsamy już tylko z młynarzem czy sprzedawcą chleba. To przejście umożliwia „perspektywa pająka”, a więc większa świadomość obrazu nieruchomego i ruchomego (film) oraz jego znaczenia, symboliki, możliwości interpretowania, możliwego we wszystkich wymiarach: długości, z którą wiąże się czytanie od lewej do prawej życia jak Księgi (tę perspektywę jako pierwszy zasugerował analizując Drogę krzyżową Gibson); wysokości, która sugeruje wielość możliwych odczytań symboliki na osi wertykalnej obrazu, np. przydanie tajemnicy i znaczenia skale, na której stoi młyn, a która jest – w sensie fizycznym – najbliżej nieba; głębi, z którą wiązać można wielość planów na obrazie, a w filmie zabieg zwany kompozytowaniem; ostatecznie też czasowości obrazu, z którą wiąże się zabieg symultanicznego przedstawienia na jednym malowidle wydarzeń rozgrywających się w różnym czasie i przestrzeni, a w przypadku filmu – dowód na możliwość „wskrzeszenia”, dzięki nowym mediom, starego obrazu w nowej czasoprzestrzeni.

Na koniec pozostaje zasadnicze pytanie, kim jest tak naprawdę Jezus w obrazie malarskim, a następnie filmowym. Według Biblii Mesjasz to Syn Boga. W obrazie, przynależnym do sfery profanum, jest zwykłym człowiekiem. W filmie, który obecnie zatracił już niemal swoją materialność, stał się czystą kreacją wyobraźni, medium wirtualnym, jest przede wszystkim synem rozpaczającej kobiety, dzieckiem. To dzięki emocjom, takim jak miłość oraz wrażliwości i pamięci innych, staje się postacią ze sfery sacrum. W ten sposób mamy do czynienia ze swoistym paradoksem. Postaci, które w rzeczywistości nie zostały dostrzeżone, z czasem nabrały znaczenia. Film przypomina i utrwala ten fakt. Staje się w tym sensie medium metafizycznym.

Oko artysty‒reżysera ujawnia się w ostatniej scenie, w której kamera znajduje się w muzeum w Wiedniu. Kamera filmuje wnętrze sali, wiszące na ścianie malowidło Droga krzyżowa. Następnie powolnym ruchem zaczyna oddalać się od tego miejsca. Obraz jest wyraźny, ale im dystans jest większy, tym on staje się mniejszy. W końcu niknie z naszego pola widzenia. To oddalenie się ujawnia znaczenie upływu czasu, przemijania, zapominania, znikania obrazów (stopniowo nawet tych utrwalonych, uznanych arcydzieł), a wraz z nimi ludzi, tematów, spraw, konfliktów, jak w wirtualnej przestrzeni nowych mediów, ale też przestrzeni kreacji nowych światów.

Oko zmysłowe malarza‒bohatera‒Bruegla ujawnia się w jego autoportrecie „ukrytym” w obrazie. To oko przerażone i przerażające, bo widzące czas i jego upływ w niejako jednocześnie. W filmie takie oko jest porównane do oka pająka, oka przyrody: żywej, dzikiej, doskonałej w swojej niedoskonałości, bo zdolnej do precyzyjnego kopiowania rzeczywistości, a nie jej kreowania. To w tym oku – jak w sieci – jest „gniazdo” – początek, bezpieczeństwo, życie, ale i śmierć, jeżeli uświadomimy sobie, że to też pułapka, a więc krzyż dla „złapanego”.

Oko zmysłowe widza/widzów to otwarcie na zmianę, to wybór własnej drogi, a więc wyrwanie się z „ziemskiego młyna” zdarzeń, spraw, sensów na rzecz możliwości, jakie dają inne spojrzenia. Tajemnicą jest więc konieczność podjęcia wyzwania, trudu zmierzenia się z niewiadomą, wolnością w widzeniu i rozumieniu. W takim oku fizyką jest wielość obrazów, swoisty młyn obrazów, z których trzeba się wyzwolić, przejść przez etap wymienności perspektywy, a więc: młyna, drogi i krzyża widzianych przez malarza i reżysera. Następnie znaleźć się w oku obrazu, na krzyżu. Ponownie wejść w ciemność.

Obraz malarski jako – niedoskonała, ale istotna poznawczo – kopia wyobrażenia rzeczywistości, wskazuje dość jednoznacznie, że nie ma świata bez mitu, a więc też potencjalnie ukrytej w nim deziluzji. Dlatego każdy widz, prędzej czy później, zadaje sobie odwieczne pytanie: czy widzi to, co wie na temat świata, czy to, co pojmują jego zmysły? Każdorazowo mamy więc przed sobą wybór: czy percypowany obraz „otwiera” tylko nasze oczy (zmysłowe poznanie), czy także nasz umysł (wiedza)? Gdzie jest prawda widzenia, obrazu, przeznaczenia[33]? Czym jest w końcu tzw. omyłkowa prawda (falsetruth)[34]? Czy koło życia, przysłowiowe koło fortuny, jest w stanie ją obnażyć[35]? Metafizyka Młyna i krzyża ujawnia się także w momencie stawiania takich pytań przez jego twórców.

Bibliografia

Achtelik Aleksandra, „Drugie oblicze Lecha Majewskiego, czyli powieść Metafizyka”, Postscriptum 1-2 (2003).

Bakuła Bogusław, Człowiek jak dzieło sztuki. Z problemów metarefleksji artystycznej, (Poznań: Wydawnictwo WiS) (1994).

Balbus Stanisław, „Interdyscyplinarność – intersemiotyczność – komparatystyka”, w: Intersemiotyczność. Literatura wobec innych sztuk (i odwrotnie), red. Stanisław Balbus i in., (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN) (2009).

Balbus Stanisław, Intersemiotyczność a proces historycznoliteracki, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Naukowe UJ) (1990).

Białostocki Jan, Bruegel – pejzażysta, (Poznań: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN) (1956).

Biedrzycki Krzysztof, Wariacje metafizyczne: szkice i recenzje o poezji, prozie i filmie, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Universitas) (2007).

Bobowski Sławomir, Między świętością a potępieniem. Martin Scorsese i religia, (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego) (2007).

Cembrzyńska Patrycja, „Pajęcza sieć obrazów Lecha Majewskiego”,Tygodnik Powszechny, 6:96-100 (2011).

Czapliński Przemysław, „Wyliczanka”, czyli gry Greenawaya [“Drowning” – which is Greenaway’s game], w: Poloniści o filmie [Polish philologists about the film], red. Marek Hendrykowski, (Poznań: Wydawnictwo UAM) (1997).

Czekalski Stanisław, Intertekstualność i malarstwo. Problemy badań nad związkami międzyobrazowymi, (Poznań: Wydawnictwo Naukowe UAM) (2006).

Gibson Michael F., Majewski Lech, Bruegel. Młyn i krzyż, (Olszanica: Wydawnictwo Bosz) (2010).

Gwóźdź Andrzej (red.), Filmowe światy. Z dziejów X muzy na Górnym Śląsku, (Katowice: Wydawnictwo Śląsk) (1998).

Hendrykowski Marek, „O podmiotowym charakterze wypowiedzi filmowej”, w: Studia z poetyki historycznej filmu, red. Alicja Helman, Tadeusz Lubelski, (Katowice: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Śląskiego) (1983)

Kuśmierczyk Seweryn, Zagubieni w drodze. Film fabularny jako obraz doświadczenia wewnętrznego, (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Skorpion) (1999).

Lebecka Magdalena, Lech Majewski, (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Więź) (2010).

Lebecka Magdalena, „Sprawozdanie z produkcji filmu Lecha Majewskiego Młyn i krzyż”, Kino, 1:88 (2009).

Lech Majewski, http://www.lechmajewski.art.pl/recenzje.php?id=41/, data dostępu 6 września 2018.

Majewski Lech, „Alchemik”, rozm. Magdalena Lebecka, Film&TV Kamera 2:4-15 (2007).

Majewski Lech, „Algorytm natury”, rozm. Piotr Zawojski, Opcje 3:36-41 (2011).

Majewski Lech, „Bruegel ma zawsze widownię”, rozm. Tadeusz Sobolewski, Gazeta Wyborcza (Duży Format) 10:14-17 (17.03.2011) (2011).

Majewski Lech, „Collage sztuki i technologii”, rozm. Magdalena Lebecka, FilmPro 1:71-77 (2010).

Majewski Lech, „Okradanie śmierci”, rozm. Grażyna Arata, Kino 3:25-26 (2004).

Majewski Lech, „Sztuka, która umożliwia zadomowienie”, rozm. Anna Bielak, Maria Lisok, Ekrany 1-2: 78-82 (2010).

Majewski Lech, „Szukam rajów”, rozm. Jerzy Wójcik, Rzeczpospolita 59:A9 (2004).

Majewski Lech, „Wierzę filozofom, że sztuka komunikuje się z siłą wyższą”, rozm. Anna Fuksiewicz, Kino 2:15-17 (2011).

Majewski Lech, Metafizyka, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie) (2002).

Marczak Mariola, Poetyka filmów religijnych, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo: Arcana) (2000).

Młyn i Krzyż, http://www.themillandthecross.com/, data dostępu 6 września 2018.

Nowakowski Jacek, W stronę raju. O literackiej i filmowej twórczości Lecha Majewskiego, (Poznań: Wydawnictwo UAM) (2012).

Podsiadło Magdalena, Autobiografizm filmowy jako ślad podmiotowej egzystencji, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Universitas) (2013).

Rorty Richard, Przygodność, ironia i solidarność, przeł. Wacław Jan Popowski, (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo W.A.B.) (1996)

Skwarek Irena, Dlaczego autobiografizm? Powieści autobiograficzne dwudziestolecia międzywojennego, (Katowice: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Śląskiego) (1986).

Smulski Jerzy, „Autobiografizm jak postawa i jako strategia artystyczna. Na materiale prozy współczesnej”, Pamiętnik Literacki 4 (1988).

Zajdel Jakub, Lech Majewski – pejzaż po burzy, w: Autorzy kina polskiego, tom 3, red. Grażyna Stachówna, Bogusława Zmudziński, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Rabid) (2008).

Zawojski Piotr, Poezja kamerą (za)pisana. Od Wojaczka do KrwiPoety (i Szklanych ust), strona internetowa: www.zawojski.com/2008/11/24,data dostępu 6 września 2018.

 

Przypisy

[1] Lech Majewski, Metafizyka (fragmenty), http://www.lechmajewski.art.pl/ksiazki.php?id=11, data dostępu 6 września 2018.

[2] Zob. Lech Majewski, „Wierzę filozofom, że sztuka komunikuje się z siłą wyższą”, rozm. A. Fuksiewicz, Kino 2: 15-17 (2011).

[3] Por. Georges Bataille, Historia oka, oprac. Tadeusz Komendant, (Gdańsk: Wydawnictwo Słowo/Obraz Terytoria) (2010).

[4] Por. Maria Czermińska, „Postawa autobiograficzna”, w: Studia o narracji, red. Jan Błoński, Stanisław Jaworski, Janusz Sławiński, (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich) (1982); Marek Hendrykowski, „O podmiotowym charakterze wypowiedzi filmowej”, w: Studia z poetyki historycznej filmu, red. Alicja Helman, Tadeusz Lubelski, (Katowice: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Śląskiego) (1983); Magdalena Podsiadło, Autobiografizm filmowy jako ślad podmiotowej egzystencji, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Universitas) (2013).

[5] Magdalena Podsiadło, „Trzy typy wypowiedzi autobiograficznych”, w: tejże, dz. cyt., s. 107: „Sygnały autobiograficzne stanowią grupę powracających chwytów, tematów, motywów i sposobów prezentacji, które zapraszają odbiorcę do autobiograficznej lektury. (…) Projekt «ja» zawarty w filmie determinuje kompozycję świata przedstawionego, stopień fabularyzacji prezentowanej historii, posługiwanie się fikcją albo dokumentem, subiektywizacją, kreacją czy strategiami obiektywizującymi, a także wyznacza odbiorcy odmienne zadania autobiograficzne do rozwiązywania”.

[6] Przywołują oni najważniejsze przejawy postawy autobiograficznej. Zob. Irena Skwarek, Dlaczego autobiografizm? Powieści autobiograficzne dwudziestolecia międzywojennego, (Katowice: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Śląskiego) (1986), s. 30; Jerzy Smulski, „Autobiografizm jak postawa i jako strategia artystyczna. Na materiale prozy współczesnej”, Pamiętnik Literacki 4 (1988).

[7] Magdalena Podsiadło, „Trzy typy wypowiedzi autobiograficznych”, dz. cyt., ss. 108 i 119-126.

Czasami te typy występują w postaci czystej, ale zasadniczo o wiele częściej dochodzi do ich łączenia, swobodnego przechodzenia, przenikania.

[8] Magdalena Podsiadło, ss. 108 i 112-118.

[9] Por. Magdalena Podsiadło, ss. 108 i 126-133. Magdalena Podsiadło zauważa, że w twórczości Lecha Majewskiego dominuje: „ja” sylleptyczne oraz forma „wyzwania” rzucona odbiorcy (por. Pokój saren. Opera autobiograficzna, M. Podsiadło, s. 110).

[10] Magdalena Podsiadło, s. 94.

[11] Magdalena Podsiadło, s. 94.

[12] Magdalena Podsiadło, s. 95. Magdalena Podsiadło w tym kontekście wymienia następujące filmy: Andriej Rublow (1966, Andriej Tarkowski); Pogarda (1963, Jean-Luc Godard); Wszystko na sprzedaż (1968, Andrzej Wajda), Po drodze (1979, Márta Mészáros) itp.

[13] Zob. oficjalna strona filmu Młyn i krzyż: http://www.themillandthecross.com/, data dostępu 6 września 2018. Pozostaje pytanie, dlaczego akurat ten film został wskazany jako ważny dla ogólniejszego zagadnienia doświadczenia zmysłowego. Zarówno obraz, jak i za jego pośrednictwem film „dotyka” i opowiada o „sytuacji na granicy”: tego, co poznawalne i tajemnicze, pewne i wątpliwe, obiektywne i subiektywne, artystyczne i rzemieślnicze/codzienne, a więc fizykalne i metafizyczne jednocześnie.

[14] Zob. oficjalna strona Lecha Majewskiego, http://www.lechmajewski.art.pl/wiadomosci.php, data dostępu 6 września 2018. Stan badań na temat twórczości Lecha Majewskiego sprowadza się przede wszystkim do dwóch książek: naukowej monografii Jacka Nowakowskiego W stronę raju. O literackiej i filmowej twórczości Lecha Majewskiego (Poznań: Wydawnictwo Naukowe UAM, 2012) i popularyzatorskiej publikacji Magdaleny Lebeckiej Lech Majewski (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Więź, 2010); a także licznych artykułów wyszczególnionych w bibliografii do artykułu. Wybrany film doczekał się zasadniczo nielicznych analiz.

[15] Lech Majewski w swojej Metafizyce zanotował: „Chronologia? Czemu nie. Ostatecznie jakieś siły uporządkowały nasze egzystencje dziwnymi «przed» i «po», mamiąc nas logiką przyczynowo-skutkową, a my, zagubieni i osamotnieni, wierzymy, że wczoraj poprzedziło dzisiaj, a jutro zastąpi wczoraj, jakby nie rozumiejąc, że jutro i wczoraj są złudzeniami potwierdzonymi jedynie rozpadem materii, jedynym zegarem wszechrzeczy, ową energią ciała, lecz nie ducha” (zob. Lech Majewski, Metafizyka, dz. cyt.).

[16] Magdalena Lebecka, „Młyn i krzyż – Bóg wstrzymał oddech”, w: tejże, Lech Majewski, dz. cyt., s. 157.

[17] Magdalena Lebecka, ss. 157-158. Dalej czytamy, że „Jeszcze przed wyjazdem z Polski, ponad trzydzieści lat temu, przygotowywał inscenizację Króla Edypa Sofoklesa dla «Teatru Studio» Józefa Szajny. Tę antyczną tragedię zinterpretował, posługując się właśnie kluczem brueglowskim. Spektakl, jak wiele innych pomysłów artysty, nie został zrealizowany. Silna fascynacja autorem «Pór roku» jednak przetrwała. To był potencjał czekający na impuls z zewnątrz” (zob. Magdalena Lebecka, s. 158).

[18] Magdalena Lebecka, s. 158.

[19] Zob. Michael F. Gibson, Lech Majewski, Bruegel. Młyn i krzyż, (Olszanica: Wydawnictwo Bosz) (2010).

[20] Richard Rorty, Przygodność, ironia i solidarność, przeł. Wacław Jan Popowski, (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo W.A.B.) (1996), s. 126.

[21] Por. Przemysław Czapliński, “Wyliczanka”, czyli gry Greenawaya [“Drowning” – which is Greenaway’s game], w: Poloniści o filmie [Polish philologists about the film], red. Marek Hendrykowski, (Poznań: Wydawnictwo UAM) (1997).

[22] Najprościej rzecz ujmując: „Projekt metafizyki jest absolutny. Chodzi o wyjaśnienie bytu (dlaczego jest?) i poznanie jego istotnych właściwości (czym jest?), np. istoty czy przyczyn, relacji koniecznych, co może stanowić podstawę dla wypracowania kryteriów wiedzy pewnej. Według niektórych koncepcji metafizyki, jej przedmiot leży poza obrębem doświadczenia. Dlatego metafizykę krytykuje się z pozycji sceptycznych, empirystycznych, pozytywistycznych i scjentystycznych” – Kazimierz Leśniak, „Wstęp”, w: Arystoteles, Metafizyka, (Warszawa: PWN) (1983), ss. xii-xiii.

[23] Lech Majewski wielokrotnie wspominał eksperyment, który wykonała przed przystąpieniem do realizacji filmu, a który polegał na komputerowym wyeliminowaniu z obrazu wszystkich bohaterów i przyjrzeniu się pustemu krajobrazowi. Okazało się, że nie można dostrzec go w przedstawiony sposób używając statycznego „oka” (na przykład kamery). Podobne zdolności ma tylko „oko” żywe, ruchome, a więc ludzkie (Zob. materiał dołączony do filmu na DVD).

[24] Z jednej strony odkrycie ruchu Ziemi przydało jej znaczenia i zasugerował możliwość istnienia wielu tajemnic, które są jeszcze niewyjaśnione, zbliżyło też do człowieka i jego ziemskich spraw, choćby w tym sensie, że wiedza na jej temat „pozwoliła się okiełznać”. Z drugiej strony sprawy ziemskie przestały być już tak oczywiste, stałe i niezmienne, jak się początkowo wydawały. Ruch nadał Ziemi „walor filmowy”, a ten przyczynił się do myślenia o niej także w kontekście metafizyki. Obraz rzeczywistości, jaki dzięki takiej wiedzy powstaje, jest kompromisem: iluzją zmysłów „przefiltrowaną” przez pojmowanie rozumowe.

[25] Michael F. Gibson, Lech Majewski, Bruegel. Młyn i krzyż, dz. cyt., s. 20.

[26] Pisała na ten temat Maria Rzepińska, Siedem wieków malarstwa europejskiego, (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo: Ossolineum) (1986), s. 198.

[27] Maria Rzepińska, ss. 200-201.

[28] Zob. Jacek Nowakowski, „Kalwaria raz jeszcze – Młyn i krzyż”, w: tegoż, W stronę raju. O literackiej i filmowej twórczości Lecha Majewskiego, (Poznań: Wydawnictwo UAM) (2012), s. 220.

[29] Próba analizy tajemnicy wielości perspektyw w obrazie Droga krzyżowa znajduje się także w filmie dokumentalnym, który powstał przy okazji realizacji filmu Młyn i krzyż–Lech Majewski. Świat według Bruegela (2009, Dagmara Drzazga; zob. informacje na temat filmu: http://www.filmpolski.pl/fp/index.php?film=4223549, data dostępu: 6 września 2018): „to, między innymi, chce nam powiedzieć wielki malarz i filozof: najważniejsze wydarzenia dzieją się w chaosie codzienności, niezauważane przez współczesnych”.

[30] Magdalena Lebecka, „Młyn i krzyż – Bóg wstrzymał oddech”, dz. cyt., s. 160.

[31] Lech Majewski, „Collage sztuki i technologii”, rozm. Magdalena Lebecka, FilmPro 1: 71-77 (2010).

[32] Patrycja Cembrzyńska w kontekście wystawy prac Majewskiego w Muzeum Narodowym w Krakowie (01.04-05.06.2011) pisała: „Czy Majewski chce powiedzieć, że artystyczna kreacja nosi boskie znamię? Raczej mimochodem przypomina jedną z najstarszych mitologii sztuki, świadom, że mit artysty-kreatora, podobnego bogom, jego własna epoka poddała dekonstrukcji. Zresztą filmowy Bruegel wybiera na swojego «nauczyciela» nie Boga, który gwarantuje wsteczny sens tego, co stworzone, a pająka. Nie ma bowiem początku dzieła, nie powstaje ono ex nihil, tylko w sieci obrazów, którą artysta-pająk może cierpliwie, z mozołem tkać; to wątkiem, to osnową łączyć się z dziełami przeszłości” (zob. Patrycja Cembrzyńska, „Pajęcza sieć obrazów Lecha Majewskiego”, Tygodnik Powszechny 6: 99 [2011]).

[33] Zob. Michael F. Gibson, Lech Majewski, dz. cyt., s. 111.

[34] Zob. Michael F. Gibson, Lech Majewski, s. 112.

[35] Zob. Michael F. Gibson, Lech Majewski, s. 113.

The body of the viewer and immersive audio-visual art. The somatic character of new Japanese experimental film

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp. 27-42.

 

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz
Jagiellonian University

 

 

 

The body of the viewer and immersive audio-visual art. The somatic character of new Japanese experimental film

 

Abstract

The author of this article aims at presenting the somatic character of the audiovisual experiments created by the Japanese directors after the year 2000. Focusing on their postulates, stating that the experimental film should “touch the viewer” and can “be felt,” the author analyses the chosen installations, audiovisual performances and screenings to show how the corporeality of the spectator becomes a part of the film. Moreover, the artists discussed in this article employ different methods of creating the somatic character of their works. The author mentions such artists as Takashi Makino, Rei Hayama, Kazuhiro Goshima and Ai Hasegawa, especially emphasizing the techniques they use to contemplate the possibilities of interacting with the body of the viewer. They combine live music and projection of audio-visual materials on several surfaces, edit the filmed sequences during the screening, depending on the reactions of the public, and prepare the viewer to understand the installations by providing them with elaborate technical descriptions or dilemma charts. In the presented article, the author reconsiders the meaning of the appearance of the viewer for the new Japanese experimental filmmakers, wondering why the directors are playing with the boundaries of audience’s understanding and are balancing between offering a comforting audiovisual spectacle and disturbing the viewer’s perception.

 

Keywords: Japanese audiovisual experiment, new avant-garde, Takashi Makino, Rei Hayama, Kazuhiro Goshima, Ai Hasegawa

Introduction

The directors of new Japanese experimental film, a phenomenon that has developed rapidly since 2000[1], are primarily focused on the viewer’s perception and their place in the process of “being touched” by the work of art[2]. They wish to influence the observer, initiate changes in their perception (for example, opening them up to new forms of visual art), and underline the significance of “feeling the film.”[3] Here, the main concern of the artists is, using terminology introduced by Luke Hockley in his Somatic Cinema[4], “the body of the viewer.” This means that screenings of their films (or displays of audio-visual installations in galleries), are designed to be perceived by all of the senses, to immerse the viewer into the audio-visual spectacle. They are often accompanied by ‘dilemma charts’, instructions, to-do lists and models that can be touched, or surroundings to be discovered. The corporeality of the observer becomes a part of the performance – one of the elements of the scenography, a lens filtering the picture, or even another screening surface.

The artists discussed in this analysis employ different means of fulfilling these schemes. For example, Takashi Makino combines live music and projection of audio-visual materials on several surfaces with simple 3D technique, called Pulfrich effect. Moreover, Hayama and Makino edit the filmed performances during the screening, depending on the reactions of the public and their personal feelings. Kazuhiro Goshima[5], another artist covered in this article, prepares the viewer to understand his installation by providing them with complex technical descriptions to be learned before the performance/screening. Ai Hasegawa[6], a biologist and computer graphics animator, even invites the viewer to contemplate the possibilities of their body. By offering false biological theories supported by convincing audio-visual material, anatomic models and dilemma charts, Hasegawa invites the viewer to undertake a game of imagining possible future scenarios for humankind. According to the artists, their works – using Hockley’s words to summarize the aims of the new generation of experimental audio-visual directors – are designed to enable the viewer to “experience the immersive qualities that are part of cinematic experience.”[7]

Moreover, the somatic character of the majority of the new Japanese audio-visual experiments can be made even more visible by comparing the directors’ achievements and goals with Hockley’s theory. He points out that experimental film often manifests “the shift from considering ‘viewer, screen’ and instead asserts the primacy of the ‘viewer-screen’ paradigmatic relationship as the key way through which to better understand the cinematic experience.”[8] In the optics of representatives of the new Japanese experimental movement, accepting the leading role of this new relationship allows for focussing on – again using Hockley’s term – “mindfulness.” If understood as “a practice of bringing one’s attention to bear on the present moment,”[9] it situates the process of the viewer gaining awareness (of their body or another aspect chosen by the artist) in the center of the artistic pursuits of the Japanese experimental directors. Writing about the somatic aspects of cinema, Hockley proposes perceiving film as “a type of transitional object”[10] and cinema as a “transitional phenomenon” . This corresponds with the point of view of moving pictures manifested by the directors[11]. For example, Takashi Makino perceives the moment of screening as a “creative collaboration with filmmaker and audience, in which each act of watching gives birth to a new cosmos”[12], and as “an act of true creativity.”[13] In his view, a film screening can initiate the process of transition of the viewer from one mental state to another – designed by, or at last expected, the director.

In considering the boundary-breaking works of this young generation of Japanese directors and their creative approaches to inter-media concepts, as well as their fascination with new technologies, their work can also be classified as “expanded cinema.”[14] Introducing Le Grice’s definition[15], it can be seen that these new Japanese experiments expand the boundaries of film and performance, going further than the experimental artists of Japan’s 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. After the year 2000, the ‘expanded’ character of the new wave of Japanese experimentation is intangibly connected to the emergence of new technologies, such as computer processing of images or the use of 3D. However, although primarily aimed at offering an experience distinct from live-action popular films[16], this expansion is often created with consideration of the position of the viewer.

This article will examine how these award-winning Japanese artists of the new avant-garde movement invite the viewer to immerse themselves in their installations and screenings, to transgress the boundaries of the body, religion and political views, and contemplate “film as a film.”[17] The audio-visual installations described in this article were chosen from different thematic areas, and represent artists with diverse views on the problem of the somatic character of their works. However, they all share the same approach to developing the concept of the new avant-garde movement, agreeing that the need to immerse the viewer should shape their artistic pursuits.

Toward The Tactile Visions

After several solo projects and collaborations with people from outside the world of art[18], members of the Collective [+] group[19] Rei Hayama and Takashi Makino decided to work together. This resulted in an audio-visual performance they call Toward The Tactile Visions[20]. The project, which had two screenings (the first in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on May 12th 2018, and the second in Bangkok on May 15th 2018[21]), workshops and meetings with audiences, was put together with Arnont Nongyao[22] and curated by Pathompong Manakitsomboon. Toward The Tactile Visions was designed to bring together the areas of interests of the artists to create an inter-medial experience for the viewer.

Here, it is worth mentioning the objectives and backgrounds of the artists before we present, later on, the connections between their different styles. Rei Hayama[23] studied at the Department of Moving Images and Performing Arts at Tama Art University,[24] but her films have also been screened abroad, including in the Netherlands, Slovakia, Germany, Belgium, and the USA[25]. Hayama’s films are deeply inspired by her childhood memories of living in a forest with her parents, where she was able to experience close contact with nature and observe the life cycles of particular species. She was inspired by birds the most, so in her films one can find many references to these “mysterious creatures,”[26] as she calls them. Hayama connects the creative process to her moods, describing it in this way: “I’m making films like making a forest. This is what I feel through my creative thought process; the feeling tells me how the fiction and reality is like a house and nature, and how we traverse between these two worlds again and again.”[27] The core concept of Hayama’s pictures is the act of transformation (often into a bird)[28], but she also references other symbolic figures: men, children, memory and nature. The filmmaker uses them to explain the relations between technological development and the longing for the past, when people existed closer to nature[29]. What’s more, the artist claims to take the perspective of “a bird’s-eye view,”[30] which she explains in her manifesto: “[…] I think about the thing that has been lost or neglected from an anthropocentric view of the world. I attempt to fall off from the arbitrary illusion of human’s »height«, transport nature into the space of human’s thought by the temporal art that makes time for thinking about what we are, and what is the relationship between human and others. My works are based on an allegorical plot, and it told by poetic writings and symbolical images such as recorded body action. There are some key factors often appear in work such as bird’s eye viewpoint, forest, pretend (play), the non-human leading character.”[31] In this case, it can be seen that Hayama seeks to avoid the anthropocentric point of view and gives voice to the animals instead, in an attempt to deliberate their gaze upon the human world[32].

In contrast to Rei Hayama, Takashi Makino[33] rejects decipherable visual forms and symbols, focusing on the abstract. He debuted in 2004 with a short film, EVE, which pointed the way ahead for the artist’s further development. As the filmmaker has indicated, he is searching for the best and most intimate way to show the tremendous character of the cosmos and make the liminal experience of ‘touching the void’ as palpable as possible. Makino’s pursuits stem from an accident he suffered when he was young, and a series of visions he then experienced. Subsequently, he found that film works for him as a tool for explaining his feelings, and similarly to Hayama, bring back memories and make them accessible to viewers[34]. To create, as he calls it, the “perfect film,”[35] Makino tests the viewer’s ability to understand his experimental visions of whirling shapes and colours. While explaining his choice of the artistic means, the director observes: “None of the creatures that exist in the world are born of their own volition; when they first achieve awareness, they find themselves adrift in chaos. It is only by creating cosmos that they are able to overcome the fundamental meaningless and fear of existence”[36].

The third member of the Toward The Tactile Visions project, Arnont Nongyao, experiments with the connections between sound and moving pictures, and considers film as an illustration of sound. Nongyao is a debutant, who had his first solo exhibition, entitled Another Sound, at the beginning of 2018[37]. As he describes his own objectives, his main aim is “exploring an approach to communications and the concept of life passing-on through sonic and visual mediations.”[38] Nongyao contributed to Toward The Tactile Visions mostly by adding sound to the filmed footage, using his previous experience of working on Another Sound. On the project, he considered sound samples to be a unique language that helped him communicate with his fellow artists, getting around the Thai/Japanese language barrier that forced them to communicate through experimental compositions[39]. It’s worth indicating that Nongyao’s performances are very similar to Makino’s: he shows films, mostly of whirling shapes and colours, on surfaces other than normal screens, accompanied by live music. The artist also works with scripts that can be modified on the fly during the screenings, based on live observation of the audience’s reactions.

The pictures and sounds included in the final version of Toward The Tactile Visions clearly bear a resemblance to previous works by Hayama, Makino and Nongyao individually. As the artists indicate on the event’s Facebook page[40], they aim to show the relationship between the medium and the emergence of “the consciousness and awareness of cinema as the real cinematic event.”[41] They also emphasise that contact with experimental/expanded cinema “contaminates”[42] the viewer – creating the ability to connect his body to the sound and image he experiences. Toward The Tactile Visions was designed with the purpose of teaching audiences about the diversity of possible cinematic forms that differ from narrative cinema. In their description, the artists also use the term “to touch” experimental cinema, and this idea underlines the somatic character of their work.

The first screening took place at Chiang Mai University Art Center, with the venue being a giant white cube that allowed the artists to project the films on every wall in the room. Later, the group discussed how the location significantly influenced the way they modified the event, and how the screening itself went totally differently than the second one in Bangkok. Apart from the displays of cameras and musical instruments placed around the venue, other items related to the film were set out. Among these were branches without leaves, specially prepared by Hayama to underline the theme of nature in the film. Moreover, the artists used their bodies as parts of the scenography, freely moving around the white cube and casting shadows on the screens. Some of the images in the film are Makino’s ‘noisy supernovas’ – colourful collages, changing from deep rose to blue, or light dots moving down the screen. Between the whirling abstractions, various distorted, enlarged shapes of recognisable items emerge, such as parts of plants, tools, animals and even people recorded during their daily routines. It is significant here that the artists are visible to the viewers throughout the screening, sometimes even stepping in front of the screen, continuously engaged in the process of creating the performance. It is worth noting that because of the shape of the venue, the second screening at the Alliance Française center in Bangkok was restrained to one big screen, with some additional effects projected onto the walls closest to the screen. Explaining the differences between two venues and their influence on the project, Hayama observed:

“At Alliance Française center, we did perform at the normal cinema. It was a very interesting contrast to our previous performance at Chiang Mai University. At Alliance Française center, we felt sort of limitation of the space for our performance because the space is well designed for screening cinema. In the end, we decided to add two small stand screens on both sides of the main screen. I put one guitar in front of the main screen, and the long strip of clear 16mm film was going through the string. The film strip was run through the middle of the audience to where the projector set and kept making a sound of the guitar. (At Chiang Mai University, I set the black film strip went through the tree branch instead of the audience. And the tree gradually made a scratch on the film during the performance.) Their audience could hear the image and see the sound. It also made the audience noticed the film and the situation of cinematic space.”[43]

The postulate of allowing the viewer to ‘touch’ the film was also fulfilled in another significant way. A projector was pointed at the audience, displaying images on the backs of the viewers’ heads and faces, making another screen out of their skin. As such, observers were also able to follow the images on their bodies and the bodies of the other audience members. The immersive character of the screening was reinforced by this attempt to make the viewer the center of the picture, liberating the picture from the confines of screens. The colours and movements of the projected images let the audience feel as though they were floating in a sea of pictures.

In Toward The Tactile Visions, these three artists came together to merge the styles and objectives known from their previous works. The visual collages of Makino, the focus on the environment and living creatures of Hayama, and the search for experimental sounds by Nongyao, were all brought together to fulfil the postulates of haptic cinema.

This May not be a Movie

Kazuhiro Goshima[44] began his film experiments slightly before the increase in popularity of this kind of artistic activity that occurred in 2000[45]. This visual creator debuted as a freelance media content designer in the mid-1990s, but soon gave up the commercial market and devoted himself to new forms of expression as an experimental filmmaker[46]. In his work, Goshima is mostly focused on the role of light and shadow, which in his hands shape not only recognizable images but also have the power to make their surroundings come alive. For example, in his 2013 Shadowland, the shadows are the “breath of the city” that gives the metropolis its unique identity[47]. From early on, Goshima has also been interested in playing with viewer’s perceptions. Using sudden close-ups and sudden disappearances of objects[48], experimenting with movement and the viewer’s position[49], or connecting sounds with blurry pictures, he makes audiences guess the final shape of the presented scene[50]. However, even though Goshima has been busy deliberating on the position of the viewer from the beginning, his first work engaging the viewer’s body could be said to have a somatic character, and appeared in his portfolio in 2014. This is an audio-visual installation entitled This May not be a Movie.

Analysing Goshima’s film, it is worth starting with Le Grice’s article Problematising the Spectator’s Placement in Film[51], which launched a polemic against Christian Metz’s paper The Imaginary Signifier[52]. Le Grice comments on the theoretical approach Metz manifests toward the role and condition of the viewer of experimental film. Following Metz’s findings, Le Grice focuses on the mechanisms of identifying viewers, while encountering (using Metz’s terminology) “inhuman sequences” in avant-garde films that “eliminate the portrayed character or even eliminate all photo-recording.”[53] He makes the observation (which could be useful when analysing Goshima’s films), that viewers might “identify with the camera.”[54] He says that this means identification with the mechanism, as well as the “authority behind the narrative order.”[55] Nevertheless, Le Grice tries to explain the place (and situation of the body) of the viewer trying to understand experimental films in which there are no narrative patterns visible. He concludes that “[…] it is necessary to assume that the spectator must produce an auditory and specular construction for the film which is not directly that of the film presented – the spectator must be expelled from the film text in order to produce the conceptual construct as an act of the symbolic.”[56]

The situation of the viewer explained above seems to describe the shape of the projection and the viewer’s identification process, as designed by Goshima in This May not be a Movie. Here, Goshima raises the question of what a film is, and at which point the viewer starts perceiving the sequence of moving pictures as a consistent film production[57]. As he pointed out in an interview for The Japan Times[58], he used the Japanese term dōga, translated into English as ‘movie’, ‘film’, ‘motion picture’, or even ‘cinema’. However, in the Japanese language dōga is comparable to the term eiga (which also translates as ‘film’). It is thus perceived as meaning ‘motion picture’ – expressing different content and emphasising that the work, as Goshima sees it, is “composited from still frames.”[59] Explaining the reasoning behind his work, the author says: “When you think about the fuzziness of meaning of the wider application of eiga in its broad conceptual sense, you realize that it is the product of multiple mechanisms. I created one mechanism that pushes it to its limit in one direction, and by doing so I hoped to expand the breadth of its conceptualization. That’s why although the title is »This May Not Be a Movie«, its real message is »It’s possible to alter the meaning of ‘movie’ any number of times«.”[60]

This May not be a Movie is in fact an audio-visual installation, built out of screens, fibre-optic cables, a lattice, am image sensor and a movie camera, situated in the center of a small room. For their first glimpse, it gives viewers no hints about its purpose or the meaning of the images displayed. The blurry, colourful images on the screen are pictures of several hundred lines of light that appear after changes in the brightness of each pixel on a piece of 4×5 inch film[61]. This is accompanied by an explanatory movie[62], from which the viewer can learn that behind the displayed images are the simple sequences of a Japanese man waving two white flags, running or riding a bicycle, as well as three people walking. This technical addendum explains the technological process and allows viewers to better understand the concept. However, it is impossible to fully experience the installation, as well as depict its meaning, without engaging with these additional materials. Here, Goshima seeks to show the viewer how the optical illusion of seeing a film works, stating that the amount of information the observer receives “exceeds the reality.” The director states that such experimental art can power the imagination and leave room for new interpretations of the objects so viewed. In this case, he re-examines the relationship between the viewer’s perception and the medium, focusing on the lack of identification of the observer with the presented pictures. Instead, he offers a pure description of the technological process, which reveals the boundaries of the viewer’s perceptions and its constraints. It can be stated that the center of Goshima’s installation is not the process itself, but the observer, whose body receives a new position – an imperfect lens that distorts the original picture.

The Mother of species

The last project described in this article was designed by Ai Hasegawa, a biologist and visual creator, who speculates on possible future scenarios and combines audio-visual art with her scientific background. So far, Hasegawa has presented such installations as the widely-discussed (Im)possible Baby[63], and The Extreme Environmental Love Hotel[64], in which she tackles socially important topics such as biotechnological modifications to human genomes, and environmental issues. Similar themes also appear in her 2013 installation I Wanna Deliver a Dolphin[65].

The artist approaches issues of overcrowding, overdevelopment, and environmental crisis through presentation of an alternative, even grotesque form of human reproduction – delivery of  endangered species[66]. Giving birth to animals (such as a dolphin, tuna or shark) could, according to Hasegawa’s speculation, satisfy humankind’s need to reproduce, as well as its need for nutrition[67]. The idea for her I Wanna Deliver a Dolphin audio-visual installation emerged when the artist turned thirty and she started thinking about having her own children. In an interview for an online magazine, Shift, she said that “I had turned 30, and was at an age when I would have to seriously think about having children. At the same time, there was a lot of news coverage surrounding environmental issues. Such news reports made me think about overpopulation and the food problem, and I thought, »are more humans necessary? Would children be happy being forced into this deteriorating world?«” In this case, it can be pointed out that I Wanna Deliver a Dolphin was a result of the author’s consciousness of her bodily changes, and a need for sharing that awareness with a broader audience.

As an example of an ideal species for becoming a human baby, the artist chose the Maui’s dolphin, which has the right size to be grown in a human placenta. Combining a highly suggestive fragment of film showing the birth of a dolphin and its first moments, with footage of a human mother and a model of a placenta displayed next to the screen, Hasegawa tricks the viewer into considering the possibility of the depicted situation. The scientific descriptions that accompany the screening seem to suggest the possibility of the process, further legitimized by technical details[68]. What’s more, the author presents a ‘dilemma chart’ and invites the viewer to consider whether they would like to deliver an endangered species. It’s worth pointing out that the project asks the question from a non-western, non-male perspective, which fact was especially praised by the jury of the 2014 Core 77 Design Awards[69]. The dilemma chart that accompanies the film is designed for female viewers to follow,[70] and in doing so imagine themselves in the situation presented on the screen. Here, the observer, tricked by the mock technical details designed to convince viewers of the truth presented on-screen, is invited to reconsider the abilities of their body. Moreover, the artist questions the motivation and morality of the viewer in imagining the possibility of giving birth to an endangered species, only to eat it for its unique, luxury meat. It is significant that while approaching the installation in the exhibition space, the viewer is not informed that the dolphin is a robot (and that the whole birthing process is simulated by an actress). The simulation is also enhanced with various graphic details, such as blood filling the birthing pool.

Following the primary aim of expanded cinema, Hasegawa pushes the boundaries of the relationship between audiences and audio-visual material, as well as encouraging immersion in the projection and a response to questions of a moral and even religious character. Here, the body of the viewer is a transmitter of meanings, which seems to be perfectly illustrated by a quotation from Vivian Sobchack’s Carnal Thoughts: “the film experience is meaningful not to the side of our bodies, but because of our bodies. Which is to say that movies provoke in us the »carnal thoughts« that ground and inform more conscious analysis.”[71]

Conclusion

The appearance of the body of the viewer – exposed to a cacophony of sounds, colours and the insecurity resulting from seeing controversial or thought-provoking content – becomes the reason for creating such encounters in moving pictures as those presented by the Japanese experimental directors discussed in this article. They are checking the boundaries of audiences’ understanding, continuously balancing between shocking and comforting them. What’s more, the artists are often genuinely interested in receiving feedback from their audiences, and they collect opinions on the emotional states the viewers reached during the screenings – becoming something like researchers on human perception. The somatic character of these new Japanese audio-visual experiments could be a subject of further interest, as these three directors at least are not stopping pursuing new methods of fulfilling their postulates. As such, it can be assumed that in the next few years the list of experiments, following their achievements presented in this article, will be expanded.

 

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Makino Takashi (ed.) Plus Documents 2009-2013, (Tokyo: Engine Books) (2014).

Marks Laura U., The Skin of the Film. Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, (Durham: Duke University Press) (2000).

Metz Christian, “The Imaginary Signifier”, Screen 16:2 (1975), pp. 14-76.

Rees Al, History of Experimental Film and Video, (London: Palgrave Macmillan) (2011).

Rei Hayama, http://reihayama.net/, date accessed 14 June 2018.

Ross Julian, “Interview: Takashi Makino”, Filmcomment (2014), http://www.filmcomment.com/blog/interview-takashi-makino/, date accessed 15 June 2018.

 

Sas Miryam, Experimental Arts in Postwar Japan: Moments of Encounter, Engagement, and Imagined Return, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) (2011).

Shaneen Marianne, “Takashi Makino’s 2012”, BOMB – Artist in Conversation Magazine 130 (2015), http://bombmagazine.org/article/2000042/takashi-makino-s-em-2012-em, date of access 13 June 2018.

Shift. Japan-based international online magazine features creative culture, http://www.shift.jp.org/en/archives/2016/02/ai-hasegawa.html, date accessed 11 June 2018.

Sobchack Vivian, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, (Berkeley: University of California Press) (2004).

The Japan Times, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2015/02/05/arts/kazuhiro-goshima-sheer-amount-information-4k-exceeds-reality/#.VvmZ4kcoN8h, date accessed 28.03.2016.

Toward the Tactile Visions, https://web.facebook.com/events/2087048401511185/, date accessed 10 June 2018 [event’s webpage].

Toward the Tactile Visions, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCcglLozI4B7M0IZS81hDj1g, date accessed 15 June 2018 [performance video recording, excerpt].

Wro Art Center, http://wrocenter.pl/pl/ai-hasegawa-jp-i-wanna-deliver-a-dolphin/, date accessed 18 June 2018.

Vacheron Joel, “Kazuhiro Goshima: After the Metabolic Cities”, 12th Biennial of Moving Images in Geneva, (JRP | Ringier, Centre St-Gervais, Genève) (2007).

Youngblood Gene, Expanded Cinema, (New York: P. Dutton & Co., Inc.) (1970).

 

 

Notes

[1] The new Japanese experimental film movement first emerged in 2000 as a continuation of the artistic attempts of previous generations of Japanese independent filmmakers. Artists such as Rei Hayama, Takashi Makino, Shinkan Tamaki, Kazuhiro Goshima and others not mentioned in this article, all wanted to revive the artistic means that seemed to have long disappeared since the video revolution of the 1980s, and the development of multiplex cinema in Japan in the 1990s. For more on the subject, see for example: Agnieszka Kiejziewicz, “The technologies of experimental Japanese filmmakers in the digital era”, Transmissions: the Journal of Film and Media Studies 1:1 (2016), pp. 99-114.

[2] See: Takashi Makino (ed.) Plus Documents 2009-2013, (Tokyo: Engine Books) (2014), pp. 4-7, 14. In a manifesto published by Collective [+], together with a short lexicon of their works, the artists underline the importance of influencing the viewer and inviting them to contemplate experimental and expanded works. Explaining the purposes of their artistic pursuits, the artists often use the phrase “to touch the viewer” – relating the act of communication between the creator and the observer to senses other than sight.

[3] See: Marianne Shaneen, “Takashi Makino’s 2012”, BOMB – Artist in Conversation Magazine 130 (2015), http://bombmagazine.org/article/2000042/takashi-makino-s-em-2012-em, date of access 13 June 2018. Summarizing Makino’s aims and achievements, Marianne Shaneen observes that Makino describes the screenings as “creative collaboration with filmmaker and audience”. Also, she points out that his art is “[…] an embodied, perceptual engagement with the continually transforming materiality […]” which generates “sensations of sublime transcendence—an inspiring model for experiencing everyday realities, as well as cinematic ones”.

[4] Luke Hockley, Somatic Cinema: The relationship between body and screen – a Jungian perspective, (New York: Routledge) (2014), p. 1.

[5] The artist’s website, see: Kazuhiro Goshima, http://www.goshiman.com/hp/04profile_e.html, date accessed 28.03.2016.

[6] The artist’s website, see: Ai Hasegawa, http://aihasegawa.info/, date accessed 15 June 2018.

[7] Luke Hockley, p. 6.

[8] Luke Hockley, p. 7.

[9] Luke Hockley, p. 7.

[10] Luke Hockley, p. 7.

[11] In the optics of the Japanese experimental artists discussed herein, the transitional character of cinema is related to the postulate that a film screening should change the viewer – develop their perception, initiate metaphysical reflection upon reality and teach them to read the meaning behind the experimental forms. As Takashi Makino points out: “While the audience experiences the film’s visual and sonic display, nonetheless, they are free to dwell into their own imagination. What fascinates me most about film expression is the potential for what is presented on the screen to collide with each individual viewer’s emotional landscape, and the new ‘image’ created inside the viewer’s mind resulting from this collision.” More, see: Makino Takashi, http://makinokino.exblog.jp/, date accessed 15 June 2018.

[12] Marianne Shaneen.

[13] Marianne Shaneen.

[14] Malcolm Le Grice, Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age, (London: Palgrave) (2001), p. 273.

[15] Malcolm Le Grice, pp. 273-274. Le Grice offers the following definition of expanded cinema: “The concept of Expanded Cinema was part of this [during the 1960s – author] general move by artists to break old artistic boundaries, explore cross-media fusions, and experiment with new technologies but, most importantly, to challenge the constraints of existing art discourses.”

[16] Makino states that Hollywood films predetermine certain images should be perceived – for example, those rendered in 3D. According to him, experimental cinema can offer an individual approach to the viewer that doesn’t determine the patterns of their reception; therefore it stands against mainstream cinema. For more, see: Ross Julian, “Interview: Takashi Makino”, Filmcomment (2014), http://www.filmcomment.com/blog/interview-takashi-makino/, date accessed 15 June 2018.

[17]See: Malcolm Le Grice, p. 275.

[18] For example, Takashi Makino has worked with musicians and composers, such as Jim O’Rourke. Moreover, Hayama was often accompanied by her sister, who helped with filming natural landscapes (for example, in the film Their Bird [2010-2012, 8 mm film and video, 13 min]).

[19] Currently, [+] is working more as a screening organizer group, not a group of artists pursuing the similar aesthetic objectives. For the project Toward The Tactile Visions, Hayama and Makino collaborated as individual artists, not the members of [+], what seems to be significant from the point of view of the mentioned directors. That decision of creating an independent project had not only the financial implications, but also allowed inviting Arnont Nongyao to the joint project.

[20] The only public information about the project was published on the Facebook event’s site. See: Toward the Tactile Visions, https://web.facebook.com/events/2087048401511185/, date accessed 10 June 2018 [event’s webpage].

[21] Excerpts from video recordings of the performances can be checked out on the Internet, see: Toward the Tactile Visions, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCcglLozI4B7M0IZS81hDj1g, date accessed 15 June 2018 [performance video recording, excerpt].

[22] See: IFFR, https://iffr.com/en/persons/arnont-nongyao, date accessed 17 June 2018. Arnont Nongyao (1979) is an experimental filmmaker from Thailand. He is mostly focused on searching for experimental sounds and vibrations – which he then incorporates into his films. So far, he has directed such films as: Mr. Weirdo and Anomalous Space (2003, short), A Perfect Disaster (2004, co-director), All the Chapter of the Song You Ate Me (2006, short), Anonymous (2013, documentary), Drink Sky On Rabbit’s Field (2014, short), Sound Inventing & Inside Inventor (2015, short), and Ghost Rabbit & The Casket Sales (2015, short).

[23] Biographical information and the Rei Hayama’s objectives were also presented in the author’s article, “Literary inspirations in Japanese audiovisual experiment. Rei Hayama’s film art”, Problems of Literary Genres 61:1 (2018) [in print].

[24] Light Cone, https://lightcone.org/en/filmmaker-2639-rei-hayama, date accessed 14 June 2018.

[25] Rei Hayama, http://reihayama.net/, date accessed 14 June 2018.

[26] Monica Delgado, José S. Hinojosa, “Interview: Rei Hayama”, desistfilm, http://desistfilm.com/interview-rei-hayama/ (2014).

[27] Monica Delgado, José S. Hinojosa. The quotation is presented in its original form.

[28] Hayama Rei, Private conversations with Rei Hayama (2017-2018), [interviews in the author’s own archive].

[29] Hayama Rei.

[30] Monica Delgado, José S. Hinojosa.

[31] Rei Hayama.

[32] However, it should be pointed out that the artists also take inspiration from western literature (for example, the poetry of Paul Valéry), films such as Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (Werckmeister harmóniák, 2000), and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s works, as well as the performative art of Ana Mendieta.

[33] Fore more about Takashi Makino, see: Kiejziewicz Agnieszka, “Enter the metaphysical cosmos: the visualizations of the universe in Japanese experimental cinema”, Maska. Anthropology Sociology Culture 29 (2016), pp. 147-156.

[34] Marianne Shaneen.

[35] Marianne Shaneen.

[36] Light Cone, Makino Takashi. Still in Cosmos, http://lightcone.org/en/film-7445-still-in-cosmos, date accessed 17 June 2018.

[37] Arnont Nongyao, http://www.arnontnongyao.com/arnontnongyao.com/Another_Sound.html, date accessed 15 June 2018.

[38] Arnont Nongyao.

[39] Arnont Nongyao.

[40] Toward the Tactile Visions, https://web.facebook.com/events/2087048401511185/, date accessed 10 June 2018 [event’s webpage].

[41] Toward the Tactile Visions.

[42] Toward the Tactile Visions.

[43] Agnieszka Kiejziewicz, Conversations with Rei Hayama (2018), [the interview with Rei Hayama, the material in the author’s archive].

[44] I wrote about the role of the technologies used by Goshima in his films between the 1990s and 2016 in an article: Agnieszka Kiejziewicz, “The technologies of experimental Japanese filmmakers in the digital era”, Transmissions: the Journal of Film and Media Studies 1:1 (2016), pp. 102-104.

[45] Kazuhiro Goshima, http://www.goshiman.com/hp/04profile_e.html, date accessed 28.03.2016.

[46] Agnieszka Kiejziewicz, “The technologies…”, pp. 102-104.

[47] Agnieszka Kiejziewicz, “The technologies…”, pp. 102-104.

[48] For example, in such films as Uncertain camera (2009), or In the forest of shadows (2008).

[49] For example, in Relative position (2012).

[50] For example, in Looking and listening (2014).

[51] Malcolm Le Grice, pp. 172-183.

[52] Metz Christian, “The Imaginary Signifier”, Screen 16:2 (1975), pp. 14-76.

[53] Malcolm Le Grice, p. 177.

[54] Malcolm Le Grice, p. 179.

[55] Malcolm Le Grice, pp.179-181.

[56] Malcolm Le Grice, p. 183.

[57] Kazuhiro Goshima, http://www.goshiman.com/hp/04profile_e.html, date accessed 28.03.2016.

[58] The Japan Times, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2015/02/05/arts/kazuhiro-goshima-sheer-amount-information-4k-exceeds-reality/#.VvmZ4kcoN8h, date accessed 28.03.2016.

[59] The Japan Times.

[60] The Japan Times.

[61] Kazuhiro Goshima.

[62] The explanatory movie was also posted on YouTube, see:  これは映画ではないらしい THIS MAY NOT BE A MOVIE, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4i-3Pc6nCE&feature=youtu.be, date accessed 17 June 2018 [Kazuhiro Goshima’s technical details explanation film].

[63] Ai Hasegawa, http://aihasegawa.info/, date accessed 15 June 2018.

[64] See: Shift. Japan-based international online magazine features creative culture, http://www.shift.jp.org/en/archives/2016/02/ai-hasegawa.html, date accessed 11 June 2018. The (Im)possible baby project is another example of Hasegawa’s speculative design. It was created to “stimulate discussions about the social, cultural and ethical implications of emerging biotechnologies that could enable same-sex couple to have their own, genetically related children.” The artist analyzed the DNA data of a lesbian couple, and comparing their genotypes, visualized the look of their potential children (two girls). Hasegawa used these simulation models to create a set of fictional photos, showing the unique moments that could have happened (for example, family meals and celebrations). The results were presented around the world as photo exhibitions, as well as in a 30-minute documentary, made with the help of the Japanese national television, NHK.

[65] I Wanna Deliver a Dolphin was also exhibited in Poland, thanks to the artist’s cooperation with the Wro Art Center in Wrocław. See: Wro Art Center, http://wrocenter.pl/pl/ai-hasegawa-jp-i-wanna-deliver-a-dolphin/, date accessed 18 June 2018.

[66] Ai Hasegawa.

[67] Ai Hasegawa.

[68] See: Ai Hasegawa. The technical details, presented together with the film and model, are as follows: “To make it possible for a human mother to deliver a dolphin from her womb, there is a need to synthesize »The Dolp-human Placenta«. The usual human placenta interacts to pass from mother to baby oxygen, carbon dioxide, nutrients, hormones, antibodies (Immunoglobulin Gamma, IgG) and so on. The Dolp-human placenta blocks the delivery of IgG to the baby. The placenta originates from the baby’s side, which in this case is a dolphin, and not from the human side. This avoids the ethical and legal difficulties associated with reproductive research involving human eggs. The decidua is formed by implantation of the egg. Usually, foreign cells in the body (for example from other individuals) are attacked by the immune system, but inside the decidua they are tolerated. However, even though the decidua accepts cells from other individuals, non-human cells would still be attacked. In the dolp-human placenta’s case, it has been modified to distinguish mammal from non-mammal cells, making it even more tolerant” [excerpt].

[69] Ai Hasegawa. The Core 77 Design Awards are awarded annually to the best practitioners of such areas of design as open design, interaction, design concepts, consumer products, visual communication, and so on.

[70] Reading the provided dilemma chart, viewers can find questions such as: Can you take responsibility for another person’s life? How about an animal child? Do you think your child is going to have a happy life in this world?

[71] Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, (Berkeley: University of California Press) (2004), p. 60.

Historical insight into The Danube Exodus cinematic installation by Péter Forgács

Kamil Lipiński

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp. 43-58.

 

Kamil Lipiński
Adam Mickiewicz University

 

 

 

Historical insight into The Danube Exodus cinematic installation by Péter Forgács

 

 

Abstract

The article examines the wide-screen installation The Danube Exodus: Rippling Currents of the River (2002-2006) by Péter Forgács. Forgács designed it in collaboration with the Getty Team and the Labyrinth Project in heterotopic terms that revert events in time and space using various mutual juxtapositions, generated by viewers on a tactile interface. The expansion of cinema into museum spaces from the 1990s is understood as an open, work-in-progress mode of exhibition that entangles spatial arrangement. The film at the heart of the installation begins by placing two heterotopic journeys of exile in comparative context: Slovakian Jews being ferried along the Danube to Jerusalem, and the resettlement of Bessarabia Germans to Polish territory, also via the Danube. This comparative study of migratory aesthetics reflects the contemporary drive to fill the white spaces on the map of Europe. This article retraces the contexts of the immersion of this haunting journey from the past in new intersections that move from a description of the specificity of found footage to wide-screen panorama.

 

Keywords: found footage, heterotopia, spacing, wide-screen panorama, comparative study, exhibition

 

Introduction

In an article entitled Beyond the White Cube, Peter Weibel outlined the need for a “colonial remix” seen from the point of view of global culture, to demonstrate alternative ways of remapping visual culture

 

[1]. In discussing spatial analysis, we shall present various ways of reading The Danube Exodus: Rippling Currents of the River as an example of relocating the cinematic experience to an expanded environment, enriched with a haptic experience via user interface. To begin with, my interest is in conceptually nailing down the concept of heterotopia introduced by Michel Foucault, and to propose it as a new perspective of interpretation, building upon the writings of Victor Burgin and Gertrud Koch. Foucault’s concept could contribute to demonstrating how film fragments are interspersed within complex installations, derived from various times, as a mirror reflection of society. Having discussed the philosophical framework of heterotopia, I would then like to focus on the historical events outlined by The Danube Exodus: Rippling Currents of the River, to reveal how the juxtaposition of vision inscribed in the visual horizon of the fragmentation of images can be understood in terms of cinematographic heterotopy. Analysing the philosophical premises, let us investigate how the heterotopic journey introduces the history of the Eastern European region and situates its concerns within the broader, more current European high-cultural revival of amateur chronicles.

The second part of this essay offers an insight into the parallel timelines employed in The Danube Exodus to examine the similarities and differences between them. Insight into the archival found footage used in the film enables us to observe several overlapping narratives, derived from various periods, to build up a powerful wide-screen vision of Eastern Europe across the centuries. The installation provides heterotopic insights into the emerging interactive display used in The Danube Exodus project. Using various angles, this wide-screen panorama shows the ways in which we contest the primacy of monocular vision in the era of “polycentric vision”, restored by media archivists in numerous forms[2]. This installation presents the imaginative potential of various historical pieces of evidence that open up the circulatory, fragmentary horizon of contemporary aesthetics.

The concluding section presents a brief analysis of the ways in which we could interpret the immersive mode of The Danube Exodus’s historical storytelling, as inscribed in the manifold visual documentation. This visual journey, in situ, provides an insight into the visual testimonies of the past and lets us rethink the differences between ‘exile’ and ‘resettlement’ as two different strategies of movement, or displacement, in the era of genocide. The installation unfolds different modes of using “interactive memory strategy”, composed of moving images and stable documents, to mirror the wider circulation of “diversified representation“ in galleries at the beginning of the 21st century[3].

A heterotopic grid

Before we discuss The Danube Exodus, a glimpse at cinematic transformations will provide some useful aesthetic premises for the inscription of cinema in the art gallery, because – as Raymond Bellour famously observed – “cinema can also be reinvented, an another cinema, by other means.”[4] The principal drive of the media landscape emphasizes excessive concern on placing the viewer in new spaces that enrich the wider discourse with the conceptual collage of historical narratives. Since the 1990s, Victor Misiano has stressed the emergence of the role of the “curator-mediator”, which is marked by curatorial cooperation. This contributes to the drawing of a new face for museums, which “…opens up into its network of trustees, their affiliations with multinational corporations, and finally the global system of late capitalism proper, such that what used to be the limited and Kantian of a restricted conceptual art expands into the very ambition of its reach and is transformed into a cognitive mapping itself (with all its specific representational contradictions)”[5]. This modus operandi shifts the insistent promotion of the artist as designer, contemplation over function and the openness of the aesthetic resolution. In this respect, one could map out capitalism and adopt DJs and computer programmers as forms leading towards direct physical experience, relying upon the recombination of works with other pre-existing products that themselves rely upon re-appropriation, quotation, and parasitism. Therefore, one could argue, as Jean-Christophe Royaux did, that “…we can find cinema after cinema in most of the works of the post-minimalist generation”[6]. In developing his arguments, Royaux uses his concept of the “cinema of exhibition” to outline the ways in which one can “designate the particular forms of syntax of the exhibition”[7]. In tracing the transformations of moving images in gallery art and museums, Victor Burgin sought also to reaffirm that “the concept of heterotopia to real external places, he nevertheless arrives at his discussion of heterotopias via a reference to utopias – places with no other substance than that of representation: material signifiers, psychic reality and fantasia”[8]. Bringing forth this point of view, bear in mind that Michel Foucault laid out the premises of heterotopia in Des espaces autres in his lecture at the Cercle d’études architecturales, wherein he situated this perspective at the intersection of what’s real and what’s imaginary. In Foucault’s view, there are six relations between discursive, heterogenic spaces of heterotopia, with two of them being particularly worth applying as a method and form of interpretative explanation. In particular, Gertrud Koch lists the third and fourth principle of building a “heterotopic grid” that spans both painting, sculpture, architecture and photography[9]. Foucault’s concept defines the extension of the idea of the dispersion of knowledge and implies “juxtaposition in one single, real place, several places that are themselves incompatible”[10]. Among notable examples of these concepts, Foucault lists theatres, cinemas and gardens. In turn, according to the fourth principle of heterotopy, there is the possibility of making temporal juxtapositions, of “layers of time” – epochs called ‘heterochrony’ by Foucault. Inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of nihilism, Foucault pointed out the necessity of death in every culture (the end of life, decay and disappearance). These interspersed cultural lines present the ways in which “…our experience of the world is less that of the long life developing through time than that of the network that connects points and intersects with its own skin”[11]. In this sense, this heterotopic grid can be conceived as a spatiotemporal framework to demonstrate the evolutionary course of historical events, and the need for thinking in terms of a ‘set of relations’ that ‘delineate sites’ and co-create our presence as a ‘configuration’. Oscillating primarily between utopian and dystopian qualities, heterotopia aims at “indefinitely accumulating time” in museums and galleries[12]. These spaces build “…the counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality”[13]. In this respect, social reality reflects an inverted society. Although it never becomes a real space, it does, however, have its roots in real spaces. This dimension of signifiers embodies ‘distorting mirrors’, and discovers the space of the ‘other’ as a space illusion that encapsulates “the dreams and desires of society”[14]. Inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of perspectivism and parallel interpretations of history, Foucault argued that heterotopia entails “…in this way a sort of perpetual and indefinite accumulation in an immobile place, this whole idea belongs to our modernity. The museum and the library are heterotopias that are proper to western culture of the nineteenth century”[15]. Heterotopia considered as an atlas of singularities is an archive that, as a mobile ship, has all of these traits. Georges Didi-Huberman suggested that it can be adopted in various contexts on the epistemological, aesthetic and political levels.

Inspired by Foucauldian thinking, Victor Burgin argued that this concept could be extended in many ways to a nascent “cinematographic heterotopia” as a utopian society – “out of time”. In Burgin’s discussion, this concept is extended by reference to Félix Guattari’s post-media aesthetics to describe “media-based imagery”, which relies upon the ‘ecology of mind’ (écologie de l’esprit) and infiltration of subjectivity by the media. This immersion in manifold representations explains the ‘recycling’ desire for exploration and the re-use of existing aesthetic forms. Specifically, these works can be used as a figure of parataxis derived from rhetoric to describe situations “…in which the relations are not given, but deduced”[16].

Expanded space

Further insight can be gained by examining the tactile interface used in the installation that allows viewers to navigate the found footage journeys of the refugees escaping the heterotopic ship. In The Danube Exodus, two timelines can be found, as well as additional historical context that acts as an information carrier under the influence of contact with the body’s surface. When viewing the installation, audiences can choose between three main narrative threads: the boat captain, the Jewish exodus, and the German exodus. In this circular environment, touch determines the selection of images on the screens. Through this tactile mapping of the stories, we can select particular variants of the stories that demonstrate the experience of spatiality, and the flows of moments and memories presented in the context of new configurations. Visitors can select one of eighteen three or five-minute sequences from different ethnic areas, enriched with interviews. The four-and-a-half hour film-strip, composed of five ninety-minutes films, that is used in The Danube Exodus is understood as a metaphor of relativism seen in five split-screens, which emphasizes the incongruence of two reconstructions. This impression of an ‘enlarged’ installation relies upon entering into the dialogue between the recipient and the represented subject, which represents the three main threads (the captain, the Jewish exodus, and the German exodus). The use of an immersive interactive menu system draws attention to the travel experience, directed and dictated by touch displays. These histories, displayed on a five-screen panoramic display, reflect the specific configuration of the mobile camera and present the way that cinema inherits the concept of the mobile eye (l’oeil mobile) from modern painting. “Polyvision” exceeds the frontality of one of several different screen, while continuing to bring dramas and scripted places into play”[17]. Putting in motion specific segments allows the viewers to immerse themselves between two realms of overlapping historical narratives in a heterotopic fashion: the journey between Slovakia and Haifa, and in parallel, the journey of the deported Germans to Poland.

These two journeys provide an interesting account of two possible ways of thinking about migration and re-settlement in historical narratives with multiple points of view. The two main historical narratives receive additional context sourced from the special collection of the Luigi Ferdinando Marsili Research Library – an early eighteenth century six-volume encyclopaedia about the Danube. In explaining the origins of the encyclopaedia, Zaia Alexander and Marsha Kinder stated that it was executed “On the commission of Holy Roman (Hapsburg) Emperor Leopold I, an Italian military engineer prepared a map of the country recaptured from the Turks – Hungary. In addition, there were three huge leather-bound albums in each volume concerning different aspects of the region, especially the richness of the flora and fauna of the Danube river and the breadth of Marsili’s interests”[18]. This web-like narrative encompasses not only a hyphological narrative, but also two forms of scores interpreted in terms of the span of the river itself, and some if it is included as complementary audio-visual material for the two main journeys.

An archival journey

Briefly introducing the aesthetic context in which The Danube Exodus project emerged, let’s note that Forgács primarily initiated his research by collecting and reconstructing private, archival and visual diaries derived from various sources. Forgács mainly collected this footage by publishing an announcement in certain journals, and on the basis of the responses, assembled “…pre-existing images, regrouped and overworked by artists engaging the viewer in reflection […] on the history and film of occidental clichés”[19]. Some of these conceptual solutions for restoring sound and images date back to the late 1970s, drawing inspiration from the film Private History by Gabor Bódy and Peter Timar.

Forgács began his work in the neo-avant-garde environment, where he experimented with multifarious audio-visual forms with sound effects, commentaries and montage. Later, he was invited to edit the fourth themed issue of the Infermental international video journal. From the late 1970s onwards, Forgács also worked with Group 180 as a recitativo, in which he created commentaries on juxtaposing sound and image. Inspired by Sándor Kardos’s Horus archive, in 1983 Forgács then began – with the help of the Budapest Photo & Film Archives Foundation – collecting found footage from the 20th century. After gathering materials and interviewing the families of the survivors, Forgács juxtaposed a variety of visual documents, such as family photos and official diaries.  In 1998 he built a story shedding new light on the paths of resettlement caused by the Holocaust. The Danube Exodus presents two separate spaces in its story, located in two crucial sequences in the various configurations of its 40 hours of material controllable through the tactile interface. The film gives interesting insight into the 60-minutes of 8 mm film made by the boat’s captain, Nandor Andrásovits. The film was lent to Forgács by the captain’s widow, who documented his travels around Europe. Forgács and the Labyrinth Project used the film as “found footage for a newly-edited narrative that incorporates resonances and ironies within these historic encounters”, collected together at the Cultural Research Institute in Budapest. This narrative was navigated by the touch-screen interface to revive them during art exhibitions. This work includes forty-nine minutes of outtakes from the Jewish voyage that Forgács received from historian-archivist Janos Varga, who originally inherited the material from Andrásovits’ close friend Zelan Pathanazy[20]. In brief, Forgács presented a vision of a Jewish-German exodus based on two separate stories, both, however, being connected.

The escape project for fear of anti-Semitism was implemented by the president of the orthodox community in Bratislava Aron Grünhut on two borrowed ships to Palestine. The first of the two journeys shown in the film presents the vicissitudes  of 608 Slovak Orthodox Jews escaping from Bratislava in 1939, on an extraordinary, epic journey along the Danube to the Black Sea towards Palestine. This amateur documentary provides insight into the on-board life of refugees on their two-month journey, and it could be interpreted as the embodiment of a heterotopia set on a spaceship. The focus is primarily on Noemi Julia , a steamship previously used by holidaymakers cruising the Danube. The journey of the Slovak and Hungarian Jews from Bratislava through Central Europe along the Danube River, via Romania and Bulgaria to Palestine, included several hundred people from a large community which had been assigned to extermination by the Nazis. This migration presents the spatial displacements aboard the Queen Elizabeth as it travelled along the river Danube from Slovakia to the Black Sea, with the ultimate goal of Haifa in Palestine. The total length of its journey was 1446 km Given the British restrictions on Jewish emigration and entry to Palestine, each of the refugees was restricted to taking a fifty-kilometer bag for the Danube cruise of 1446 kilometers.  In the beginning, their route led on the Danube waters crossed the territory of Bulgaria. Despite the British protests, a group of refugees managed to enter the vessel Noemi Julia in the port of Sulima on the Black Sea and sail to Haifa after eighty-three days. Most of the presented scenes abound with a positive resolution. We observe scenes showing the wedding on the ship and, to a large extent, the rather joyful atmosphere of everyday customs and prayers. However, some scenes are accompanied by moments of fear when drinking water is lacking. Each passenger was assigned two glasses of water daily, and all passengers suffered from sea sickness during a storm. The documentary of Nándor Andrásovits presents in an intimate light the journey by ship across the Black Sea and then towards Palestine. In the final part, we can observe how the Jewish group, when finally arriving in Haifa on the ship Noemi Julia, is arrested by the British government in order to clarify the matter. Fortunately, after a month they are released and can enjoy freedom in Palestine. Thus they became a part of 500,000 Jewish settlers living under the British Mandate. Based on the reconstruction of archival materials, Forgács asks in this documentary work about the fate of a select group of history of the Chosen People returning to their spiritual capital. . In Forgács’s vision, this collision of narratives demonstrates a microhistory of fleeing Jews reminiscent of the history of repatriation of the Chosen People to the Promised Land. It is worth noting that, in general, during World War II, seventy-seven thousand people escaped from the Third Reich through the Danube. . This exilic movement reflects the Jewish return to the promised land as a fortunate escape from the phantom of genocide that was spreading across Europe.

The German resettlement   

The second of the two journeys of inquiry presented by Forgács was filmed by captain Andrásovitz the following year, in 1940. The narrative illustrates the voyage of natives of the Bessarabia Germans who tried to escape their resettlement by the Red Army to Third Reich. Accepting the proposition to be resettled in occupied Poland in accordance with the agreement between Hitler and Stalin, the refugees decided to abandon their homeland themselves. Andrásovitz’s ship was then chartered to resettle the Bessarabia Germans displaced from Romania at the turn of October and November 1940 resulting in the Soviet Annexation of Bessarabia. As a part of the wider narrative of the Holocaust, this footage is a record of the seven-week repatriation  of 93,000 German farmers (Volksdeutsche), escaping along the Danube by boat. The Soviets paid the Third Reich in wheat and coal, and promised to pay compensation to the displaced upon arrival. Initially, the Germans were transported by carts to the river jetties, where the Erzsébet Királyne ship, led by Commander Nandor Andrásovits, and one of the twenty seven transport vessels waited for them. Erzsébet Királyne took 600 passengers during each trip. . The cruise began at Reni and led to Semlin, where the Germans were examined. Then they were transported to Galati and then to Russe. From there, they were transported by train to Prague and to camps in the Third Reich. The action ended on November 16, 1940. Some of the Bessarabian Germans were later settled in the lands of Poles expropriated by the Nazis. In the final part of the history, Forgács introduces a micro-narrative about one anonymous relocated family in 1942 to Kościan, near Poznań. At some point, Polish owners appear there, asking for the return of the precious violin, probably the Stradivarius brand, left there because of a rush when leaving the house. However, they leave without the violin. The Bessarabian Germans in 1945 left the territory of Greater Poland and went to the West towards Frankfurt.

The difference between these two journeys lies in the emotional approach that Forgács takes, given that the deportation of the Jews and Germans are separate, albeit related stories. In the first story, the Jews enjoyed the journey, dancing, and singing, as they had saved their lives from the threat of extermination. In contrast, the Germans Exodus is shown in a nostalgic light, with the farmers mourning the loss of their homes and estates in exchange for unsure promises of abandoned territory. In contrast to the Jewish happiness, the Bessarabia Germans regretted leaving their homes and estates. These remote stories can be seen in terms of “intensities”, according to which “stupefaction, terror, anger, hatred, pleasure and all the intense emotions are always displacements within a place”, and present “the term emotion into motion that leads to its own exhaustion, an immobilizing motion, an immobilized mobilization”[21]. According to Forgács, this story builds an intimate insight into their lives and differences in their motives not only at the historical level, but also in the assigned fate of exile to which they were condemned and had to conform.

The dual nature of the installation

Let us return to the question of how The Danube Exodus can attempt to answer questions about the nature of cinematographic heterotopia, showing the dual nature of the installation between the real and imaginary spaces, which create a space for “openness inaugurating dialogue”[22]. Let us also note that heterotopia can be used as a starting point for thinking about this complex installation, which spans film, interactivity and use of a website designed by the Getty’s Design Team and the Labyrinth Group. The installation can be perceived in terms of “constellation” as the “horizontal textual organization of objects which brings into play a different definition of cinema, one that is minimal but sufficient, as a set of ways of passing from one (any) element to another”[23]. It should be emphasized that along with the emergence of the forms of “expanded cinema”, this extended narrative (traceable from the 1960s) characterises both “emancipation or extension within the field of exhibition, and they also reflect a collective need to imagine other kinds of relationship with the spectator (a tunnel, a ‘touch screen’)”[24]. Moreover, interactivity has enriched mental activity with, in this case, the ability to touch and play with the film, making it possible to shape the images projected in the installation. In a similar manner, this form of “haptic perception is usually defined by psychologists as the combination of tactical, kinaesthetic and proprioceptive functions, the way we experience touch both on the surface of an inside our bodies”[25]. Some insight into the theoretical articulation of touch aesthetics is given in Walter Benjamin’s writings, in which he stresses the relationship between optics and tactility assigned to the realm of copies (Abbild), which thereby demand contemplation, absorbed attention and a fixed gaze that sees into the distance and demands to be looked at. The installation’s value is brought about through the dominance of the copy, which brings the masses closer to the reality in exchange for losing the aura, the cult value associated with the original, optical image (Bild). This double recounting and documenting of reality engages in an interplay between the context of art and the language of science, as well as demonstrating how “techniques and practices come and go from the laboratory to the atelier and vice-versa”[26]. In other words, the interface designed by the Getty Team and the Labyrinth Group presents a transmedia journey that covers five screens (each of which is two meters high and three meters wide), creating a fifteen-meter-wide panorama. Perceptually immersed in this panoramic view, “the audience is immediately surrounded on all sides by a three-dimensional interior, the faux terrain, which is imperceptibly connected to the two-dimensional visual action and often makes the visual frontier untraceable”[27]. Interestingly, panorama considered as a form of “popular entertainment lost their importance after 1900, however, their principles have survived the cinematic camera’s pan and static shot movements”[28]. The Danube Exodus’s expanded view demonstrates that “an entire world is in the flux as if one is inside a train, where the fragments of the outside view are “seen through the window”[29]. More specifically, the Getty Team and the Labyrinth Project have designed a wide-screen panorama that covers both a “circular” environment and “panoramic” cinema.

This polycentric vision of narrative visual culture permits entry into dialogue and stimulates the movement of circular panoramas, hovering on the edge of the many visual shreds of evidence. Note that the multi-layered, non-linear storyline designed by Labyrinth for the interface could be compared to a hyper-textual rhizome, vaguely inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths. In particular, the Jewish Exodus of refugees can be used as an illustration of the return home of the ‘chosen ones’, while the journey of the Bessarabia Germans presents a vision of homesickness and a feeling of permanent loss. This spatial decoupage of two different historical stories shows the mutual similarities and differences between them. In this installation’s circulation, the images in-between the screens could be compared to Bruno Latour’s concept of “circulative reference”, as a method of “drawing things together”. Building on the principle of sustainability and formal changeability, the kinaesthetic nature of the work makes an impact on the status of stable artefacts in the dynamic and liquid architecture of work-events. Through selection of maps and variants of the presented history, viewers can manoeuvre between the paths of history, primarily between movement and Taoist no-movement . This interplay between photography and cinematic movement enables us to juxtapose images in different spaces and times, interpreted as a potential process under construction, an ‘any space’, fundamental to Deleuzian time-images. One can see in this interactive installation how “the digital and visual interface is at the same time divided between aesthetics and operability”[30]. More specifically, Laura Mulvey suggested that the audio-visual universe could now be “halted or slowed down or fragmented”[31]. Therefore, Raymond Bellour probably argued that these kinds of installations “may seem to be the effect of so-called ‘crisis’ within cinema and the difficulties of contemporary art of which installations are probably the most vivid manifestation”[32]. From this angle, the juxtaposition of images can be perceived as “one of the effects of the games of visible figures. The efficiency of the cinema out of is that “the works make speak, and make speeches about them”[33]. In other words, this sensual formation arises from the fact of the interlacing fragments of micro-narrative inscribed in the context of dialogical inter-spaces of the refugees’ flight, which allows for a meandering within the audio-visual journey. The soundtrack to The Danube Exodus can be described as heterotopic, as it combines different musical traditions that owe much of their power to the hypnotic, mesmerizing score by Tibor Szemzö, which draw on the composition of the rhythm of the narrative and solemn music, “in harmonic tones”, with bells, the rhythm of marching soldiers, “occasional voices and the sound of water”[34]. These musical noises are combined with natural ambient river and waterfront sounds by McKee of Earwan Productions, the mechanical rhythms of the ship’s engines, regional music, the songs and prayers of the refugees, and the voices of the Captain and his crew. The virtual space of the interface entangled in the visual dimension of the film’s projection contributes to the production of an environment in which we can encounter displaced pieces of film (the internet, the media and so on), but also the psychical space of a spectating subject that Baudelaire first identified as “a kaleidoscope equipped with a consciousness”[35]. Significantly, kaleidoscopic circulation of images “hinges on fragmentary, circular and repetitive short sequences in response to which the viewing subject as a subject of signifier may come into being on Mobius band of impressions and imaginations”[36]. This perspective particularly represents the specific orientation towards a post-medium condition resulting in the emergence of “expanded space beyond the confines of the movie theatre” within the gallery and museum. To explain this drive to recycling games with representations, Victor Burgin argued that being immersed in a spatial environment, “visitors of art galleries have encountered a wide range of works that make more or less direct reference to the cinema – from works by artists that manipulate existing footage from mainstream films in order to isolate and explore cinematographic conventions”[37]. The Danube Exodus interactive project creates a situation in which “moving image work relies on loop and reprise, on para-tactical elements rather than on continuous temporal progress”[38]. This specific narrative proceeds in a different order, in accordance with the touch-screen images immersed in the “spaces and moments of the story” to present a wandering “new spatiotemporal structure of difference constructed by new telecommunication techniques”[39]. Visitors can easily decide which parts of the story will be seen and in what order, as we become not only visitor and witness, but also creator. This dialogue, even if highly illusive and insufficient, seems to provide an insight in to the archival footage used, that could be used as a function of experimental, laboratory study in order to revive fragments of moving pictures reconstructed in the more accessible way for a contemporary perceptual needs of the viewer. In Robert Simanowski’s view, “the mapping is a perfect symbolic form of our time, not primarily for its realization to the database paradigm of the endless and unstructured collection of data records, but for its modus to turn the data to us to explore”[40].  Thus, in The Danube Exodus one can enter into a dialogue with works based on navigation, dictated by an interactive menu created by the viewer via the touchscreen interface. More specifically, the sequencing and composition of the narrative permit forward movement without the possibility of returning to the previous sequence. This passing between the spaces of history enables viewers to enter into narrative passages and navigate between them in a one-way direction. And according to Heraclitus, this “irreversibility of history” shows that no one can enter the same river twice…

Conclusion   

Let me note very briefly that the importance of The Danube Exodus lies rather in the questions and difficulties that emerge from spatial, non-linear, deconstructed stories in the light kinaesthetic juxtapositions aboard the ship. Observing the vicissitudes of the refugees seen in the film footage lets us reiterate Hannah Arendt’s long-lasting diagnosis “that the symbol of the twentieth century of the people deprived of their rights and refugees deprived of the homeland, confirms it with amazing accuracy”[41]. If we accept this remark, we can open up a renewed dialogue with representations of migratory aesthetics derived from the past, and point out the role of the relocation processes in order to rethink art cinema. This perspective seeks application of Foucault’s claims, conceived in terms of the heterotopic grid, as a way of perceiving a manifold visual interpretation of the archives as a fruitful tool for historical research. The Danube Exodus project provides an interesting account of the perspectives of interpretation of “Holocaust-effects” as ways of seeing an experience by means of “repetition and obscuration”[42]. An audience immersed in this installation can embark on a metaphorical journey within the imaginary geography of historical Eastern Europe, as seen through the prism of “immersive strategies of panoramic installation”[43]. Through this “fusion of horizons”, one can see a curatorial drive to recombining and reading interdiscursive areas because, as Gregor Stemmerich puts it, “the basic idea of a work of art should be an integrated part of a situation, place or location – not in order to harmonize the relationship between the artwork and its surroundings and evoke complex issues, possibly interconnecting various discourses related to it that would normally be barred from consciousness”[44]. The importance of found footage archives lies in the how the combination of signifiers of Western and Eastern cultures produces a vision of found footage heterotopia. This provides insight into the way we think about the juxtaposition of story immersed within a wide-screen narrative, rediscovered post-mortem. In particular, this mapping of specific elements of spatial graphics allows us to immerse ourselves in an unexplored atmosphere of forgotten history, viewed through the prism of “integrated humanities”. The use of amateur chronicles is a particular method by which we can understand found-footage heterotopia, comprehending it as a place in which the history of Eastern and Western technology, amateur filmmaking and the professional model of curatorship intermingle, not being ideologically invisible. However, found footage re-entangled in an art installation partially loosens the narrative, to rediscover overlapping ontologies and the way in a “material form in which they are presented as archives in the form of installation”[45]. The question is, however, whether this project preserves the principle of aesthetic historicity, which relies upon the premise of correspondence and metamorphosis defined by Jacques Rancière as having three features. Primarily, the sentence, the episode, the image is isolated to express its nature and the tonality of the collection. Furthermore, it provides the possibility of correspondence, through which all manner of signs of nature come into resonance or dissonance. This “combination of characters coincides vaguely with the object or develops in the form of significant living”[46]. If we accept these premises, the migration of peoples looking for recognition by inscription in their situation are placed in a context “making it possible to transform the artificial into something living, and the repetitive into something unique”[47]. The installation’s multi-screen projection, connected with the interface of this heterotopic installation, reflects The Danube Exodus’s formal complexity and mobilizes the imagination. More specifically, circulation of images increases the role of amateur, private archives in reviving the collective memory. The Danube Exodus panoramic installation can be read plurally, comparatively challenging us to play, however vertiginously, within the screens. Art cinema considered as “ghost visions” could provide a direction toward thinking about alternative ways of returning to the historical event by filling the ‘white space’ in the history of refugees’ journeys across the map of Europe.

References

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Bellour Raymond, “D’un autre cinema”, in La Querelle des dispositifs: cinéma, installations, expositions, (Paris: P.O.L.) (2002).

Blümlinger Christa, “Culture de remploi- questions du cinema”, Trafic 50 (2004).

Burgin Victor, “Possessive, Pensive and Possessed”, in The Cinematic, (London & Cambridge, Whitechapel) (2006).

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Burgin Victor, “The Time of Panorama”, in Situational Aesthetics. Selected Writings by Victor Burgin, ed. Alexander Streitberger, (Leuven, Leuven University Press) (2009).

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Habermas Jürgen, Staatsbürgerschaft und nationale Identität: Überlegungen zur europäischen Zukunft, (St. Gallen: Erker) (1991).

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Notes

[1] Peter Weibel, “Beyond the White Cube”, in: Contemporary Art and the Museum. A Global Perspective, ed. Peter Weibel, Andrea Budensieg, (Ostfidern: Hatje Cantz Verlag) (2007), p. 143.

[2] Ella Shohat, Robert Stam, “Narrativizing Visual Culture, Towards a Polycentric Aesthetics”, in: Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff, (London & New York: Routledge) (1998), p. 46.

[3] Kristian Feigelson, “The Labyrinth. The Strategy of Sensitive Experimentation. A Filmmaker of Anonymous”. in: Kinokultura, http://www.kinokultura.com/specials/7/feigelson.shtml (date accessed 20.05.2018).

[4] Raymond Bellour, “D’un autre cinema”, in: La Querelle des dispositifs: cinéma, installations, expositions, (Paris: P.O.L.) (2012), p. 168.

[5] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism, (Durnham: Duke University Press) (1991), p. 157.

[6] Jean-Christophe Royaux, “Towards a Post-Cinematic Space-Time”, in: Brillo Box Illuminated, ed. Sarra Arrhenius, Magdalena Malm, Christophe Ricupero, (Stockholm: IASPIS) (2003), p. 110.

[7] Jean-Christophe Royaux, p. 110.

[8] Victor Burgin, Possessive, Pensive and Possessed, in The Cinematic, (London & Cambridge, Whitechapel) (2006), p. 199.

[9] Gertrud Koch, Die Verkehr der Illusion. Der Film und die Kunst, der Gegenwart, (Berlin: Suhrkamp) (2016), p. 224.

[10] Michel Foucault, Of other spaces, trans. Jan Miskoviec, “Diacritics” 16:11 (1986), p. 24.

[11] Michel Foucault, p. 22.

[12] Michel Foucault, p. 13.

[13] Michel Foucault, p. 14.

[14] Paolo Magagnoli, Documents of Utopia. The Politics of experimental documentary, (New York: Wallflower Press) (2015), p. 28.

[15] Michel Foucault, p. 13.

[16] Victor Burgin, “Interactive Cinema and Uncinematic”, in Screen Dynamics. Mapping the borders of the cinema, ed. Gertrud Koch, Volker Pantenburg, Simon Rothohler, (Vienna: Österreichisches Filmmuseum) (2012), p. 102.

[17] Raymond Bellour, “D’un autre cinema”, in: La Querelle des dispositifs: cinéma, installations, expositions, (Paris: P.O.L.) (2012). p. 166.

[18] Zara Alexander, Marsha Kinder, The Danube Exodus: The Rippling currents of the River, (Budapest: Ludwig Museum) (2006), p. 13.

[19] Sébastien Dénis, “Esthétique de l’archive”, in: Arts plastique et Cinéma, CinémAction, 122 (2007), p. 266.

[20] Zara Alexander, Marsha Kinder, p. 13.

[21] JeanFrançois Lyotard, “L’acinéma”, in: Cinéma: théorie, lectures, Textes réunis et présentés par Dominique Noguez, Revue d’Esthétique (Klincksieck: Paris) (1973), p. 365.

[22] Robert Simanowski, Digital art and meaning. Reading Kinetic Poetry, Text Machines, Mapping Art, and Interactive Installations, (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press) (2011), p. 128.

[23] Jean-Christophe Royaux, p. 110.

[24] Stephanie Moisdon Trembley, “Time as Activity”, in: Brillo Box Illuminated, ed. Sarra Arrhenius, Magdalena Malm, Christophe Ricupero, (Stockholm: IASPIS) (2003), p. 84.

[25] Laura U Marks, The Skin of the Film. Intercultural cinema, embodiment and the senses, (Durnham/London: Duke University Press) (2000), p. 162.

[26] Bruno Latour, “L’art. de faire science”, Movements 62 (2012), p. 92.

[27] Oliver Grau, “Into the Belly of an Image. Historical aspects of Virtual Reality”, Leonardo 32:5 (1999), p. 167.

[28] Victor Burgin, “The Time of Panorama”, in: Situational Aesthetics. Selected Writings by Victor Burgin, ed. Alexander Streitberger, (Leuven, Leuven University Press) (2009), p. 295.

[29] Victor Burgin, p. 295.

[30] Jean-Pierre Fourmentraux, “Introduction”, in: Images interactives. Art Contemporain. Recherche et création numérique, (Paris: La Lettre Volée) (2016), p. 6.

[31] Laura Mulvey, “The Pensive Spectator”, in: The Death in 24th Second. Stillness and the Moving Image, (London: Reaktion Books) (2006), p. 181

[32] Raymond Bellour, D’un autre cinema, op. cit.. p. 41.

[33] JeanFrançois Lyotard, “Petites ruminations sur le commentaire d’art”, Opus International, 70/71 (1979), p. 17.

[34] Leah Ollmann, The Danube Exodus: The Rippling Currents of the River, (Budapest: Ludwig Museum) (2002), p. 20.

[35] Victor Burgin, “Possessive, Pensive and Possessed”, in: The Cinematic (London & Cambridge, Whitechapel) (2006), p. 220.

[36] Gertrud Koch, “Introduction”, in: Screen Dynamics. Mapping the borders of the cinema, ed. Gertrud Koch, Volker Pantenburg, (Vienna: Österreichisches Filmmuseum) (2012), p. 104.

[37] Gertrud Koch, p. 102.

[38] Gertrud Koch, p. 107.

[39] Jacques Derrida, Christine Malabou, Counter-Path. Travelling with Jacques Derrida, trans. David Wills, (Stanford: Stanford University Press) (2004), p. 18.

[40] Robert Simanowski, p. 181.

[41]Jürgen Habermas, Staatsbürgerschaft und nationale Identität: Überlegungen zur europäischen Zukunft, (St. Gallen: Erker) (1991), p. 25.

[42] Ernst Van Alphen, Caught by History: Holocaust Effects in Contemporary Art, Literature, and Theory, (Stanford: Stanford University Press) (1997), p. 106.

[43] Ernst Van Alphen, p. 203.

[44] Gregor Stemmerich,White Cubes, Black Box and Grey Areas: venues and values”, in: Art and the Moving Image, ed. Tanya Leighton, (London: Tate Publishing) (2005), p. 64.

[45] Christa Blümlinger, Culture de remploi- questions du cinéma, Trafic, 50 (2004), p. 350.

[46] Jacques Rancière, “L’historicité de cinema”, in: De l’histoire au cinéma, ed. Antoine de Baecque, Christian Delage, (Bruxelles & Éditions Complexe) (1998), p. 49.

[47] Boris Groys, “Art in the Age of Biopolitics. From Artwork to Art documentation”, in: Art Power, (Cambridge & London: MIT Press) (2008), p. 64.

 

Boundaries are (but) a blur: Computer-generated imagery and the formation of seamless filmic space

Maciej Stasiowski

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp. 59-77.

Maciej Stasiowski
Jagiellonian University

 

 

 

Boundaries are (but) a blur: Computer-generated imagery and the formation of seamless filmic space

Ever since cinema’s inception, the physical creation of fictional settings has been the province of architects, set designers, cinematographers, and – nowadays – of artists in art departments, ardent in bringing to life often impossible spaces. As far as optical illusions go, in order to exist they need not a restless eye, but a static one. But what if the space being rendered is itself fluid, dynamic by default? Braiding computer-generated imagery into live-action film footage has become progressively more robust in revealing its non-material base through texture, light reflexivity, and the way these additions interact with the pro-filmic space. Nevertheless, they too are just as reliant on a suspension of disbelief in their striving for a photographic verisimilitude. Preceded by scale models, montage juxtapositions and painterly optical illusions, digital scenography has become the next logical step in enhancing filmed footage; boosting an impression of reality, going so far as to sacrifice (or ‘dematerialize’) the physical in favour of the hyperreal.

With the help of software enabling motion tracking (to merge 3D visuals into filmed scenes), picture correction, and digital composition in the post-production stages, as well as completely digital animated previsualizations, filmmakers are now able to come up with radically new spatial environments. In this way, the innovative concept of cinematic screen space that blurs or even nullifies material borders is introduced. Seamless transitions link contradictory settings into homogenous environments, whereas uninterrupted long takes can now arise through digital ‘stitching’ aimed at achieving near-to-experiential involvement. Through this, contemporary spectacles postulate a new kind of viewer – one who absorbs visual and acoustic effects viscerally, and allows himself to become engulfed by and pulled into the filmic space.

Along with films that not only employ computer-generated imagery (CGI), but are realized with techniques characteristic of animated film (at nearly every stage of their production), a general approach in treating the representational emerges. The digital space of representation outruns traditional matte paintings with its moving, dynamic descendants, if not entire 3D scenes/environments reconstructed digitally, wrapped in photographic textures. This article sets out to investigate the poly-sensory quality of represented spaces. In their surrogate of an out-of-body experience through cinematographic strategies, editing becomes quite reluctant to tie down visual spectacle to a specific point-of-view or point-of-audition narrative. Films embroidered with CGI put forward a new mode of ‘navigating’ filmic space. They reposition their audiences in a represented space, making them willingly succumb to a multisensorial ‘flow’ of diegetic events. Eventually, even Daniel Dayan’s notion of suture, explaining the process through which the viewer is positioned in filmic locations, becomes replaced by a sensation of fluid environments, intangible settings, and floating worlds inextricable from our perceptual cues, as reproduced by digital cinematography.

Bringing Maurits Cornelis Escher back to life through the power of CGI and a lack of humble decency, if that was ever an option, might have brought about the digital revolution in cinematography we are witnessing right now. But nothing of note happened in this regard, and while Escher’s grave in Baarn is rarely frequented by production designers or digital matte artists, let alone Hollywood executives, the branch of visual special effects in contemporary productions develops precisely along the lines of his architecturally-accurate optical illusions in their progressive conquest of photographic mimesis. Drawings resembling photographs, 3D models indistinguishable from material objects, abstract graphics thoroughly intercepting indexical veracity, and – apparently – promoted animation as a main mode of filmic expression, and all in the guise of photographic textures wrapped around objects, places, and actors alike. This is the cinema of the future, and the future is now.

What this article postulates is an emerging concept of representational space in films which not only employ computer-generated imagery (CGI), but are realized with techniques characteristic of animated film. These, in turn, steer nearly every stage of their production. As digital visual special effects (DVFX), with time, have come to emancipate themselves as a category, the industry standard nowadays sees feature films often driven by the use of computer graphics integrated with the live-action footage, or substituting for portions of it. Quite often what we see on screen are not just lifelike, moving matte paintings created in Maya or 3D Studio Max, but entire 3D scenes and environments reconstructed digitally, though covered with photographic textures. “Over the past twenty years, the Visual Effects (VFX) and Art Departments have worked more and more closely, bridging the gap between real life and digital environments. Sets are now often built to incorporate green and blue screens so that they can be seamlessly extended in post-production.”

 

[1] With the dematerialization of generic film sets comes the introduction of a virtual camera whose weightless, continuous gliding over modelled landscapes presents the viewer with a novel way of taking in visual information – immersing them into the action and scene of events. Instead of resorting to the shot-reverse shot mechanism of narrative subjectivity – regarded by Daniel Dayan as the base principle of cinema, according to which the viewer projects him/herself into filmic space[2] – we are instead drawn into represented space in a cinematic version of an out-of-body experience, in which editing is quite reluctant to constantly tie the visual spectacle down to a specific diegetic perceiver. Rather, repositioning the audience in represented space forces them to succumb to a multisensorial investment in the ‘flow’ of events on screen. As all transitions are rendered seamless and digital stitches concealed, films embroidered with CGI put forward a new mode of navigating the filmic space; Dayan’s notion of suture, standing in as a means of situating ourselves in imaginary yet veritable locations, is replaced by a sensation of fluid environments, intangible settings, and floating worlds inextricable from our perceptual cues, as reproduced by digital cinematography.

Illusionism applied

Take any one of Escher’s lithographs and you’ll immediately see that creating optical illusions involves a spatial imagination and a knowledge of visual cues based on human perceptual habits, even more so of their shortcomings. Ascending and Descending (1960), for example, lures us into believing that the circular staircase is a buildable three-dimensional object, even though it remains an impossible figure, in the realms of the Möbius strip. On the slightest disruption of that accurately constructed three-point perspective – reprised under the guise of a magician’s sleight-of-hand in the Penrose stairs scene[3] from Inception (2010, Christopher Nolan) – the last step, that seemed to be conjoined with the first, suddenly drifts apart with a single swift movement of the camera crane, thus revealing a gaping fissure, previously non-existent due to the advantageous position of the assumed vantage point. Observations can be made as follows: one – the space is non-existent, because an infinite staircase is an impossible object, and two – the picture’s representational space is possible as long as we maintain the vantage point posited by Escher or Wally Pfister, Nolan’s cinematographer. The way we look at space becomes space itself – three.

This tension, which arises between the scene and the observer, or speaking more scientifically, that turns space into a (mathematical) function of the gaze, has been one of cinema’s prime features from the very beginning. Set designers, with cinematographers, are often ardent students of classical art. This pertains to ‘proper’ construction of perspectives for matte shots, just as much as it later translates into the relationship established between the represented space and the viewer. In classic cinema, as Daniel Dayan noted, “[c]amera lenses organize their visual field according to the laws of perspective, which thereby operate to render it as the perception of a subject.”[4] In order to deepen that impression of subjectivity, a variety of visual cues are being employed. Among them are “…forced perspectives [which] created the illusion of great depth. In resorting to this technique, modern art directors joined company with writers on perspective from the Renaissance and Baroque eras, whose schemes were routinely taught in American art schools.”[5] Building an optical illusion first of all requires another illusion to back it up – namely, an optically-biased environment, disguised as a space extracted directly from real life that would give no reason to the onlooker to question what they see. Since cinema’s inception, architects, set designers, cinematographers, and now art department virtuosos have become skilled in creating fictional scenes that would be impossible to encounter in real life, because in order to exist, they involve not a restless, but a static eye.

Beyond expressionist ‘Caligari’s cabinets’, filmic scenery, encompassing physical locations, set decorations and painted backdrops, has undergone a long journey to the point of redefining the entire approach to film design, brought about with the CGI revolution. Not yet at the stage when the first computer artwork was being introduced into practice (namely, John Whitney’s opening sequence to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)), what was considered ‘computer art’ was still, for example, largely the analogue re-filming of console displays in Tron (1982, Steven Lisberger). This eventually led to over-stated claims of the arrival of the digital age, with a mere 6 minutes’ worth of CGI in Jurassic Park (1993, Steven Spielberg). In fact, it was Toy Story (1995, John Lasseter) that arrived on the scene as the true binary Prometheus, disrupting the balance of computer-generated special effects shots versus regular footage, expanding the category of digital FX into full-length 3D animated features. In this way:

[a]gainst the backdrop of the wider proliferation of digital technologies, media and communication networks, digital or digitised practices have found their way into almost every aspect of filmmaking, including sequence pre-visualisation, blue and green screen shooting, face and body motion capture, compositing of image elements and digital rotoscoping, non-linear editing and sound mixing.[6]

Computer-generated imagery braided into live footage is reliant on a suspension of disbelief, according to which any film is assumed to be lifelike as long as it presents us with objects whose photographic verisimilitude – its indexical value – seem undeniable. As parametricism in architecture evolves into yet more advanced and elaborate forms, and with CGI as a standard in movie production, what was formerly regarded as merely a new tool to aid the design process has not only reconfigured both practices, but also introduced an innovative concept to the cinematic screen space, which blurs or nullifies material borders. With the help of software enabling motion tracking – facilitating the merging of filmed scenes and 3D visuals – picture correction, and overall digital compositing at the post-production stage, as well as completely digital animated previsualizations (being ‘storyboards 2.0’), filmmakers have been able to come up with radically new spatial environments (albeit mainly in the science-fiction and superhero genres). And while the surface might be misleading, resembling classical cinema, the ‘engine’ of present-day productions is purely digital, driving all production phases in contemporary filmmaking.

What prevails, then, is a desire for seamless visuals that reinforce the illusion that we are indeed looking at cities full of Marvel’s superheroes, and that flying beyond the galaxy’s farthest edges appears as if they’ve really been put in front of an actual camera. But both presumptions are wrong. Digital scenography – preceded by scale models, montage juxtapositions and painterly optical illusions – has come to supersede or enhance the practice of filmmaking and the usual modus operandi, subsequently dematerialising the physical borders of pro-filmic reality, blending interior and exterior barriers, and transforming the spaces depicted and the camera’s gaze into a seamless whole. Contemporary cinema has emancipated itself from the rules of classic montage. We are already being flooded with over-invested blockbusters that tend to rely very little on the viewer’s critical awareness. Instead, immersive narrative strategies (Gravity (2013, Alfonso Cuarón), Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014, Alejandro G. Iñárritu)) are preferred. These eliminate the cognitive stage of mental ‘stitching’ – along the lines of Dayan’s suture theory – of the filmic narrative, requiring from the viewer complete involvement and naïve insertion into the events depicted, rather than any intellectual distance:

Narrative cinema presents itself as a ‘subjective’ cinema. […] These films propose images which are subtly designated and intuitively perceived as corresponding to the point of view of one character or another. The point of view varies. There are also moments when the image does not represent anyone’s point of view; but in the classical narrative cinema, these are relatively exceptional. Soon enough, the image is reasserted as somebody’s point of view.[7]

Of course, filmmakers have always excelled in hiding the ‘stitches’, just like the brush strokes that might have made one suspect the painterly nature of an end credits’ sunset, or the true storage capacity of the Hangar 51 warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Steven Spielberg). With digital image processing, these directorial dreams have come true, although not without affecting our relationship with on-screen spaces – formerly a montage of fragments,[8] now a seamless environment in which the architecture of the material, illusory and computer generated all converge.

Pro-filmic space in pre-digital cinema

The emerging filmic space’s uninterrupted nature often (unsurprisingly) finds its central inhabitant in a character who exists on the borders between fantasy/delusion/mental illness and concrete reality. The procession of visual information – in such features as the aforementioned Birdman, Gravity, or The Revenant (2015, Alejandro G. Iñárritu) – postulates a manic, restless and slightly neurotic subject, whose incessant daydream we are drawn into, all the more to experience it first-hand. We are used to gazing at cinematic space as an imagined, otherworldly reality on a screen in whose wilderness the characters are meant to wander, struggle, or simply interact. Inside a bluescreen environment this task becomes much harder to accomplish, as far more unknowns about the represented space are introduced into the equation.

It is no longer a case of catching hold of and restoring a slice of pro-filmic reality, but rather of encoding the ‘data’ seized by the device. With the digital, to record reality is already, and simultaneously, to reconstruct it. We know of course that any representation, however slavishly recorded it may be, is always-already a (re)construction.[9]

It is a spatiotemporal collage conceived by editing, within-the-frame montage, compiled from a variety of sources, chiefly pro-filmic space, stage sets, scale models and matte paintings. Their juxtaposition creates the setting for the plot. Graphic artists, set designers and cinematographers have always been preoccupied with hiding from the viewer’s gaze any inconsistencies in the composited image, a practice originated with artisan-come-artists such as Robert…

…Mallet Stevens [who] had discovered the empirical approach of the professional designers. He began to study camera angles, which varied according to the focus of the lens employed. Intrigued by these studies, [Jean] Perrier took them up as well and developed a rational concept of film set design as a function of the position of the camera and the lenses. The graphic method that he worked out enabled him to determine which plan and dimensions of a set would produce the image desired and drawn by the designer.[10]

Such views can only propagate themselves. As Michael Tawa writes, “[t]he cinematic image is […] a manner of penetrating space. It constitutes the way in which a look perforates and advances into space.”[11] Therefore, represented space arrives on the ‘silver screen’ as an entity that has already been manipulated, enhanced and infused with digital hyperrealism, whose: “…architecture changes the sizes and proportions of real architecture. Even though buildings constructed in the studio were usually made smaller than life-size, their physical diminution was not noticeable when they were filmed with actors.”[12]

Fiction film beguiles us into accepting spaceship interiors and alien temples as instances of ‘probable’ architectural typologies. Documentaries make us alert, as they strive for verity, even though throughout history truth-seeking has been achieved through quite diverse means. Animated and experimental films are unique in this manner, as they present us with spaces that, even when originating in real life, have been intercepted in order to test the borders of our cognition; the limits of our perceptual capabilities, as in structuralist film. But apart from generic convention, CGI facilitates the coming (or designing, rather) into graphic existence of any environments of pure abstraction, the digital kin of Douglas Trumbull’s stargate-corridor in 2001 (1968, Stanley Kubrick) – a perfect example of a purely ‘retinal’ space that is brought to life on an inherently Dayanian basis of shot interchange (the fluorescent stream reflected upon Bowman’s face and helmet upon which we see the corridor as a projection).

Ambiguous space: a shortcut from animation to live action cinema

With the introduction of computers to filmmaking, the spectrum of tools allowing for processing of imagery grew considerably, facilitating chirurgical incisions, letting cuts proliferate in a more in-depth manner, while the stitched-together patient would emerge with no visible scars. Animated films, especially experimental shorts (such as the first computer films by John Whitney Sr., beginning with Catalog (1961), which introduced the idea of morphing and sequences of transformative algorithms applied to on-screen objects), have evolved into the backbone of any big-budget action film circa 2018. Thereby, special effects entered mainstream live-action cinema and thoroughly reshaped the production pipeline, emerging soon after as their own separate category. Conversely, space in animation has always been an artificial construct, along with the characters themselves (bodies, contour lines etc), the convention of background images and their own laws of physics, which come into being only when acted out.

Along with digital special effects, new stages of film production quickly caught on, such as previsualisations of more complicated sequences (fight scenes, explosions, stunts etc), and animatics – an animated version of the storyboard. As a consequence, although still regarded as a waste product, a test ‘movie’ comes into being alongside the main feature. That was the case for Gravity, which was created not unlike a typical Pixar production. The final cut of the film was decided upon in the pre-production stage. While shooting (mainly in a bluescreen environment), a ‘virtual camera’ was programmed to perform smoother movements than a physical one could. Post-production is nowadays the lengthiest gestation period in a film’s production process, and involves colour correction, lighting adjustments and the addition of special effects to accompany traditional animatronics and digital compositing. In this way, a typical film begins its life as an animated storybook, with concept art and digital previsualizations, etc, and ends up as an animated film ‘in disguise’, harnessing live action with the dexterity of a professional puppeteer. By flowing into mainstream (mainly ‘action’) cinema, it doesn’t just introduce the issue, but reinforces the problem of imagery’s ambiguous status.

Michele Pierson rehearsed this possibility in 2002, speculating that digital special effects would effectively begin to ‘disappear’ as a visual category, as CGI became a more persistent and wide-ranging presence onscreen, and as the impulse towards photorealism in digital imaging eradicated the ‘bracketing of’ and stylistic foregrounding of special effects that Pierson had identified in earlier phases of the digital effects tradition.[13]

Two examples of animated films are analysed below, examining their visual strategies (which made their way, further on, into CGI-imbued live action cinema) – extracted from two anime classics, covering distinct sequences that are explicitly pure visual transitions conjoining separate settings. One created on the brink of the digital era, the other in its midst: Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995), and Satoshi Kon’s Paprika (2006). The latter is a film with computer-generated dream-reality transitions. The former features a main character in a sea-diving sequence, in which the director/animator plays around with the illusion of water reflections. As depicted, they are indistinguishable from the character and the environmental design. Meanwhile, Paprika constantly transitions its narrative between reality and dream, unnoticeably  in the course of the plot, whereas the horror of waking up is ‘smoothed out’ with the use of digital special effects: blurring, twisting, morphing of the hand-drawn imagery, and all as abruptly as the morning bugle.

Ghost in the Shell: Re-surfacing

Halfway into the story, we find Ghost in the Shell’s central character, Major Kusanagi, taking some time off in a slow-paced ocean diving sequence. As she floats towards the water’s surface, we see her perfectly reflected in the upper right corner of the screen. Cut to a frame divided diagonally by the water line – the character in the lower left half of the screen rises floats gently upwards towards her double in the upper right. Despite our knowing the scene is set underwater, there seem to be no other indications, such as a watery blue hue, wavy shapes in the drawing, or a lack of focus. Which one of the two characters is Kusanagi, and which her reflection? Of course, both are images, as there was no real actor there to begin with. Mamoru Oshii frequently plays with pictorial conventions, creating equivocal 2D settings, depicting them at a fixed angle to reinforce an optical illusion that would have been shattered if presented stereoscopically. The water’s undisturbed surface, as painted, appears indistinguishable from a mirror, or polished chrome. Thus Oshii strains the limits of representation, demonstrating how images can imply, instead of merely depicting. Apparently, in their slavish attitude to the animated forefather, the creators of the live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell (2017, Rupert Sanders), tried to achieve a similar effect using not merely a CGI’d reflection, but a genuine double for the actress[14] descending from above – an image perfectly sharp and easily mistakable for the actress ascending from below.

Paprika: jumping fences

In Paprika, the ambiguity at play concerns the gradual intrusion of the dream world into concrete reality. Director Satoshi Kon’s team uses digital effects, such as  morphing, to mark the transition from a dreaming life to a waking one. At some point in the story, Chiba, the main female character, is scrutinizing the apartment of her colleague (a former programmer). Descending to the basement, she suddenly realizes she’s wandered into a huge amusement park. She notices a doll bearing a significant resemblance to her colleague and approaches it, jumping over a fence which suddenly dissolves like a reflection in water. The barrier vanishes and Chiba finds herself in mid-air, having just jumped over the railing on the apartment’s balcony several floors above the ground. Digital embroidery makes the drawing undulate, morphing the safe space of the apartment into a vertiginous drop. Further in, Kon nullifies differences between the images shown, as the protagonist’s alter ego, Paprika, is able to use the spaces of television screens, billboards and picture frames as gateways to the ‘realities’ they depict.

By fusing characters and backgrounds, or simply treating them as items of equally artificial and abstract origin, animated film doesn’t withhold from following gradual and abrupt metamorphoses within the course (and space) of a long take. “One-shot animated films are formulated from the potential changes of the scenery, running without cutting interruptions. To overcome this narrative restriction, the singularity of the shot is mitigated by the fluency of transitions and transformations at a blank stage, and the division of the frame to support simultaneous storytelling.”[15] In both Ghost in the Shell and Paprika, the environment’s status is ambivalent, far from acting out its solid and static nature. In animation, a particular artist’s style often serves as a masking tool, preying on our habit of separating moving characters from static backgrounds, as if they were actors in actual spaces. Instead, Kon and Oshii prompt the viewer to discredit this ‘reality principle’, regarding it as nothing more than a construct, regardless of how convincing it looks and how engaging the plot. “What is notable is the extent to which the photorealist principle is adhered to even in the depiction of the most fantastical subject matter, and even within sequences which function as explicit ‘showcases’ for – and thus explicit acknowledgments of – computer-generated imagery (CGI).”[16]

In film, meaning is generally derived from the collision of two images, making montage the main rule of composition for ‘moving pictures’. In the Hollywood system this serves the principle of editing for continuity, in which “…actors’ movements are matched across cuts, and as the scene develops the shots get closer to the performers, carrying us to the heart of the drama […]”[17]. Furthermore, “…nearly all scenes in nearly all contemporary mass-market movies (and in most ‘independent’ films) are staged, shot, and cut according to principles which crystallized in the 1910s and 1920s.”[18] Post-classical style strives, as Bordwell remarks, for a sensation of intensified continuity, a “…traditional continuity amped up, raised to a higher pitch of emphasis.”[19] Cutting heightens awareness, as it requires the viewer to mentally reconstruct relationships between perceived images, especially as images tend to weaken in resemblance.[20] Thus, fragments of architectural spaces and shots of a scale model can consequently be turned into a virtual building in the audience’s imagination. Daniel Dayan summarised these rules in his ‘suture theory’ of the mental stitching together of visual information (frames, shots) into a scene, sequence, virtual environment, event… depending on the discursive approach we choose.

The evasion this account identifies is deep and pervasive: the reverse shot of the gazer […] sutures over that profound wound in our being […][;] suture, in other words, provides film spectators with the illusion of an origin for what they see. Film’s construction of seeing needs to be naturalized. More importantly, the construction of seeing needs to be naturalized.[21]

Another level – or ‘sequel’ to Dayan’s concept – comes with CGI. Seamless transitions linking contradicting environments and creating long takes with the aid of digital imagery aim at something different – involvement. “Digital imaging’s original incarnation was as a ‘special effect’, the ‘digital effects’ it first showcased in specific shots and later specific sequences of particular films […] At another level this was a way for early digital effects movies to trial visual effects artists’ capacity to integrate the digital with the pro-filmic in a convincing way, and to test out the spectator’s tolerance of the digital elements and the composited image within safe limits….”[22] We are easily fooled by impossible, illogical spatial constructions when they emerge as walked-through corridors traversed uninterruptedly, staircases and rooms that lose us in their maze, either of Escher’s or Industrial Light & Magic’s provenance. Having this principle of continuity when discussing the CGI-cast space of representation in mind, we can inspect the (in)famous incessant ‘take’ of (rather than in) Birdman as representative of this trend in transiting long takes from modernist cinema into action films, from Nostalgia (1983, Andrei Tarkovsky) to Gravity.

Birdman or (The Expected Case to Study)

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is nothing but Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) cut together digitally. Prior to its triumphal procession at the 87th Academy Awards ceremony, the film’s antecedents included Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void (2009), and Robert Altman’s multiple prism narratives, such as Shortcuts (1993). All of these films attempted a sense of simultaneity, continuity and recreation of a life’s stream of events, and tried to bypass the shattered, montage-driven form of the world traditionally put on screen. Apart from the obvious importance of staging – the actors’ blocking, camera placement, rehearsals and the other preparatory activities that bring cinema closer to theatre – computer postproduction played a crucial part in Birdman, precisely because it made the illusion possible. Typically,

[a] shot is a single uninterrupted camera take with no perceptually detectable temporal or spatial discontinuities. Cinematic sequences are composed of a range of shots that present different vantage points on an action, event, or state of affairs for the purpose of narrating a fiction, depicting an environment, communicating a point of view […]. Shots and sequences can therefore be defined as recognitional prompts that present diagnostic information that enables viewers to perceptually recognize their content in much the same way they recognize everyday objects, actions, and events in ordinary contexts.[23]

Birdman’s famously long take – as is more frequently the case with cinematic displays of digitally-enhanced prowess – was in fact a composite of various shorter takes edited together into a single seamless transition. This further enhances the nervous, syncopated rhythm of the film as the viewer follows its central character, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), nervously pacing the narrow corridors of a Broadway theatre and dealing with the various people and obstacles along the way. Three of the post-production tricks that made this seamless-looking feat possible are examined below, which include use of  computer software to create an uninterrupted narrative flow.

  1. Matchmoving…

…is a common means of conjoining digital imagery with filmed footage. In the film, during Riggan’s nervous pacing, the theatre’s dimly lit interiors were a perfect opportunity for making digital seams, placed so as to preserve the lighting and colour consistency of the images. Unlike the fades to black practiced by Hitchcock, the seams here are invisible, conjoined by the graphic artists at Rodeo FX. They employed a variety of techniques, including use of three time-lapse sequences and the aforementioned matchmoving – the matching of camera angles, motion, lighting etc. between two separate shots, in order to insert CGI material into the scene. Even a CG camera was used to seamlessly make a move that would tie all the unrelated elements together. All of this effort resulted in about 100 digital ‘stitches’ altogether, including transitions to fully digital backgrounds.

Current computer technology has made it easier to incorporate motion into composited shots, even when using handheld cameras. […] In post-production, a computer can use the references to compute the camera’s position and thus render an image that matches the perspective and movement of the foreground perfectly. Modern advances in software and computational power have eliminated the need for accurate placement of the markers – the software figures out their position in space. A perceived disadvantage of this is that it requires a large camera movement, possibly encouraging modern film techniques where the camera is always in motion….[24]

In Birdman, the idea was to give the impression of uninterruptedness by combining scenes that normally wouldn’t be subjected to much post-processing (it’s usually action sequences that involve bluescreen environments, supporting wires and stuntmen), such as dialogue sequences that might require colour correction, but do not involve heavy use of visual effects. In the Birdman sequence examined here, the character engages in frequent actor-to-actor interplays, only to be suddenly pulled up out of them by a crane, into an SFX display. And so, the illusion of continuity resultant from cutting together scenes shot inside a greenscreen environment, with scenes shot on location or on soundstages (such as the opening shot of Riggan levitating in his dressing room and the endless corridor walk he goes on just a few minutes later), create a consistent plane of magical-realism in the film’s diegetic space. And this magical-realist take has often been seen in the emphasis on continuity and immersion in modernist cinema’s spatiotemporal durée, in which subsequent actions are as much corporeally justified as they are metaphorically. It moulds together historically disparate periods (as seen in the works of Carlos Saura, Theo Angelopoulos, Miklós Jancsó), immersing audiences in the real-time duration of the scene (Béla Tarr, Michelangelo Antonioni, Andrei Tarkovsky), with the intention of attaining the stasis of a fleeting moment. However, CGI long-takes usually want none of that, let alone those in Birdman. Here, smooth transitions are set up between spaces and moments so as to point towards the distorted mindset of the protagonist.

  1. Photogrammetry…

…is the technique of extracting information from two images from different POVs, setting compatible points and creating a 2.5D representation of the image. It enables the determination of the position of a camera from two (or more) separately-taken shots, or photographs, and on the basis of data gathered on location, reconstruction of a 3D model of the scene. This pre-dates traditional matte painting, and gives an impression of three-dimensionality. It’s also indispensable in shots with mirrors. In Birdman, crew reflections were digitally erased. Parts of the set had to be either obscured with a bluescreen or taken out in post-production using rotoscoping, for example, in the dressing room scenes in which the large mirrors would normally reflect the film crew. Instead, the filmed reflections were replaced with CG reflections of the actors only, as well as of objects lying on a table visible in the shot.

  1. Digital compositing…

…is what allows for the illusion to play out loud. In Birdman, it ‘erupts’ sporadically, most prominently in a brief episode emphasizing an outburst of anger from Riggan, as – when walking down the street – he suddenly transforms into his audacious alter-ego, the titular ‘Birdman’ superhero character. Simultaneously, audiences are shell-shocked by the fantastical (though still convincing) images of an aerial attack on the city. Parked cars exploding, debris falling from destroyed buildings, wreckage and fire from every corner of the until-recently peaceful urban scenery. On the other hand, digital intrusions are applied to small details too. The stuntman dressed in Birdman’s costume wasn’t blessed with Michael Keaton’s chin – he received that in post-production.

This coherence in the design of each frame (as well as their flow), can also be observed on the ‘molecular’ level, as the software used privileges the manipulation of curved lines directly on screen; it favours continuous surfaces and smooth forms, let alone the fluidity of camerawork, complex shots and transitions. It can also effortlessly recreate nearly infinite zoom, and has no problem with a scarcity of interrupting cuts. This appears as “…a return to what we might describe […] as cinema’s graphic anima: Image manipulation, retouching, color timing, editing and post-production operations, all now digital, have encouraged a heightened “picturization” of films, for example, by broadening the color palette and the ways it can be manipulated.”[25] What had once been achieved with great difficulty, is now made to appear smooth. Like Birdman’s dynamics, with the film’s amplitude rhythmically changing each scene’s ‘time signature’ (an intensified continuity), speeding up then slowing down, but never grinding to a halt. These concealed incongruities mask the fact that the conjunction of heterogeneous spaces result in new viewing habits and different tasks for the viewer. And not passive reception of the information projected, but active negotiation of instances in a stream of attractions. Immersion here means surrender to the apparatus of cinematic projection.

The emergent option of eliminating all montage edits whatsoever is much less constrained than it used to be, for example in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 Rope. Moreover, the promise of seamlessness acquired by any formerly disjointed sequence of images grants the filmmaker the ability to not only sustain the illusion of a long take, but erase any barriers that would have normally been posed by material objects – be it props, set decorations or even other actors, as in the case of Gravity.

The aesthetics of the film try to replicate the protagonist’s fearful and fascinated exploration of a horizonless world through 3-D cinematography and very long takes, which together induce in the spectator an equally ambivalent sense of disorientation and weightlessness. The reduced narration and the poetic exploration of zero-gravity turns the film into a laboratory of the senses, which brings the spectator close to the bodily experience of floating, drifting, and being suspended in space.[26]

Even actors’ bodies no longer pose any obstacles to the camera’s penetrative look, as they can be substituted by CG counterparts; the formerly impenetrable borders between interior and outside space (and in metaphoric terms, between dream and waking life, inner psyche and outer reality), can now be traversed without resistance. This relegates material objects on set to the status of artistic creations (in Birdman, the creators often replaced props such as the cosmetics on a dressing table, or a framed poster, with digital doubles), generated on an ‘animator’s desk’ ex nihilo.

Images of the real world can now blend with fiction’s images of possible worlds because they are constructed and perceived in the same way. And this point surely touches on the ethics of our faith in images, particularly with respect to the documentary contract and journalistic coverage of the world’s factual events.[27]

In animated films, the attributes of material objects and physical laws have to be implied, acted out; they need to give off an illusion of corporality through texture, or usually weight, through light play and the way characters interact with the object. Dematerializing them in live-action cinema, as with actors in a bluescreen environment (or the more frequent practice of bright green Christo-like wrapping of their body parts, indicating areas of later intervention for CG artists ), pares them down to the status borne by any other object. Threads are composited into a film’s fabric (virtual camera movements, CG puppets replacing actors), and regarded as a coherent whole. “With motion capture something like the opposite occurs: here, a photo-realist image achieves the flexibility of an animated image.”[28] Altogether, this has given rise to the category of animage, which stresses the actual ‘fabric’ of the filmic spectacle, constituted not out of a montage of shots representative of real-life environments, figures, and events, but – as is frequently the case – an animated narrative encrusted with photographic ‘skins’ only in the post-production stage. “This, then, is animage: an animated image that is already no longer an image (it is no longer an impression of the world precisely), something conveyed by the privative prefix ‘a’. But animage is also – and now more than ever – an image that moves to the beat of animation.”[29]

There is an ontological shift in the represented space we perceive, which – out of a continuous flux – forms the underlying principle of most digital interventions. “In digital cinema […] there is no such thing as a still image, no punctual moment. There is only a consistent process of becoming (and unbecoming), based on the binary sequencing of zeros and ones, which creates a constant relay of appearing and vanishing, of presence and absence.”[30] This becomes evident when we compare a simple travelling scene from Birdman with a similar idea executed nearly 40 years earlier, in Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975). In both, the beholding eye – the camera – appears as a disembodied entity, traversing walls and material obstacles; in the Antonioni film it passes through the bars on a window separating the hotel room in which David Locke dies, from the courtyard outside. In Iñárritu, the obstacle covers the entrance to Riggan’s dressing room, as the crane climbs up to his balcony following a lengthy time-lapse sequence. Collaging, or making a photomontage out of disparate spaces, gives rise to the illusion of the camera’s all-penetrating gaze – the disembodied floating of the spectator’s eye is given much more than a mere ‘backstage pass’ into Riggan’s floor show, turning it into an absolute beholder. Such swift hovering about a virtual set implies a bit more than a delusion of grandeur. In fact, it reintroduces filmic space as a 3D model, in which territory we are to manoeuvre, vastly removed from the notions of classical construction, the ‘tutor code’ of cinema that dresses up and stitches together the projected show from fragments, presented to the camera’s restrained immobility.

Conclusive remarks

The Eisensteinian concept of the dominant, indicating aspects of the film frame or scene, is brought to the fore as it denotes both aural and visual layers of the spectacle. In the age of CGI, the same factors can easily be emphasised through colour correction, or elaborate camera movements (amongst other methods), meant to channel and direct the audience’s attention towards the particular element of the representation considered by its creators as the most pregnant with significance. Eisenstein writes: “[o]rthodox montage is montage on the dominant, i.e. the combination of shots according to their dominating indications. Montage according to tempo. Montage according to the chief tendency within the frame. Montage according to the length (continuance) of the shots, and so on. This is montage according to the foreground.”[31] A logical extension of this comes with a composting strategy to guide the audience’s attention. In other words, providing them with visual cues. The Soviet film director regarded lighting effects, framing, camera movements, composition of the cadre, sound, texture and other aspects manipulated by the filmmaker as a means of evoking a certain engagement on the viewer’s part, focusing their attention on specific elements of the screen’s tapestry; elements that embody the general meaning of the scene. With contemporary productions, this strategy is repurposed by means of colour correction, digitally-added lens flare, vibrant luminescence, or manipulated brightness levels.

What is the consequence of this kind of multi-aspect use of digital processing, compositing of a homogenous environment in which the look, mediated by the camera, is invisibly paired with CG additions? As in a Eisenstein’s own Alexander Nevsky (1938), the space of representation becomes coupled with vision – an aspect that, when experienced in 3D, redesigns whole shots in a way that aims at the viewer’s cone of vision.

[I]n light of the revival of 3-D images, the screen is no longer only a visual container framing the image, but has expanded into the auditorium space, further blurring the boundaries between inside and outside, in-here and out-there. It now opens up a virtual space that extends in depth, alternately thrusting itself menacingly out towards the spectators and pulling them into an enveloping embrace.[32]

Objects are thrown at us, and we intuitively dodge them just before realising we didn’t have to. That ubiquitous strategy of creating an immersive spectacle will probably soon fall into decline, both as antecedents and nemeses of Birdman quickly grow in numbers. Awareness of these strategies involving a pliant ‘interface’ raises questions about what is real and what is simulated. The next logical step for any self-conscious film made in the digital age would be to engage a thematic exploration of interruptions, blemishes, and borderline cases, in which digital intrusions into (supposedly) material reality cause an involution of the latter.

[I]t is our contention that in the era of digital cinema, the body and the senses are if anything even more central for a theoretical understanding of the film experience, whether it is the feeling of bodily presence created through digital sound, the sensory overload and profusion of detail achieved by high-definition digital images when projected in an IMAX theatre, or the ‘freedom’ to have ‘movies to go’ on portable devices and to control their sequence and flow with our hands.[33]

In this regard, Ari Folman’s The Congress (2013) and Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012) both raise the subject of digital alteration of what we see on screen more directly, revealing the technique, demonstrating glitches, and philosophising about the future condition of filmmaking. Such films engage – even on their margins – a discussion of digital paraphernalia, pointing to the ‘engines at work’ underneath the representations we see on screen. An example of this might be temporal masking, which results from compression, making use of “[t]he human visual system [as it] takes a while to adapt to abrupt scene changes. During this period it is less sensitive to details, and images may be represented in a coarser way.”[34] Emphasizing, at the same time, the ‘lossy’ aspects in coding visual imagery, precisely by a display of digital artefacts, that “[a]t low qualities […] become very visible and take the shape of abrupt changes in luminance and color between neighboring blocks, due to the JPEG processing that is performed independently for each block. This is why compression artifacts are often called blocks, or blocking artifacts.”[35] But the digital paradigm shift is rarely taken into consideration when talking about contemporary film. Not just because of Hollywood’s timidity in discussing face transplants for their major productions, but also due to a reluctance, maybe even inability, to pay attention to the invisible world of code behind the glossy, lossless surface. Soon, cinema may well be without any material reality outside the machine, as long as it remains armed with vast libraries of data from the physical world; a hermetic hermitage of digitized props, ready to be used and reused in any future spectacle.

Finally, as an afterthought, let us revise Dayan’s view that stitching (suture) was an automatic activity on the part of the viewer, who was critically aware of – even if accustomed to – the constructed reality they perceive, although symbolically desirous of writing themselves into the filmic space as witnessed in cinemas (in CinemaScope, preferably!). “To see the film is not to perceive the frame, the camera angle and distance, etc. The space between planes or objects on the screen is perceived as real, hence the viewer may perceive himself (in relation to this space) as fluidity, expansion, elasticity.”[36] Just like any other entrant in the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects category, Birdman and Gravity, the Ghost in the Shell live-action remake (2017, Rupert Sanders), and Ready Player One (2018, Steven Spielberg) all inevitably do just that; throwing their audiences (or should we say, their audience, as it’s unlikely that we’re speaking of a revolving cast of characters), into the midst of a DVFX hailstorm. Sooner than expected, we could find ourselves confronted with a seamless cloth of digitally composited and enhanced reality. Then, it will be our turn to rip the stitches apart.

References

Ackland-Snow Terry, Laybourn Wendy, The Art of Illusion: Production Design for Film and Television, (Marlborough: Crowood Press) (2017).

Barsacq Leon, Caligari’s Cabinet and Other Grand Illusions, (New York: New York Graphic Society) (1977).

Bertalmío Marcelo, Image Processing for Cinema, (Boca Raton, London and New York: CRC Press) (2014).

Bordwell David, ”Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film”, Film Quarterly 55:3 (Spring 2002), pp. 16-28.

Bryant Antony and Pollock Griselda (ed.), Digital and Other Virtualities: Renegotiating the Image, (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010).

Butte George, “Suture and the Narration of Subjectivity in Film”, Poetics Today 29:2 (Summer 2008), pp. 277-308.

Dayan Daniel, “The Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema”, Film Quarterly 28:1 (Autumn 1974), pp. 22-31.

Dobbert Tom, Matchmoving: The Invisible Art of Camera Tracking (San Francisco and London: Sybex) (2005).

Eisenstein Sergei, “The Filmic Fourth Dimension” (1929), in Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, Jay Leyda (ed. and transl.) (New York and London: Harcourt) (1949).

Elsaesser Thomas, Hagener Malte, Film Theory: An Introduction through the Senses, (New York and London: Routledge) (2015).

Gaudreault André, Marion Philippe, The End of Cinema? A Medium in Crisis in the Digital Age, John Belton (ed.), Timothy Barnard (transl.) (New York: Columbia University Press) (2015).

Hernández María Lorenzo, “The Double Sense of Animated Images: A View on the Paradoxes of Animation as a Visual Language”, Animation Studies 2 (2007), https://journal.animationstudies.org/maria-lorenzo-hernandez-the-double-sense-of-animated-images/, date accessed 9 July 2018.

Pethő Ágnes (ed.), The Cinema of Sensations (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) (2015), pp. 36-44.

Prince Stephen, Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality (New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press) (2012).

Purse Lisa, Digital Imaging in Popular Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2013).

Ramírez Juan Antonio, Architecture for the Screen: A Critical Study of Set Design in Hollywood’s Golden Age, (Jefferson and London: McFarland & Company) (2012).

Shimamura Arthur P. (ed), Psychocinematics: Exploring Cognition at the Movies, (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press) (2013).

Tawa Michael, Agencies of the Frame: Tectonic Strategies in Cinema and Architecture, (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) (2011).

Whitlock Cathy, Designs on Film: A Century of Hollywood At Direction (Sydney, London, New York: HarperCollins) (2010).

Notes

[1] Terry Ackland-Snow, Wendy Laybourn, The Art of Illusion: Production Design for Film and Television, (Marlborough: Crowood Press) (2017), p. 42.

[2] Daniel Dayan, ”The

Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema”, Film Quarterly 28:1 (Autumn 1974), p. 30.

[3] Not ‘sequence’, as it is crucial to analyse this part of the film as taking place within the same interior, as well as noticing its constructed perspective which brings the illusion into being.

[4] Daniel Dayan, p. 28.

[5] Juan Antonio Ramírez, Architecture for the Screen: A Critical Study of Set Design in Hollywood’s Golden Age, (Jefferson and London: McFarland & Company) (2012), p. 63.

[6] Lisa Purse, Digital Imaging in Popular Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2013), p. 2.

[7] Daniel Dayan, pp. 28-29.

[8] This has been historically motivated by the intention to optimize “… viewing positions by decomposing events into different shots, each of them showing the event part preferably from an appropriate position and viewpoint, [which] does not come for free but instead implies a reduced spatial coherence across shots that goes along with increased cost of cognitive processing.” [Stephen Schwan, “The Art of Simplifying Events”, in Psychocinematics. Exploring Cognition at the Movies, ed. Arthur P. Shimamura (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press) (2013), p. 222.].

[9] André Gaudreault and Philippe Marion, The End of Cinema? A Medium in Crisis in the Digital Age, ed. John Belton, transl. Timothy Barnard (New York: Columbia University Press) (2015), p. 65.

[10] Leon Barsacq, Caligari’s Cabinet and Other Grand Illusions (New York: New York Graphic Society) (1977), pp. 44-45.

[11] Michael Tawa, Agencies of the Frame: Tectonic Strategies in Cinema and Architecture, (Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) (2011), p. 30.

[12] Juan Antonio Ramírez, p. 83.

[13] Idem, p. 24.

[14] See: Lisa Purse, p. 27. A similar discussion is conducted there on a sequence from Live Free or Die Hard (2007, Len Wiseman), in which John McClane looks past his perfectly clear reflection in a glass pane, enhanced this way to direct the viewers’ attention to the symbolic act of confronting oneself.

[15] María Lorenzo Hernández, “The Double Sense of Animated Images: A View on the Paradoxes of Animation as a Visual Language”, Animation Studies 2 (2007), https://journal.animationstudies.org/maria-lorenzo-hernandez-the-double-sense-of-animated-images/, date accessed 9 July 2018, p. 40.

[16] Idem, p. 6.

[17] David Bordwell, ”Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film”, Film Quarterly 55:3 (Spring 2002), p. 16.

[18] David Bordwell, p. 24.

[19] Idem, p. 16.

[20] The case of abstract and experimental cinema, but also the premise on which Eisenstein’s intellectual montage was founded.

[21] George Butte, ”Suture and the Narration of Subjectivity in Film“, Poetics Today 29:2 (Summer 2008), p. 283.

[22] Lisa Purse, p. 18.

[23] Noël Carroll and William P. Seeley, ”Cognitivism, Psychology, and Neuroscience: Movies as Attentional Engines”, in Psychocinematics: Exploring Cognition at the Movies, ed. Arthur P. Shimamura (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press) (2013), p. 62.

[24] André Gaudreault and Philippe Marion, p. 161.

[25] Idem, p. 162.

[26] Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hagener, Film Theory: An Introduction through the Senses, (New York and London: Routledge) (2015), p. 124.

[27] André Gaudreault and Philippe Marion, p. 69.

[28] Idem, p. 165.

[29] Idem, p. 175.

[30] Antony Bryant and Griselda Pollock, “Editors’ Introduction”, in Digital and Other Virtualities: Renegotiating the Image, ed. Antony Bryant and Griselda Pollock, (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010), p. 8.

[31] Sergei Eisenstein, “The Filmic Fourth Dimension” (1929), in Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, ed. and transl. Jay Leyda (New York and London: Harcourt) (1949), p. 64.

[32] Idem, p. 43.

[33] Idem, p. 195.

[34] Marcelo Bertalmío, Image Processing for Cinema, (Boca Raton, London and New York: CRC Press) (2014), p. 103.

[35] Idem, p. 108.

[36] Daniel Dayan, p. 29.

Prosthetic Memory and the New Civil Rights Cinema of the 21st Century

Patrycja Włodek

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp. 78-88.

 

 

Patrycja Włodek

Pedagogical University of Cracow

 

 

Prosthetic Memory and the New Civil Rights Cinema of the 21st Century

 

Abstract

Memory studies are one of the most dynamically developing areas of the humanities. Although most scholars are focused on various forms of collective memories, some differ from this general trend. Alison Landsberg’s theory of prosthetic memory is one such different approach. This new form of ‘public memory’ makes it possible for individuals to be affected by events that they did not themselves experience. It works through various forms of media, such as films or experiential museums. Although Landsberg’s theory is at times not exactly precise and leaves room for doubt, ‘prosthetic memory’ can be applied to the interpretation of various contemporary movie trends, such as the new civil rights cinema of the 21st century, and can also help to redefine some of most basic cinematic devices.

 

Keywords: prosthesis, prosthetic memory, memory, retro, nostalgia, cinema, new civil rights cinema

 

 

Memory and its relation to media has recently become not only one of the most discussed topics in the realm of pop culture, but also one of the most influential. Thanks to postmodernism, ‘nostalgia film’, retro styles and other rose-tinted modes of depicting history, cinema in the second half of the twentieth century has turned not toward the future, but the past. However, unlike traditional costume dramas (which of course are still being made), new ways of depicting the past concentrate on issues such as retrospective shaping of historical narratives and the very function of memory. These subjects, which have also become the main topics of the dynamically-developing field of memory studies, divide scholars. Some see these throwbacks to the past either as a danger, or in the best-case scenario, as a sign of the end of creativity. Simon Reynolds complains about the lack of the “next big thing”

 

[1] in music caused by retromania, and Fredric Jameson and Jean Baudrillard[2] believe that looking at the past is a victory of image over reality. Zygmunt Bauman, in his last book Retrotopia, describes the fear of both the present and the future as a reason for searching for utopias in the past, which is perceived as safer and more harmonious than anything that lays ahead of us[3]. Authors such as the ones mentioned above most often see the past as an object of manipulation, as well as a tool for further manipulation. For them, looking back to the past remains a sign of real things forever lost, and can’t be of any value.

It can be assumed that such pessimistic views were based on the part of pop culture that idealizes the past and depicts it as a pastoral realm of conservative values, in order to “attempt a trans-historical reconstruction of the lost home”[4], and maintain the status quo of “the simpler times” – both politically and artistically. It is no accident that Jameson based his definition of ‘nostalgia film’ on movies such as American Graffiti (1973, George Lucas) and Star Wars (1977, George Lucas), historical and pop cultural throwbacks to the 1950s of the chaste, idealized Eisenhower era. Reynolds, too, said as much in regards to the music of that time. In fact, the Fifties and ‘the Good Sixties’ (before John F. Kennedy was assassinated) were convenient tools of the Reaganite political rhetoric of the 1980s. They were also noticeable in movies “evoking the past through the deployment of a limited iconography that erases contradictions in the past in favour of a coherency of style”[5], and used to support slogans such as ‘America’s back’ or ‘Let’s make America great again’. As such, it’s understandable that filmmakers, looking at the cosy images of bucolic suburbs introduced in American Graffiti and its innumerable imitations, and at other images of the fake past hiding any hints of social and political conflicts and not posing any challenge to the status quo, saw them as yet another tool for manipulating audiences into ideological submission.

Even though the conservative image of the past can still be found in American movies today, perception of the retro style as something amounting to nostalgic idealization became rare, not only among scholars, but also in films themselves. The subversive and progressive potential of revising and redefining the past is discussed by such authors as Marc Ferro, who proposed reflecting on counter-discourses[6] that present a counter-history, and Kaja Silverman, who “finds political potential in retro fashion”, stating that it “avoids the pitfalls of a naïve referentiality, by putting quotation marks around the garments it revitalizes”[7]. According to Silverman, as well as Elizabeth Guffey[8] and others, history can be depicted in pop culture not only nostalgically, but also nonchalantly, ironically and/or critically, and can therefore become a tool not for sustaining, but challenging the status quo. It could, at the very least, diversify peoples’ notions of events that occurred in the recent past.

How can moviemakers achieve such goals? Of course, strategies differ depending on the genre, but certain strategies seem to have gained popularity with filmmakers as well as audiences. Among them, we can find the critical depiction of history, reversing traditional historic narratives (e.g. in American revisionist westerns), or the autothematic use of classical formulas and the filling-in of the gaps left in those narratives. For example, by introducing black American or homosexual characters to genres reserved in the mid-century for white and heterosexual characters only (as Todd Haynes does in his melodrama Far from Heaven, his 2002 take on the Eisenhower era). These strategies mostly reference shared images of the past – its mythologisation and demythologization in collective forms of memory that can be influenced by politics, media, current historical narratives, etc. Since it is almost impossible to examine exactly how movies influence our memory as individuals, media and film scholars rarely focus on individual memory, instead shifting their attention to strategies for shaping and governing collective memory built on symbols and icons, reproduced by and through other movies.

However, concepts that are predominantly focused on the perception of the past by individuals (due to media coverage), also seem to prove just how difficult it is to explore such relations more than intuitively. This is why Alison Landsberg’s theory of prosthetic memory is both unusual and difficult. It is challenging, because it focuses exclusively on the individual spectator and their reaction to cinema, something that is not popular among media and memory scholars. It is difficult because to some extent it proves that those avoiding the topic of individual media relation seem to be right.

Prosthetic memory is “…a new form of public cultural memory […] that emerges at the interface between a person and a historical narrative about the past, at an experiential site such as a movie theatre or museum”[9], and makes it possible for individuals to be affected, by way of empathy, by events that they did not themselves experience. The notion of media affecting people on their innermost private level is, of course, not new. However, it has most often been regarded negatively. For example, representatives of the Frankfurt school and  ideological criticism perceive media as tools for manipulating audiences seen as passive and mindless. On the other hand, some positive takes can be found within the reflection on queer cinema. According to Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin, film might be considered queer not only if its characters are homosexual, but also when, in the very “psychological processes of looking at and identifying with characters”[10], someone finds empathy for an experience that’s very much outside their own (not necessarily only in terms of sexuality). Therefore, Hollywood cinema, in which viewers are traditionally encouraged to identify with the central characters through plot, narration and visual devices, can be used to “experience the world through other people’s eyes”[11] – not only those of the white, heterosexual men that still dominate screens, but also of women, members of ethnic and racial minorities (BAME characters[12]), and gay men and women.

Of course, it is almost impossible to accurately examine or prove that kind of influence, but even random accounts of such reactions can legitimise the aforementioned definition of queer cinema. Alison Landsberg never mentions Benshoff and Griffin’s concept, but proposes something quite similar: “[one of] the greatest powers (and pleasures) of narrative cinema [is] to produce empathy and social responsibility as well as political alliances that transcend race, class, and gender”[13], as “…prosthetic memories do not erase differences or construct common origins”[14]. However, Landsberg adds something to this equation that complicates things even more – memory. The most important question she asks is, “…to what extent do modern technologies of mass culture, such as film, with their ability to transport individuals through time and space, function as technologies of memory?”[15]

Prosthetic memory is enabled by media and allows viewers to experience something they have not themselves lived through, and that doesn’t even have to be ‘part of’ the group they identify with (for example, their gender, race, ethnicity or race). On the one hand, these kinds of memories don’t belong to any particular group. This makes prosthetic memory different from any kind of collective or cultural memory. On the other hand, these memories have the power to influence individuals, and shape or even change their point of view or life experience. They are mediated – acquired through media by watching movies or going to experiential museums, etc. At the same time, it is the bodily experience that provides the “conduit for prosthetic memory”[16]. In fact, while explaining the idea of prosthetic memories, Landsberg uses examples from science fiction cinema, including Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott), Total Recall (1990, Paul Verhoeven) and Strange Days (1990, Kathryn Bigelow). In these films, memory and identity can be literally transmitted through digital devices, implanted inside the body of a person who never lived them. Does that make them false, or their ‘owners’ less human? The filmmakers argue the opposite. In Blade Runner and its sequel, Blade Runner 2049 (2017, Denis Villeneuve), androids equipped with artificially-generated memories are more human than the humans themselves.

This idea is of course very tempting cinematically, and therefore pop culture constantly provides movies and TV shows based on it. Among the most recent examples are the long-running serial Black Mirror (Channel 4, 2011-2014; Netflix, 2014–), and Altered Carbon (Netflix, 2018), both of which toy with the idea of identity and self being transferred into or through a device no bigger than a pen drive. In relation to actual viewers – the real audience watching movies – it is of course much more complicated and intuitive, partly because of difficulties with how to understand the word ‘memory’ in this context. In fact, Landsberg doesn’t even define it. On one hand, she uses the term as commonly understood, which suggests that prosthetic memories, while acquired through media, are almost literally attached or implanted within the mind/body of the individual viewer. On the other hand, memory sometimes means the same thing to her as knowledge or personal experience, expanded by gathering new information about the past.

The theory is most convincing when its author describes not how media enables people to acquire memories of events they haven’t lived through, but how media helps create new memories – of experiencing certain emotions, or gaining knowledge. For example, taking part in reconstructions of historical battles (controversial as they are), will not make anyone remember the actual events, but will create mediated memories of taking part in a reconstruction. Likewise, visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which is thoroughly described by Landsberg, will not bring anyone even remotely close to what actual Holocaust survivors went through, but will create in them memories of seeing an exhibition and submitting themselves to the historical narrative it provided. Therefore, such visits will widen one’s knowledge, and through the guide narration and exhibits, allow them to see the world through someone else’s eyes. As an example, the author describes “a boardwalk-like walkway. The ground under your feet is uneven. You are walking on cobblestones – cobblestones, you learn, which came from the Warsaw ghetto”[17]. The transferential space of the Memorial Museum that surrounds visitors with real artefacts puts them in the victims’ shoes (to some extent, literally). A similar space can be found in The Warsaw Uprising Museum, where visitors can ‘experience’ some of the discomfort of the insurgents hiding in the sewers and so on. In that way, prosthetic memories could “derive from engaged and experientially oriented encounters with technologies of memory”[18].

Of course, cinema can also serve this purpose, and the idea of memory as prosthesis becomes less abstract and more easily grasped when applied to actual films and formulas. Not necessarily through the science-fiction genre, but those with the ambition to recreate the forgotten experiences of discriminated groups can give a boost to empathy and raise awareness – both public and individual – of counter-narratives and counter-memories. Landsberg herself uses the cinematic example of Rosewood (1997, John Singleton), the true story of a lynch mob that attacked African Americans in 1923 in Rosewood, Florida. Recent American cinema provides even more, non-singular examples, many of which can be found in the trend known as the ‘new civil rights cinema’ of the 2000s. The Help (2011, Tate Taylor), The Butler (2013, Lee Daniels), Selma (2014, Ava DuVernay), and others are all examples of films that deliberately aim to provide audiences with prosthetic memories in a less literal sense than described by Landsberg.

New civil rights cinema can be defined as a group of African-American-centric films that “emerge as a counterpoint to earlier Hollywood offerings that focused largely on whites”, and make “an effort to reframe the civil rights movement”[19] of the 1960s, vilified by conservative administrations as ‘the bad Sixties’. Moviemakers locate their African-American heroes in the midst of social upheavals, as in Selma, or in hostile and discriminatory communities, as in The Help. Instead of alleviating or undermining social ruptures, as nostalgia films would in order to create a vision of “…history without guilt […] that suffuses us with pride rather than with shame”[20], new civil rights cinema emphasises social injustices, racial prejudice and the urgent need for progressive movements. At the same time, it operates within the area of memory and the historical narratives shaping it.

It is fair to assume that the new civil rights cinema is targeted at a general audience, against racial divisions. Yet, in regard to both black and white viewers, it has slightly different aims and uses different strategies, as described by Landsberg. She firmly emphasises that prosthetic memory unites people by showing differences, and creates alliances “…by encouraging people to feel connected to, while recognizing the alterity of, the ‘other’”[21]. At the same time she admits that prosthetic memories can also lead to homogenous identity, as in the case of the immigrants from Eastern Europe that she examines. Newcomers, in order to become Americans, had to shake off their former identities and acquire a new, American one.

However, unification by way of prosthetic memory can also work the other way around – by reminding people of a group identity (and by extension, individual identity), and its historical role. For example, African-American actors in Hollywood traditionally played supporting or episodic roles, and were therefore excluded from the narrative. Moreover, even in movies centred on racism and civil rights violations, such as Mississippi Burning (1988, Alan Parker) and A Time to Kill (1996, Joel Schumacher), it was white characters who held the active, prominent positions within the narrative. The black characters were portrayed as too scared or weak to act, waiting to be saved. New civil rights cinema, especially Hidden Figures (2017, Theodore Melfi), Selma and The Butler, brings African Americans back to the centre of events, highlighting their agency and role in the civil rights movement (The Butler) and other prominent activities (such as the vital role played by black female scientists in the Mercury space programme, in Hidden Figures[22]). Here, it is white characters who appear as background figures. Therefore, memory is being radically shifted, and prosthetic memories ‘implanted’ in those who, for example, were too young to remember the Selma to Montgomery marches (Selma), enabling reinforcement of a group identity.

At the same time, such movies are supposed to attract white audiences as well. Just as in the case of Toni Morrison’s novels, “…while the black characters […] acquire memories that might be considered their cultural inheritance, she intends white readers to take on those memories, too”[23] by enabling empathy and ethical thinking. That means “thinking beyond the immediacy of one’s own wants and desires”[24]. How can that be achieved in a feature film? The afore-mentioned movies, The Help, The Butler and Hidden Figures, are interesting examples. On the one hand, they use careful, self-reflexive stylization and – sometimes – documentary footage connected thematically to the civil rights movement. On the other, in terms of narrative they are made in a rather conventional way. The Butler is especially characteristic of the biopic formula. However, this last feature in particular allows redefinition of ostensibly basic narrative devices in terms of prosthetic memory.

Filmmakers have in their repertoire a number of tricks that can help them to either manipulate viewers, or enable them to perceive events from their leading characters’ perspectives, and sympathize with them. Such devices lie at the very heart of classical cinema, aimed at immersion and emotional involvement. Yet, the new civil rights cinema requires from its audience something more than just the regular engagement typical of any other screening, as it “uses cinematic identification to create the conditions under which audience members can acquire prosthetic memories”[25]. That is why The Help and The Butler both employ first-person narration. This is especially emphasised in The Help, the story of black maids serving a wealthy, middle-class white woman in the suburbs of Jacksonville, Mississippi in 1963. In the first two minutes of the film it is established beyond any doubt that the black woman’s perspective will be the privileged one. In the very first scene we see a sheet of paper which will be filled with the main character, Aibileen’s (Viola Davis), words. A few seconds later Aibileen/Davis looks straight into the camera and starts talking about her experiences as a black maid. This breaking of the fourth wall is a clear violation of classic cinema’s rules, but here it’s not supposed to create distance between the character and the audience. On the contrary, she speaks directly to us, reaching outside the frame of the screen, so that we can put ourselves in her rather unfamiliar situation and ask ourselves the questions she has to answer. For example, how would we feel raising a stranger’s children, while our own are looked after by someone else?

Of course, it is no coincidence that The Help brings up such an emotional, personal issue, since it is one of the easiest ways known in cinema to manipulate someone into empathy. Still, it’s not quite enough, because a few seconds after Aibileen breaks the fourth wall, we begin to hear her in voice-over. It is she who will tell us the entire story – from her own perspective. Therefore, black audiences get a chance to identify with a representative of their own race and heritage (Aibileen’s grandmother was a house slave), while white viewers for the most part of the movie leave the privileged and familiar area of their own perspective. Interestingly, just as in Rosewood, which has been analysed by Landsberg, The Help makes even more effort, by putting a direct representative of white audiences inside the story (while strongly establishing a black woman’s point of view and emphasising the importance of her finally-heard voice). Within the story, it is a white girl from the suburban middle class, Skeeter (Emma Stone), who listens to Aibileen and the other maids describing their awful fate. She writes their stories down and has to reach beyond her own exclusively white experience, in order to guide audiences to do the same – to inhabit memories of discrimination and a new model of slavery that defined racial relations in the Eisenhower- and Kennedy-era South[26].

The Butler also privileges a black servant, Cecil (Forest Whitaker), working for decades in the White House, who like Aibileen narrates events in first-person. He witnesses successive presidents and their decisions on racial injustice, such as the desegregation of Little Rock High School in 1957. Crucially, while it’s powerful white men actually making the choices and signing the documents, Cecil’s perspective shows that in fact all of the changes began with black communities demanding their rights – such as the Freedom Riders, and those who marched on Washington with Martin Luther King. Again, while providing African-American audiences with their inheritance and collective memory, The Butler encourages white audiences to acquire prosthetic memories of that struggle, by using both a personal perspective and a sentimental plot centred around Cecil’s conflict with his son.

While Hidden Figures and Selma never introduce a first-person narrator, they also encourage the audience to see through the black characters’ eyes. Their directors use point-of-view shots, or limit the viewers’ range of knowledge by making them privy only to the knowledge the characters would have (three characters, in the case of Hidden Figures), and hence, their perspective. This encourages “mental identification”[27], the very condition that prosthetic memory needs to even occur. In Hidden Figures especially, we enter and leave the scene when characters do, and experience what they experience, even if there is no voice-over to explain exactly how they feel. Even the rather omniscient narration in Selma puts the black characters front and centre, especially Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo).

In this way, while not acquiring actual memories of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, the audience can experience some of the characters’ emotions, understand their situation and gain some knowledge about the past, and the kind of real memories someone in their position might have had. As Landsberg says, putting oneself in someone else’s situation “might be instrumental in enabling a white person to experience empathy for African Americans”[28]. She uses another prominent example: the 1970s TV adaptation of Alex Haley’s novel Roots, which tells the story of Kunte Kinte (John Amos), a slave kidnapped from Africa in the 18th century. Roots was a ground-breaking show, as it was one of the first depictions of the realities of (the often mythologised) slavery in American pop culture. “What was new about Roots was its attempt to use the mass media to create images of slavery and, even more important, to portray a sympathetic black character with whom a white audience might identify. By granting Kunte Kinte point-of-view shots, the miniseries enabled white viewers to see through a black man’s eyes”[29].

However, the way in which Landsberg describes the influence of Roots on white audiences – and the idea of prosthetic memory – might be seen as problematic, especially from the contemporary point of view. She states that “Kunte Kinte became more than a role model. He became, in effect, a body that could be worn”[30]. In light of these words, it has to be remembered that the inhabiting of black identities is very often seen as an offensive act of cultural appropriation, especially when the “body could be worn” literally, for example as a Halloween costume. It is fair to assume, then, that due to Roots’ immense popularity dressing up as Kunte Kinte was not unusual. Given the intimate nature of memories and trauma, even within communities, prosthetic memory could be seen as a device for progress and empathy, as well as for the appropriation of elements of a minority culture by members of dominant groups.

This kind of situation is put at the centre of the conflict in Dear White People[31], in which events are catalysed by a university fraternity encouraging Halloween party guests to dress up as famous black people (media celebrities)[32]. This, of course, causes outrage among the black students and poses the wider question of the thin line between acquiring prosthetic memories through media, and the unwelcome appropriation of unique and often traumatic experiences (or memories) that belong to a different group. The question remains: who is to say that those memories (for example, of slavery and racial discrimination) “do not ‘naturally’ belong to anyone”[33]?

Of course it would be unfair to say that cultural appropriation is actually what Landsberg has in mind. She states more than once that the idea of prosthetic memories is a utopian one, aimed at the noble task of creating empathy and putting oneself in someone else’s shoes, in order to shape one’s subjectivity and political views. The actual intention of engaging audiences in current events and influencing the future by “enabling people to feel just such an engaged and experiential relationship to the past”[34] through prosthetic memories, can be found in many contemporary feature films and documentaries, on the big screen and television, all of which emphasise the immediate connection between past events and the realities of today. For example, I Am Not Your Negro (2016, Raoul Peck) affiliates the civil rights struggle of the 1960s with today’s Black Lives Matter movement, while also undermining ‘white’ prosthetic memories (for example, classical westerns depicting ‘how the West was won’), as reproducing racial stereotypes. In 13th (2016), Ava DuVernay shows how criminalization of black males and the image of the “Black Buck” (an aggressive black male), is derived from slavery and Jim Crow rights. Further, O. J. – Made in America (2016, Ezra Edelman) explains how the memory of racial injustices can deform the course of law.

These movies can force audiences to look beyond racial divisions (like those created by O. J. Simpson’s infamous case), and deal with painful memories in order to “prosthetically” acquire an unfamiliar point of view. That, hopefully, “…can make people feel themselves a part of larger histories, of narratives that go beyond the confines of the nuclear family and that transcend the heretofore insurmountable barriers of race and ethnicity”[35].

 

References

Baudrillard Jean, Simulations, (New York: Semiotext(e)) (1983).

Bauman Zygmunt, Retrotopia, (Cambridge: Polity Press) (2017).

Bordwell David, Narration in the Fiction Film, (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press) (1985).

Benshoff M. Harry, Griffin Sean, Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America, (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield) (2006).

Boym Svetlana, The Future of Nostalgia, (New York: Basic Books) (2001).

Drake Philip, “’Mortgaged to Music’: New Retro Movies in 1990s Hollywood Cinema”, in: Paul Grainge (ed.), Memory and Popular Film, (Manchester: Manchester University Press) (2003).

Gruner Oliver, Screening the Sixties. Hollywood Cinema and the Politics of Memory, (London: Palgrave Macmillan) (2016).

Guffey Elizabeth, Retro. The Culture of Revival, (London: Reaktion Books) (2006).

Jameson Fredric, Postmodernism: or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (Durham: Duke University Press) (1991).

Landsberg Alison, Prosthetic Memory. The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture, (New York: Columbia University Press) (2004).

McGee Patrick, Bad History and the Logics of Blockbuster Cinema, (New York: Pallgrave MacMillan) (2012).

Reynolds Simon, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, (New York: Faber and Faber) (2011).

Silverman Kaja, “Fragments of a Fashionable Discourse”’, in: Tania Modleski (ed.), Studies in Entertainment (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (1986).

 

Notes

[1]Simon Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, (New York: Faber and Faber) (2011), electronic edition.

[2]Jameson, Fredric, Postmodernism: or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (Durham: Duke University Press) (1991); Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, (New York: Semiotext(e)) (1983).

[3]Zygmunt Bauman, Retrotopia, (Cambridge: Polity Press) (2017).

[4]Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, (New York: Basic Books) (2001), electronic edition.

[5] Philip Drake, “’Mortgaged to Music’: New Retro Movies in 1990s Hollywood Cinema”, in: Paul Grainge (ed.), Memory and Popular Film, (Manchester: Manchester University Press) (2003), p. 191.

[6]Patrick McGee, Bad History and the Logics of Blockbuster Cinema, (New York: Pallgrave MacMillan) (2012), p. 16.

[7]Kaja Silverman, “Fragments of a Fashionable Discourse”’, in: Tania Modleski (ed.), Studies in Entertainment (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (1986), p. 150.

[8]Elizabeth Guffey, Retro. The Culture of Revival, (London: Reaktion Books) (2006), p. 11.

[9]Alison Landsberg, Prosthetic Memory. The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture, (New York: Columbia University Press) (2004), p. 2

[10]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 11.

[11]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 11.

[12]BAME – Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic.

[13]Harry M. Benshoff, Sean Griffin, Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America, (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield) (2006), p. 11.

[14]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 9.

[15]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 21.

[16]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 28.

[17]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 132.

[18]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 143.

[19]Oliver Gruner, Screening the Sixties. Hollywood Cinema and the Politics of Memory, (London: Palgrave Macmillan) (2016), p. 226, 127.

[20]Svetlana Boym (2001).

[21]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 9.

[22] In Hidden Figures social progress and the fight against racial discrimination are equated with space conquests and progress in science.

[23]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 100.

[24]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 149.

[25]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 109.

[26] However, The Help lacks narrative consequence – in many scenes filmmakers focus on Skeeter’s (and some other white characters’) point of view. Also, eventually it is she who writes down black servants’ memories and experiences and publishes them as her book. Therefore narrative intentions from the opening scene are not fully carried trough.

[27]David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film, (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press) (1985), p. 67.

[28]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 109.

[29]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 102

[30]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 103.

[31] Both movie (2014, Justin Simien) and TV series (Netflix, 2017–).

[32] The same situation occurs in On My Block (Netflix, 2018), in which kids from a rich neighbourhood dress up as cholos (Mexican gangsters).

[33]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 19.

[34]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 143.

[35]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 152.

Tactile epistemology: sensoria and the postcolonial

Marta Stańczyk

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp. 89-99.

 

Marta Stańczyk

Jagiellonian University

 

 

Tactile epistemology: sensoria and the postcolonial

 

Abstract

In this article the author focuses on the so called “tactile epistemology” in postolonial studies – different cognitive and representational modes that enable create subversive narrations negotiating new relations between centre and margins. Affective, multisensory, synaesthetic body is an archive of power relations, an experience of colonization and – most of all – a discoursive transgression, reversing ideology based on the Western eye. The main goal of this article is to present three most influential theoretical stances connecting sensoria with the Other. The concepts of Laura U. Marks, Milena Marinkova, and Sara Ahmed are illustrated with the examples form Claire Denis’ and Urszula Antoniak’s oeuvre.

 

Keywords: tactile epistemology, senses, embodiment, Laura U. Marks, Sara Ahmed, Milena Marinkova

 

 

 

The distance from this sentence to your eye is my sculpture.

(Ken Friedman, Fluxus score, 1971)

 

 

Will Higbee coined the term “cinema of transvergence” in order to enable film scholars to “better appreciate how postcolonial and diasporic cinemas engage, function and produce meaning within and across national and transnational positionings.”[1] Through this notion he tries to ephasize the possible inversion between centre and margin, the dynamics of differences, and the negotiation of meanings and power relations. Furthermore, the concept alters cinematic experience by changing the form of storytelling. Its focus on minorities renarrates traditional relations in movies and its deconstruction of the cinematic form constitutes the apology of différance. One of the most important methods of deploying it is, as Laura U. Marks calls it, a tactile epistemology.[2]

Affective and sensuous incentives improve subversive narrations in postcolonial prism. Body language helps in coping with dominant discourses and in expressing the experience of the other – the experience of physical and mental colonization. Marks introduced term “haptic visuality”, which highlights the meaning of defiance and a fact that receiving input is influenced by the experience of migration, exile, dispersion, eradication, etc. Such scholars as Marks, Milena Marinkova or Sara Ahmed, in their critique of the Western discourse of the other, confide in a multisensory experience and memory of senses. They link this discourse to ocularcentrism and – taking Foucauldian approach to depict mastering and objectification of others – reject gaze as a form of wielding power. We can find a cinematic depiction of this formula in Black Venus’ (2010, Abdellatif Kechiche) opening scene where the body of an enslaved heroine is being objectified by scientifical (and, therefore, disciplinary) discourse. Another cinematic example is Yes (2004, Sally Potter) – a love affair between Irish-American biologist and Lebanese chef (medic doctor before imigration) is conflicted by stereotypical views and cultural prejudices. Their bodies „remember” uneven relations between centre and margin.

For this reason scholars like Marks and Marinkowa focus on the body. The issue of embodiment is not only an individual matter, but also a map of cultural differences and power relations. Moreover, a multisenory perspective enables disrupting dominant discourses and creates a new language entangled in the postcolonial discourse. As Marinkova writes, “the tangible (in reality and in representation) becomes an uneasy witness to the impossibility of narrating incommensurable languages and experiences.”[3] Tactile epistemology provides an alternative; it supports subversion.

 

Laura U. Marks: the skin of the other

 

In The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses Laura U. Marks writes about a “turn to the nonvisual senses [which] has been in part a response to the perceived imperialism of vision, the alignment of visual information with knowledge and control.”[4] American researcher finds a negotiating potential in haptic visuality – an embodied experience can be a very useful term for describing movies and their reception in the context of dispersion: “Haptic visuality implies making oneself vulnerable to the image, reversing the relation of mastery that characterizes optical viewing.”[5] Marks reckons that this type of visuality is connected with discrediting viewing habits, enabling different level of involvement, suggesting the shift of meaning, and even giving the impression of seeing someting for the first time. This perceptive renewal is not only a matter of aesthetics, but also ethics. The body might be a foundation for the redefinition of representational system. Based-on-body encounter with the other rejects a negative tendency to annex margins which is typical for the Western ocularcentrism. It emphasizes the incompatibility of some languages and experiences rather than the illusion of the possible identification.

In Touch. Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media Marks writes about the hapticity as founded not on touch itself, but on body – viewers should stay on the image’s surface, contemplate it texture, shape, colour, etc. and feel affective resonance through them.[6] Intercultural cinema is shaped by cultural memory, fingerprints left not by the disgraced, ideological and orientalistic eye but an ambivalent sense of touch, which recalls aggresion and enables emancipation through different bodily discourses. Marks seems to agree with Jennifer Fisher who contradicts Elizabeth Grosz’s statement that touch has no memory: “touch implicates what is most clearly the performative present of æsthetic experience.”[7] It invokes memory so “[t]o describe the effects of such video [or, in general, cinematic – M.S.] works  requires paying attention to the viewer’s body, specifically what happens when the video image dissolves out toward the viewer and invites the viewer to invest all his or her senses in the act of seeing.”[8] Viewers open themselves for the experience of the other.

Haptic visuality and sensuous aesthetics create counter-memory in spite of the discourse of “empowered eye.” Marks writes about the Western type of visuality which objectifies others, and separates and masters external and internal words.[9] One cannot trust visual information and traditional techniques used in postcolonial statements as they are made of oppressive material. In a spirit of Edward Said: eyes are tools of imperialistic inclinations. Do not believe what you see – it is only an ideological discourse. It is possible to gain knowledge through physical contact,[10] but one should remember that visceral, haptic or tactile epistemology can be used arbitrally. And this is the case of Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005) where Powatan Native American tribe’s communication – or tactile epistemology – is depicted as simpler and harmonious but primitive, unsufficient and limited. John teaches Pocahontas how to speak – through knowledge he reaffirms his authority as male and “civlised” (an already ideologically and eurocentrically inflicted term).

This example shows possible limitations of haptic poetics but simultaneously it legitimizes this aesthetics by underlining the cultural and political dimension of the sensorium. Returning to Marks, “[u]ltimately phenomenology can account for how the body encodes power relations somatically. It can acknowledge that embodiment is a matter of individual lifemaps as well as cultural difference. These matters are important for understanding intercultural experience, where traumas and more ordinary histories become encoded in the body. When intercultural films and videos appeal to the different power relations involved in looking and in touching, they remind us that these power relations are built into cultural organizations of perception.”[11] Therefore tactile epistemology enables dialogue between an image and its viewer – through his or her body. Marks makes a list of possible aesthetic means – for example blurred, grained image and decaying film.[12] Phenomenological intentionality and activisation of the viewer though, is what interests her most in subversive potential of haptic visuality. Marks states that “[t]he ideal relationship between viewer and image in optical visuality tends to be one of mastery, in which the viewer isolates and comprehends the objects of vision. The ideal relationship between viewer and image in haptic visuality is one of mutuality, in which the viewer is more likely to lose herself in the image, to lose her sense of proportion.”[13] Tactility is constructed around dialogue – oscillation between identificaton and immersion, dialectical movement between surface and depth. Interaction supersedes cinematic illusion, while making place for alternative narrations or simply for the story of the other.

Claire Denis’ oeuvre helps embody theoretical approaches to sensoria and the postcolonial. The French director narrates postcolonial relations using mostly multisensory aesthetic. Films such as Chocolate (1988) show how an embodied vision develops engaged spectatorship. Denis is known for rejecting classical film conventions, using static and extended shots without many dialogues, being sensitive to the form of an image, and creating poetic, sensual atmosphere. These distinctive traits place her in the middle of haptic cinema’s concepts. The director focuses on her characters’ bodies and their relations with space. Her trade marks converge with her autobiography and political views too – raised in West Africa in few French colonies, Denis shows engagement in postcolonial issues which is perfectly depicted in her debut film.

Chocolate tells a story of a young woman, France, who comes back to Cameroon where she lived as a child. She reminisces her childhood and her family’s houseboy, named Protée. Names of these characters are significant as they unveil power relations in French colony. As a girl, France was fascinated with him who seemed to be very different from her family and other employers and simultaneously she was humiliating him transferring her elders’ condescension. Nonetheless, their proximity was starting to dissolve borders between center and margins embodied in these characters. This is a work in progress, searching – or building – an intimate relations which was not easy. There is also a counterexample – France’s mother feeling sexual tension towards Protée and, after being rejected (because of her master attitude mostly), forcing her husband to post the houseboy to outdoor duties.

In one of the sequences the father explaines France what the horizon line is: a line which does not exist in physical sense but is still recognized by everyone. It is not only a symbol of racial boundaries – the definition shows how the figure of the other operates as an embodied entity as long as the horizon line is something that is embed in space. The hapticity of Denis’ film can be shown in three short scenes. First one represents the mutual fascination and blures seemingly natural lines. Protée, France and her mother visit Nansen, a fanatical missionary – an artificial dialogue between the priest and the young woman is being intersected with strange rite de passage: Protée and France watching dead, bitten house animals when the houseboy puts a crow’s tarsus near girl’s hand and smears her arm with the bird’s blood. The director emphasises skin and touch in a close-up. Hapticity is hightened through cross-cutting with a theatrical scene (in long shot) in which, main representatives of colonial power are involved. An oscillation between optical and haptical visuality confers a texture to moving image. Viscerality of this sequence shows that real dialogue is not necessary lingual and colour of skin can be hidden. Although the second mentioned sequence presents an over-exposure of the skin of the other. In his free time Protée was trying to have a shower when he was peeped by France and her mother coming back from a stroll. This event causes a breakdown – Protée starts crying as he feels abused  and objectified by the (white) gaze. His subjectivity and embodiment are limited to the level of the skin and its colour causing internalization of being not-a-norm. There is no balance between embodiment and image in the imperial eye paradigm.

The last scene I chose to explain tactility of power relations in Chocolate is near the movie’s finale:Denis shows her deliberate use of tactile epistemology and haptic aesthetics in her films since she believes in skin as a medium of cultural memory and traumatic encounters. During the night France comes to visit Protée who is now assigned to backyard worshop. They are staring at each other silently while he grabbes a pipe and suggests her to do so too, ignoring the fact that it was hot and could burn their palms. After that he leaves and disappears in the dark. It is another example of cancelling borders between races, but also of leaving a trace; the memory makes Protée France’s eternal companion but associates it with pain. This connotation reappears in Denis’ cinema. She came back to West Africa with White Material (2009) in which the interference of bodily boundaries is shown as a ferocious, but essential attempt to break the power relations. Rape is inflicted on viewers affectively: “[w]hen vision is like touch, the object’s touch back may be like a caress, though it may also be violent, as Steven Shaviro argues – a violence not toward the image but toward the viewer.”[14] Viewers are touched and forced to ethically driven reception, in spite of a pleasurable identification.

 

Milena Marinkova: micropolitical filming

 

Marks’ theses are very influential and not only among film studies scholars. Amongst her followers, Milena Marinkova, who is known rather for her research on the ground of Canadian literature, uses the term „haptic visuality” to describe postcolonial entanglement and transnational issues in her book Michael Ondaatje: Haptic Aesthetics and Micropolitical Writing she used “haptic visuality” to desribe postcolonial entanglement and transnational issues. She argues – after Marks and Merleau-Ponty – that touch cannot be reduced to skin, but it is rather connected with embodiment. We should not locate it in one organ; it is dispersed, permeable and not isolated from the rest of sensorium. So “embodied haptic acts of proximity” transverse “the personal by social and political structures,”[15] and blur boundaries between art and reality, representation and body. Furthermore the body, being under the influence of dominant regimes, can provide a ground for redefinition of these regimes with their discourses. Marinkova notices that the embodiment of Western gaze dislocates the main direction of perception process – viewers get their attention directed to their viewing practices. For Canadian scholar, it is a matter of style: multisensory, fluid and open to non-normative connections. “Such an aesthetic forges an intimately embodied and ethically responsible relationship among audience, author, and text”[16] and it has an empowering micropolitical potential. Haptic aesthetics and embodiment are individual and collective issues, subjective and social simultaneously. Personal is political. Bodies are political. Haptic cinema can rejoice “in the exploration of the intimate space of the bodily and the microsocial space of the interpersonal.”[17]

Marinkova reconsiders an identification referring to Dominick LaCapra’s concept:

He has argued that art should invite „empathic unsettlement” by relying on the reader’s/viewer’s affective response to another but also recognizing the differences between them. This formulation is premised on the intersubjective power of affect to move and be moved, and thus transcend the boundaries of the self and encounter difference. The encounter, however, is not followed by a return to sameness through crude identification — recognizing oneself in the other and thus sympathize with them — but by the ethical recognition of the opacity and unassimilability of alterity.[18]

Canadian scholar puts an emphasis on rejecting identification as a psychological relationship with characters. Being founded on gaze, it is not neutral, and the impression of being natural is strictly ideological. Eye, contemplation, perception – those are tools of knowledge which can be a form of aggression and wielding power. Gaze colonizes others and produces subalterns; its mechanisms and intents are obscured by film grammar. Therefore, cinema requires a new language. Marinkova thinks that there is a solution from cultural usurpation of the other – the ocularcentrism and its mastering inclinations can be relinquished. “Instead of supplementing the already available knowledge, however, the tangible (in reality and in representation) becomes an uneasy witness to the impossibility of narrating incommensurable languages and experiences, and an unsettling trace of proximity that disrupts dominant discourses.”[19]

The power–knowledge dynamics can be exposed by a subversive alternation from gaze to skin, from center to margin and from imperial discourse to “Philomela’s tapestry” – new ways of expressing stories of misery and experienced cruelty. Nude Area (2014, Urszula Antoniak) can be a cinematic example of these thesis. The film starts with a quotation from Roland Barthes’ Fragments d’un discours amoureux, yet the main topic is not love but rather seduction understood as a war. The main tool in this battle is the eye – it tracks, peeps, scans, leers, ogles, scrutinizes; it imposes conditions and demands mutuality. Moreover, gaze can be accepted or rejected by the body. Seducing is violent – people try to enforce their will upon each other. In Antoniak’s film the impression of fighting for dominant position is emphasized by different cultural and ethnic background of two lovers: European, rich, liberal Naomi and Arabic, working class, conservative Fama. Naomi provokes other girl, seduces her and gets control over her using both her gaze and language. Fama is more humble, submissive – she surrenders and protects only one intimate part: her hair.

The first sequence, in which we can see  body parts washed over under the shower, is a key to the aesthetics of the film. The skin is shown in close-ups, revealed in its very tactility, and the entire scene is suggestive, erotic and sensual. Next ones are, on the contrary, very static. First we see Fama’s face in a portrait-like close-up. It appears three times anticipating three movie parts. Next we can see Naomi in a tram or rather her reflection – she is an observer, maybe even a predator. She initiates their meeting and subordinates Fama initially. In the restaurant, where Muslim girl works as a waitress, Naomi humiliates her only to prepare a spectacle of apology later. After, she dresses up like her lover, putting a wig on her head even. Naomi is avid, voracious and simply fascinated by Fama’s sensual beauty and ethnically-founded mysteriousness. During her first visit in her lover’s room Naomi touches and smells everything. The scene resembles an act of appropriation in which girl’s gaze was only a prelude to total enthrallment. Fama surrenders and open up for Naomi’s sensuous insatiability, letting her touch and smell also her hair, a tactile proof of being the other. At some point roles are changing – Fama distances herself from Naomi. She gives her a handful of hair she cut in the process of emancipation from a colonizer. The other learns how to gain empowerment – through the reversal of gaze and the exploitation of touch.

As Nude Area shows, touch and hapticity can be very ambivalent, and Marinkova evokes skeptical voices in her monography. Claude Gandelman “points at the (ab)use of hapticity in ideological discourse”[20] – marxist critics reproach haptic paradigm as an aesthetisation of political discourse. Ernst Gombrich alerts to embracing hapticity “for compromised historicist discourses”[21] and Constantina Papoulias and Felicity Callard completely reject an emancipating potential of the affect. David Howes notices that affects, tactility and multisensory apparatus advocate the “sensual” logic of the late capitalism.[22] But it is Sara Ahmed who actually presents more balanced but still very productive theses.

 

Sara Ahmed: (e)strange(d) encounters

 

One of scholars Marinkova mentions as example of having a skeptical attitude to haptic cinema is Sara Ahmed. The author of Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality focuses on a subaltern treated as a stranger by many techniques of differentiation. Her book introduces an interesting approach to the other – being a stranger is not an ontological issue, but epistemological one. It is a matter of recognizing others and oneself in an environmental network. Ahmed – not especially interested in art works – creates a critical standpoint for “sensual postcolonialism.”

Ahmed writes that “there are some-bodies who simply are strangers, and who pose danger in their very co-presence in a given street,”[23] but she also points out at an opposing worldview, where we can find the illusion of an ultimate appropriation. Both stances develop “the fetishism of figures”[24] in which case a stranger becomes an abstraction deprived of political meaning and the particularity of an embodiment. He or she is needed only to finalize the process of an individuation. “The journey towards the stranger becomes a form of self-discovery, in which the stranger functions yet again to establish and define the ‘I’.”[25] This is not only the case of  “eye-to-eye” meetings, but also, “skin-to-skin” encounters. This “meeting is not between two subjects who are equal and in harmony; the meeting is antagonistic.”[26] Ahmed refers in the same way to colonialists’ discourse: it is “not only the territorial domination of one culture by another, but also forms of discursive appropriation: other cultures become appropriated into the imaginary globality of the colonizing nation.”[27] And thus the status of proximity – and tactility – appears ambivalent being entangled in “regimes of difference,”[28] and we should remember that “the strange encounter is played out on the body, and is played out with the emotions.”[29] To sum up, affective and sensuous apparatus may not always be a perfect method(ology), but it is essential for giving back the other his or her voice and body.

Ahmed emphasizes that viewer or reader has a “close” bond with the body of text which “demands a more responsible reading, a reading which admits to its limits, its partiality and its fragility.”[30] The impression of “being touched” reinforces not only aesthetic reactions, but also ethical ones. There is a shift of meanings and boundaries, bodily and subjective borders. As Elisabeth Grosz mentions, “It is in no sense a natural body, for it is as culturally, racially, sexually, possibly even as class distinctive, as it would be clothed”[31] – and although Ahmed writes about it as an example of a theory avoiding analysis, she agrees with the necessity of approaching bodies in their culturally inflicted matter, not only representations. It is not the surface, but the very “effect of the surface”[32] which interests her most. Skin can be a visual mark of difference and “a moment of undecidability”[33] – a gate or leakage, where the subject risks its interiority and its integrity. This thesis echoes Laura U. Marks’ statement about hapticity as a form of dissolving oneself in a contact with image. The difference is placed between antagonism and eroticism which, according to Marks, drives haptical and optical visuality, whereas for Ahmed it is all about conflict. Adding affects to haptic theories, she treats skin as a canvas “where the intensity of emotions such as shame are registered (…) the skin registers how bodies are touched by others.”[34] Touch, a “fleshy metonymym,”[35] expresses a tension between particular bodies and social space.

Although the main phenomenological reference for multisensory and haptic theories is Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Ahmed’s book correlates with Bernhard Waldenfels’ Phenomenology of the Alien.[36] German philosopher reconsiders alien-experience as a phenomenon that permeates our everyday experiences with immediate implications for the social, political, and ethical life. He draws boundaries between human beings in process of perception, bending xenological phenomenology with material one. We tend to identify ourselves through a separation from milieu – other things, people, places, etc. Our own boundaries are tantamount to the boundaries of the alien, so our relations with the other are a relation of proximity, embodied and haptic. Sara Ahmed’s writes that “to withdraw from a relation of physical proximity to bodies recognised as strange is precisely to be touched by those bodies, in such a way that the subject is moved from its place. In this sense, the stranger is always in proximity: a body that is out of place because it has come too close.”[37] The mechanism is a foundation for such semi-sociological, semi-cinematic structures as exclusion through inclusion. The concept was coined by Giorgio Agamben but Thomas Elsaesser implemented it in film studies describing one scene in Hidden (2005, Michael Haneke).[38] During dinner in Laurents’ house there is a black woman who is physically present but poignantly erased from the rest of company by her total silence. Her presence is ephasized by her skin colour as long as the film’s main topic deals with racial and postcolonial issues, and that is why she is exposed and marginalized at the same time. Her alienation is embodied and sensed by the viewers.

For Ahmed and other above mentioned scholars, thinking of skin as always exposed and touchable is paradigmatic – as in the example of Protée, Fama or Saartje. Sensuous, tactile aesthetics emphasizes the oppression of the eye as an organ of domination. Their bodies are colonized but they can find their subjectivity in the embodiment. It can have a therapeutic meaning for the previous “other,” shifts his or her cultural position, neutralizes stereotypes and creates a subversive language of transgression. It implicates a non-normative way of viewing engagement with an image – an identification is replaced by an interaction. This tactile epistemology forms a “sculpture” – an almost physical encounter. Haptic or multisensory cinema creates proximity that imposes new ways of contact with the other without usurpating rights to his or her identity.

 

References

Ahmed Sara, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality, (London and New York: Routledge) (2000).

Elsaesser Thomas, „Performative Self-Contradictions. Michael Haneke’s Mind Games”, in A companion to Michael Haneke, ed. Roy Grundmann, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing) (2010).

Fisher Jennifer, Relational Sense: Towards A Haptic Æsthetics, http://www.david-howes.com/senses/Fisher.htm, date accessed 20 September 2016.

Grosz Elizabeth, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism, (Sydney: Allen & Unwin) (1994).

Higbee Will, „Beyond the (trans)national: toward a cinema of transvergence in postcolonial and diasporic francophone cinema(s)”, Studies in French Cinema 7:2 (2007).

Marinkova Milena, Michael Ondaatje: Haptic Aesthetics and Micropolitical Writing, (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group) (2011).

Marks Laura U., The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2004).

Marks Laura U., Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press) (2002).

Waldenfels Bernhard, Podstawowe motyy fenomenologii obcego, (Warszawa: Oficyna Naukowa) (2009).

 

[1] Higbee Will, „Beyond the (trans)national: toward a cinema of transvergence in postcolonial and diasporic francophone cinema(s)”, Studies in French Cinema, 7:2, p. 80.

[2] See: Marks Laura U., The Skin of Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2004).

[3] Marinkova Milena, Michael Ondaatje: Haptic Aesthetics and Micropolitical Writing, (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group) (2011), p. 17.

[4] Marks Laura U. (2004), p. 194.

[5] Marks Laura U. (2004), p. 185.

[6] Marks Laura U., Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press) (2002), p. 13.

[7] Fisher Jennifer, Relational Sense: Towards A Haptic Æsthetics, http://www.david-howes.com/senses/Fisher.htm, date accessed 20 September 2016.

[8] Marks Laura U. (2004), p. 189.

[9] Marks Laura U. (2004), p. 133.

[10] Marks Laura U. (2004), p. 138.

[11] Marks Laura U. (2004), pp. 152-153.

[12] See: Marks Laura U. (2004), pp. 171-176.

[13] Marks Laura U. (2004), p. 184.

[14] Marks Laura U. (2004), p. 184.

[15] Marinkova Milena, p. 4.

[16] Marinkova Milena, p. 4.

[17] Marinkova Milena, p. 4.

[18] Marinkova Milena, p. 16.

[19] Marinkova Milena, p. 17.

[20] Marinkova Milena, p. 21.

[21] Marinkova Milena, p. 21.

[22] Marinkova Milena, p. 21.

[23] Ahmed Sara, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality, (London and New York: Routledge) (2000), p. 3.

[24] Ahmed Sara, p. 4.

[25] Ahmed Sara, p. 6.

[26] Ahmed Sara, p. 8.

[27] Ahmed Sara, p. 11.

[28] Ahmed Sara, p. 13.

[29] Ahmed Sara, p. 39.

[30] Ahmed Sara, p. 40.

[31] Grosz Elizabeth, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism, (Sydney: Allen & Unwin) (1994), p. 142.

[32] Ahmed Sara, pp. 42-43.

[33] Ahmed Sara, p. 45.

[34] Ahmed Sara, p. 45.

[35] Ahmed Sara, p. 49

[36] See: Waldenfels Bernhard, Podstawowe motyy fenomenologii obcego, (Warszawa: Oficyna Naukowa) (2009).

[37] Ahmed Sara, p. 49.

[38] Elsaesser Thomas, „Performative Self-Contradictions. Michael Haneke’s Mind Games”, in A companion to Michael Haneke, ed. Roy Grundmann, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing) (2010), p. 72.

Prayer Wheels for the Other: Haunted by the Images: the film works of Tian Zhuangzhuang book review

Maciej Stasiowski

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp. 89-93.

Maciej Stasiowski
Jagiellonian University

 

 

 

Prayer Wheels for the Other: Haunted by the Images: the film works of Tian Zhuangzhuang book review

 

There is a sequence in The Horse Thief (1986), in which an elderly Buddhist monk spins his prayer wheel, sitting in close proximity to a flock of Himalayan vultures feasting on a corpse. Seen separate at first, in the next shot both of these activities are filmed together. On the Tibetan plateau, balance is maintained – there is place for religious practice and for ravenous devouring. As another shot supersedes the scene, we take on Norbu’s perspective. Whether he beholds the spectacle from a distance is debatable. Is he really witnessing the non-event described above, or is he just blankly staring at the horizon, as he does so often? The director intends to keep his audience guessing, beguiling them into arranging images into a coherent narrative on their own and draw their own conclusions.

Tian Zhuangzhuang’s cinema inhabits a niche that has been quite difficult to share with him. For all the facts, contexts, even story developments he decides to leave out, it offers sublime beauty that had drawn the attention of audiences worldwide, despite undergoing incredible hardships in the process of reaching them. The Blue Kite (1993), smuggled to Cannes, earned him not only a Grand Prix at the Tokyo International Film Festival in 1993, but a ten-year ban on making films. Nonetheless, in toto, his filmography – oscillating between arthouse “chamber pieces” and purely commercial ventures – remains confusing for critics and audiences alike, ever since his first “proper” films, from the robustly idiosyncratic On the Hunting Ground (1984), to his latest brash with heroic fantasy genre in The Warrior and the Wolf (2009). Thus, the director’s output puts a difficult task in front of the prospected spectator, although in no way does it match the challenge set before an academic scholar who intends to locate the entry point to his ouvré. Assuredly, Alicja Helman’s Haunted by the Images: the film works of Tian Zhuangzhuang (2016) not only sheds light on the Fifth Generation’s most enigmatic representative, but – alongside her past excursions into Chinese cinematography, Shades of Red (2010) on Zhang Yimou and Paths of Lost Time (2012) on Chen Kaige – does so with a flare that instantly turns the book into a primer of aesthetics and filmmaking language. The language, which even the Han majority of Chinese viewers found incomprehensible.

Fifth Generation directors – the first class admitted to the Beijing Film Academy after the Cultural Revolution – moved away from portrayals in which the rise of People’s Republic of China brings about liberation and prosperity to various ethnic minorities living within its bounds, toward an appreciation of their diverse cultures. In equal measure it was a struggle for linguistic innovation and unprecedented visual style. “Like their predecessors, the fifth generation favored a non-dramatic structure and depoliticized narration, but they went farther with scant dialogue and music as well as abundant ambiguities in characterization and narration.”

 

[1] Such shifts were connected to the post-Maoist revisionism, while also emerging as a critical reaction to past decades’ overtly ideological and literary plots. However, as Helman notes, even against this background Zhuangzhuang’s cinematic project remains slightly removed from his contemporaries’ pursuits, intending to capture modernity’s spirit. Instead, his films are permeated with a sense of timelessness.

This may sound somewhat paradoxical, given the fact that both his early features On the Hunting Ground and The Horse Thief take place in almost archetypal settings, whose historicity came from censors’ interventions (the date 1923, which we see in The Horse Thief’s opening credits, was meant to explain Tibet’s rural look as not yet “peacefully liberated” from its primitive condition by People’s Liberation Army in 1950), rather than stemming from events represented on screen. Haunted by the Images places emphasis on is the fact that while the director’s approach to historical cinema and, by default, to minority genre (or “minority discourse”,[2] as Yingjin Zhang termed this tendency) remains quite lush, his films don’t subscribe to an exoticism of his colleagues and forefathers from the Fourth Generation. Tian’s cinema sidesteps even this category. Engulfed by his films, we are likely to be drawn into rituals, practices, customs, which are shown in great detail, yet being given no extended explanation or commentary to actual meanings behind them. Hence, the Mongolian language in On the Hunting Ground wasn’t even dubbed for the cinemas. It is the spectator who remains a foreigner and needs to “grasp this difficulty”. Unsurprisingly, alienation reverberated also in these films’ revenues – The Horse Thief sold in 7 copies in comparison to the standard of 100 copies. Nevertheless, a modest success, as for his previous effort was distributed in two.

While admitting to Zhuangzhuang’s strategic “indigestibility”, Helman’s third detour into landscapes left by the Fifth Generation creators serves as much more than a simple biographic insight into successive, though not always successful moviemaking efforts of the Beijing native. It is a comprehensive cross-examination of films and aspects of culture, history, religion, and philosophy that silently underlie these productions. Moreover, this meticulous study has been executed without disregarding entries that don’t necessarily reflect Zhuangzhuang’s artistic niche carved out for him by Western film critics.

Unlike his filmography, the resultant portrait is diversified, yet not shambolic. “Tian…”, Helman writes, “…was the most radical [in the Fifth Generation’s] attempt at transforming the appearance of Chinese cinema. Other than his colleagues, who prolifically engaged the experiences of theory and tradition of Western film thought, [Zhuangzhuang] tried to invent everything anew, guided by his researcher and discoverer’s zeal.”[3] This “Otherness” – located, at times, geographically (Mongolia [On the Hunting Ground], Tibet [The Horse Thief], Japan [The Go Master]), otherwise, on the basis of social strata (Street Players, Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids, Li Lianying: The Imperial Eunuch) – found in Tian’s treatment of his characters and the communities they belong to and are rejected by, become the focal point of Helman’s traverse.

What discerns his most personal projects (here, among films that comprise this category, are: On the Hunting Ground, The Horse Thief, The Blue Kite, Springtime in a Small Town, Delamu, The Go Master), is the way in which he “…position[s] himself in the role of the discoverer, a traveller looking at the strange land with his unprejudiced eye, without referring to the accepted system of beliefs, […] without constraining himself to the limits of a particular genre, or his audience’s expectations.”[4] Adding, further on, that the practice most “…characteristic of him is the accentuation of documentary factors, non-conclusive nature of the plots, narrative composition that resembles a suite of images.”[5] This probably came as the greatest obstacle in truly appreciating Zhuangzhuang’s works, as the audiences – just as much as critics themselves – complained about the lack of classical storytelling. This way, Tian’s intrinsically personal creations are like poetic ethnographic studies informed by (but not entirely congruent with) an outsider’s perspective, while history rushes in as “borrowed scenery”.

Aside from the insightful analyses and historical contextualization that define Haunted by the Images, the feature that gives off a nuanced flavour to Helman’s 200-page study is the amount of space devoted to expounding the aesthetics of the Far-Eastern cultural sphere. Such moments, far from rare, are especially enriching when the author links specific traits in Zhuangzhuang’s style to distinctly oriental aesthetic philosophies of xuǎn xiàng (suspended thought), or a unifying purpose of communicating a spiritual, highly subjective reading of reality (qì yùn), which is in stark contrast to Plato’s concept of mimesis that underlies Western thought. In this light, what might appear as narrative ellipsis is revealed as compositional strategy employed to subjugate screened images to a “continuous flow of emotions” of the film’s protagonist. This confirms Yuwen’s (Springtime in a Small Town) temporal back and forth account, that blends retrospections, futurospections, as well as events that unfold in the present. In the same manner it allows the viewer to share Norbu’s (The Horse Thief) outcast perspective of misfortunes leading up to his death. This way, the author also explains how experiential and painterly – rather than ones belonging to the realm of literature – Zhuangzhuang’s films are, providing a narrative that perfectly reflects not merely the protagonists’ point of view, as, e. g., could be inferred from the fragmentary character of Tietou’s childhood memories refracting historical events of the Great Leap Forward in The Blue Kite (1993). Moreover, what is suggested in Haunted by… is the presence of a subjective “institution” proposed by Albert Laffey, namely that of le grand imagier (master of images), responsible for the dynamics of spectatorial immersion into Zhuangzhuang’s outsider habitats. In this respect, Helman traces Tian’s ethnographic “igneous intrusions” in the documentary traditions of Alberto Cavalcanti and Jean Rouch.

Traditionally articulated when representations of minority groups are involved, the theme of exclusion – in Zhuangzhuang’s films – migrates into cinematographic and editing techniques and strategies, of which the author takes note in regards to the 1986 cult film. “The Horse Thief gives a viscerally strong sense of Otherness, so strong that the audience feels nearly excluded from the spectacle whose meaning constantly eludes them. In total, it doesn’t succumb to expectations that the viewers hold toward “exotic” cinematographies, mainly presenting the oddness already tamed, rather than serving it to them in crudo.”[6]

As previously stated, imitating Zhuangzhuang’s compositional strategy was obviously not the encompassing aim on author’s behalf. Logical chapter structure combined with a well-paced itinerary of the inquiry should appeal in equal measures to Chinese Cinema buffs and newcomers alike. Film critics and occidental enthusiasts may find themselves aligned in a queue to the nearest bookstore or generating web traffic on websites listed in the book’s references list. Tian Zhuangzhuang used to defend himself from harsh criticism saying that his kind of cinema evidently lies in wait for a 21st century audience. Haunted by the Images would convince him that the wait is over.

 

Alicja Helman, Nawiedzony przez obrazy: Twórczość filmowa Tiana Zhuangzhuanga, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2016), 268 p.

The book reviewed here was funded by National Science Centre, decision number 012/05/B/HS2/04058

 

[1] Yingjin Zhang, Chinese National Cinema, (New York and London: Routledge) (2004), p. 236.

[2] Harry H. Kuoshu, “Cinema Exotica: Ethnic Minorities as the PRC’s “Internal Other””, in Celluloid China: Cinematic Encounters with Culture and Society, ed. Harry H. Kuoshu (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002), p. 169.

[3] Alicja Helman, Nawiedzony przez obrazy: Twórczość filmowa Tiana Zhuangzhuanga, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2016), p. 4.

[4] Alicja Helman, p. 199.

[5] Alicja Helman, p. 201.

[6] Alicja Helman, p. 54.

The Language of Interaction

Rafael Arrivabene

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 17-29.

 

Rafael Arrivabene

Game Designer

 

 

The Language of Interaction

 

Abstract

Actions, reactions, conditions, and restrictions form the basis of any game. The rules designed to conduct participation and behaviours of players and objects can be understood as a particular language. In an attempt to elucidate an expressive potential that may have been underestimated by game developers and researchers, this paper presents an approximation of game rules to linguistic concepts.

 

Key words: interaction, games studies, ludology, linguistics

 

Thinking games as interactive texts

 

Interaction is the most inherent aspect of the game phenomenon. Not every interactive system is a game, but every instance of a game, be it a digital game, a physical sport, or a verbal riddle, has some degree of interactivity. This word means mutual or reciprocal actions and influence. In a broad sense, an action is a process that induces alteration in something else[1]. Interaction is, therefore, the reciprocal dynamic between systems in an action-reaction, cause-effect or call and response fashion. Players interact with each other and with the game system itself. They interact with its physical components and rules, always changing the game’s state. Games are artefacts or events in which interactions are not just random or spontaneous, rather they are designed to achieve some purpose. In games, interactions are a way, a medium, to communicate ideas and create experiences.

In order to situate the understanding of interaction in games, it is useful to analyse it according to Schell’s Elemental Tetrad (Fig. 1), which states that any given game can be analysed in terms of four aspects: Aesthetics, Narrative, Technology and Mechanics[2]. The Aesthetics, one of the most visible aspects, is responsible for much of the sensory stimuli of the game and its nonverbal messages. Another explicit aspect is Narrative. This comprises the lore and the symbolic verbal communication of the game. In abstract games or sports, the Narrative aspect comprises the events that emerge from play. Technology is one of the two implicit aspects; it is what supports the very existence of the game. In a board game it would be paper cards, game boards, plastic tokens, and dice. In a digital game it would be the hardware and system specifications. Finally, Mechanics is the other implicit aspect. It stands for the rules of the game and the behaviour of its components and its objectives. Players engage with every one of these aspects and each of their elements foster some level of interactivity. But it is the Mechanical aspect and its elements—the rules—that account for most of the interaction in a game.

 

Figure 1. Elemental Tetrad of any game.

obraz 1

Source: made by the author, based on Schell (2008).

 

One can say that when Espen Aarseth defined cybertexts and ergodic literature, he shed light on the less visible aspects that are also found in other forms of texts. Aarseth was interested in the performance of the text, its material nature and the rules that bind the reader/user. Using Schell’s terminology with Aarseth’s perspective, one can say that judging only from the Technological aspect, a printed book would be less linear than a hypertext, since all pages and content are accessible to the reader in any given time. The material technology of paper-sheets glued or sewed together does not induce linear reading nor prevent page skipping, as a digital text might. From the mechanical aspect, however, a regular book is generally linear. The linearity of the printed text media comes from a socially established rule of reading, not from the attributes of the media itself. For Aarseth, a cybertext is one that promotes non-trivial interaction with the reader. The author gives examples of books that work under different reading mechanics, like the Chinese divination book, the I-Ching, or Ian Livingstone’s choose your adventure books. Although still physically incapable of directing the reader’s path through the text, these books require a non-trivial effort to be read properly[3].While traditional books’ mechanics only require eye-movement and sequential reading of words and turning of pages, these examples prescribe a set of actions that the reader must perform and a set of conditional reactions that also must be followed by the reader, as in a game of solitaire. It creates an interaction between the reader/player and the rules system of that particular text.

In these nonlinear books and tabletop games, both actions and reactions need to be performed by the users. Sports rely partially on the laws of physics which rule the movements of bodies in space and combine them with made-up rules that must be observed by players or referees. But in digital games, the very medium that supports the game can update the system state. The players do not need to know all the rules, neither do they have access to all its content and possible states. Instead, they are free to experiment within the designed possibilities and can learn the game rules from the designed consequences they face. In Janet Murray’s words this kind of participant is called an Interactor[4]. She perceives that it is a different kind of audience because participant involvement is central to the development of the piece. Also, she notes that authorship of interactive texts requires different knowledge and planning than linear narratives. The procedural authorship, as she calls it, comprehends the definition of a rule-based world that must enable and respond to the interactor’s performance. Acknowledging this difference from traditional participation and writing raises questions of how this affects the semiotic processes in this medium. In other words, what is the role of interaction in the meaning of games?

Pioneers of Play studies, Johan Huizinga and Eugene Fink, addressed meaning in games and play, noting that during these events objects, places, people, and actions are resignified. For a child, a wood plank may represent a doll, while a doll, in turn, may be become a person[5]. When puppies play, biting can be part of the playful enactment of a fight. But sometimes it can also suspend such a game by breaking its implicit rules[6]. In play and games, a symbolic dimension overlaps reality, bringing new and temporary meanings to normal signs. For Huizinga and Fink, games and play are forms of representing and understanding the world through the symbolic dimension. Later, when Gonzalo Frasca proposed ludology as a field of study, he claimed that due to their interactivity, games not only represent, but rather simulate the behaviours of objects and systems through mechanical rules[7].

Closed forms of representation such as paintings or movies can only describe the properties of something in a given time, but interactive and open-ended forms of representation like games and simulators model such properties and behaviours, making it possible for the user to experience a range of situations. As with any kind of representation, simulation is always partial and biased. Frasca affirms that a “simulation is the act of modelling a system A by a less complex system B, which retains some of A’s original behaviour”[8]. It is impossible for a simulation to retain all aspects of a given system because if it did, it would be equal to the original system and would therefore no longer be just a simulation. Thus, the modelling of a system is bound by the objectives of the simulation, by its feasibility and by the knowledge its authors have about the original system itself[9]. Like choosing the best angle for a photograph, selecting which properties and behaviours from the source system will be retained is a form of conveying meaning in a simulation.

It must be acknowledged that to understand meaning in games, one needs to understand them as multimedia. Multimedia conveys meaning through a combination of signs from various media or languages. The signs of each language must be appreciated together to be fully understood. In games, as in an opera, verbal language, body language, sonic language and visual language must all join forces to achieve maximum expressiveness. But, as stated, games bring yet another language into play: the language of interaction. Many game researchers are therefore trying to understand the expressive potential of this particular language and how it works.

Ian Bogost discusses how game designers transmit ideologies through the rules of their games[10]. He develops the concept of procedural literacy and rhetoric, which in his words is “the art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions”[11]. Building on Bogost’s work, Joris Dormans applies the Peircean triad “sign-object-interpreter” to simulations. He shows that the way game designers define the rules through which they represent objects or events in their games can have iconic, indexical, or symbolic characteristics[12]. James Paul Gee argues that the meaning of signs in games is related to their function and purpose. He states that game designers construct grammars made of rules in an effort to conduct player interpretation of objects and actions. He also notes that the semantics of games will always be a negotiation between the functions that players attribute to objects, the goals they accept for themselves, and those defined by the author in the game rules[13]. Coming from Greimasian semiology, Óliver Pérez Latorre proposes an analysis method by which game rules are divided into three major categories of representation:

(1) the representation of the protagonist or player

(2) the representation of the world or environment

(3) the representation of activities.

With this division, Latorre shows how games can be organized as a rule-based discourse. The next section of this paper will try to build upon these ideas by sketching what could be the basic grammar and semantics of the language of interaction.

 

Thinking interaction as a language

 

First it must be declared that the purpose of this perspective is to suggest where and how meaning-making and poetics can occur in interactive pieces. The scheme presented next will borrow terms from logical languages and linguistics, but with some license to adaptation. To demonstrate how Interaction can be seen as a meaningful language, it will be compared to Verbal/Spoken language and Visual language. I will begin by looking for the very nature of the language, and then develop it into more structured elements. Each element will be explained and exemplified when possible. The table below starts this exercise by searching for the building blocks and main structure of these languages.

 

Table 1. Comparison between basic elements of the languages

Verbal/Spoken Visual Interaction
Physical Source Sound Light Time / Change
Fundamental Contrast Phonemes Values and Colours Causes and Effects
Meaningful Unit Words Shapes Rules and Actions
Syntactic Categories Nouns, Verbs, Adjectives, Prepositions, etc. Lines, Plain Shapes, Volumetric Shapes, etc. Inputs, Outputs, Restrictions and Conditions.
Composition structure Linear Spatial Branched, multilinear

Source: made by the author

 

The atomic element of a spoken language would be the units of sound—as studied by phonetics and phonology—that by contrast are understood as phonemes that can be combined into words. In a visual language, the source would be just light, which by contrast becomes values of light and dark and hues of colours that are responsible for the perception of shapes and volume. Both are physical signals that affect the receiver, who in return (de)codifies them. The relative signal for Interaction language should be time as it promotes the ability to perceive change. By contrasting moments in time, we perceive changes in configurations. This enables us to understand that something happened and thus to infer cause and effect relationships. By acting in a given system, these causal relationships then inform us about general rules or laws that govern reactions in that system. As with words and shapes, so rules and actions should fall into some main categories that distinguish them by their syntactic functions or characteristics. Inputs are actions that the interactor performs or triggers. Outputs are the results of said actions. They are reactions from elements other than the interactor. Restrictions are rules that prevent actions. Conditions are contextual rules that, when met, enable, modify, or trigger other actions. An interaction piece is then constructed by creating conditional cases for each input and output that unfold into many possible scenarios. This minimal set of elements should be observable in many systems in which humans interact with designed Technologies and Mechanics.

It is worth pointing out that inputs, outputs, restrictions, and conditions can be physical rules or arbitrary rules. Taking as an example a child learning to play basketball, any move she makes would be a physical input in the game system. The movements of the ball would be then physical reactions or physical outputs. Physical restrictions would be natural forces and bodily limitations that prevent her from doing some actions. Weather is a physical condition that can modify the parameters of the game, making it easier or harder for her to play. Arbitrary inputs would be those actions in which she relies on some level of communication and agreement, like asking for time. Arbitrary outputs would be scores and penalty shots because they are events triggered by other actions. She will also learn from other players, referees or coaches that an arbitrary restriction prevents her from running while holding the ball and that there are some arbitrary conditions that change the amount of points given for a successful throw, based on the context.

She would soon appreciate the values to each rule. Dropping the ball unintentionally, for instance, can be contextually understood as a negative input, since its output would be the loss of control. Whenever she learns that by applying the right force, the ball will bounce right back to her hand, she may understand it as a positive action, because it brings different feelings and utility. According to Gee, if actions are signs, then their functions inform their meaning. The composition of a game is always open-ended or at least undetermined between the possible outcomes. The possibility space of a game like this is infinite. At each moment of play there is a current state of points, positions of players and ball, and the available actions that each player can chose to do next. Each decision branches the play to another configuration until an ending condition such as a time limit is met.

To show how interactivity can foster aesthetic expression, we can frame the design of games and other interactive pieces as a speech act using John Austin’s concepts of locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary acts from verbal/spoken language[14]. The first concept, locutionary, refers to the spoken sentence—the actual words used by the speaker. In interaction language, it would be the material objects that support the interaction, the Technology in Schell’s Tetrad. The second term, illocutionary, is the intention of the speaker—the goal behind the message. It would be the design of such interactive objects—their behaviours and functions. The last speech act, perlocutionary, refers to the reaction produced on the listener by the sentence. These acts help to show how the intention of the speaker or designer may guide the composition of their texts. Serious messages may ask for more formality to avoid misinterpretation, while flexible structures may serve aesthetic purposes. The table below tries to demonstrate simple samples of messages in each language, split according to the formalism of their structures.

 

Table 2. Simple messages in order of formality

Verbal/Spoken Visual Interaction
Less formal Proverb Doodle Kaleidoscope
More Formal Warning Scheme Hand crank

Source: made by the author.

 

Note that a hand crank on an industrial machine was probably not designed to bring emotions to those who spin it, but a hand crank on a music box certainly does. Fink stated that tools are “meaning that has been impressed” onto materials, but for him these objects do not inhabit the same symbolic dimension of toys. Tools are objects that only have the dimensions of real life[15]. Nonetheless, it is easy to imagine that one could subvert the function of a tool and start using it as a toy. In the language of interaction, as in other languages, the meaning of signs is constructed by the context and other signals. Gee argues that the meaning of signs is always situational, given on the go by the participants of the communication. Signifiers are not really attached to a specific idea. Their meaning is constructed by contextually inferring the objective of the communication. In his example, the idea of coffee in a sentence is changed by the presence of the words “mop” or “broom”. These other signs are responsible for resignifying “coffee” by making us imagine it as liquid or solid. For him, the meaning of a sign in a game “is what players can do with it, how they can use it in the game”[16].

The presence of other media in games enhances the meaning of the interaction. Actions in a game, especially in video games, are often not just pure movements but symbolic representations of other actions or events which are completed by narrative or aesthetic aspects. Using a hammer to build something is different from using it to break something[17]. When a chess observer declares that the black horse was sacrificed to save the queen, he is naming actions according to the visual symbolism of the pieces. When the cartoonish character Mario smashes a turtle with his hammer, it produces dissimilar feelings than a hammer homicide in the game Manhunt (2003, RenderWare). Dormans would say that the difference between the horse and the hammer examples is that the first is symbolic while the latter is iconic. An icon is a sign that produces the idea of its object by sharing some of its physical attributes or qualities. When developers model a system to produce human-looking objects, aggressive-looking movements, and bone-crushing sounds, they are increasing the iconic properties of the actions. On the other hand, even if the pieces of a chess set were crafted in a detailed way, the action of killing the knight does not share any similarity with the real event. It is only understood as such by cultural convention; it is a symbolic simulation that is found in many board games.

A simulator, on the other hand, is expected to be a high-fidelity rule-based representation of a system. Simulators should be based on an adequate model—an abstraction—of complex real-world situations, with the goal of providing users with a better understanding of reality[18]. But while the purpose of a simulator is to be useful and educative, the purpose of a game is to be entertaining and fun. Dormans compares this difference with the one between a technical drawing and a painting[19]. But games such as Goat Simulator (2014, Coffee Stain) play with such a distinction. Despite its title and realistic three-dimensional looks, in this game you take control of a goat that can destroy anything in its way, perform amazing jumps, and other uncanny actions. This is not a case of a bad simulation; it is a game based on ironic, silly rules. Similar to Cortazar’s Instructions on How to Climb a Staircase or Carelman’s Catalogue of Fantastic Things, this game plays with the expected structure of this form of communication. It is possible to make intentional stylistic choices for interactive pieces.

If the meaning of an action is constructed by its contextual function and by its contextual symbology, it should be possible to devise semantic categories for actions, just as homonyms, synonyms and antonyms are categories of words. Words fill these categories not according to their syntactic function, but according to what they mean in relation to other words. This is a subjective interpretation of signs that can happen in other languages as well. The dove and the white flag are different images that both mean peace in western culture. A big black dog can be seen as the visual antonym of a little white cat. Homonyms, however, are dependent on the context. While a skull in a yellow triangle may be read as a warning, a skull in a black flag specifies the idea of pirates.

Synonyms in an interactive piece would be actions or rules that produce the same functional outcome. Their function is the same, but their symbolism is different. This kind of rule is uncommon for it can be seen as unnecessary redundancy. Nevertheless, presenting these synonyms in a game can be meaningful. In Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver (1999, Crystal Dynamics), health is restored by absorbing the souls of killed enemies. It is a ranged move that attracts nearby floating souls to the protagonist’s mouth. Another way to restore health is to suck blood from the necks of human bystanders. This is a close-range move, non-lethal for humans but a less effective way of gaining health. These rules encourage players to take more risks and fight more[20] because enemy souls restore more health than human blood. But it also adds a symbolic element. Raziel, the protagonist, used to be a vampire, so this action is there more to make this connection than to be useful from a gameplay perspective.

Antonyms would be actions or rules that have opposing functions. Basic examples are, to buy and to sell in economic simulations, or to punch and to block in a fighting game. The first inflicts damage on an opponent, while the second prevents damage to the player. In other example, Undertale (2015, Toby Fox), players can choose to fight or spare their opponents, and this opposition is central to the game’s lore and innovative gameplay.

Homonyms would be cases in which one action serves two or more purposes. Due to technical limitations, early video games had to make the most out of a few buttons and commands. In Super Mario Bros (1985, Nintendo), a simple jump has combat, movement, destruction, and activation functions. Recent games have a much wider set of actions. A contemporary game like Battlefield 1 (2016, DICE), has commands for jump, crunch, dodge, aim, shoot, reload, change weapon, change secondary weapon, drive, etc. Maybe by pursuing that iconic simulation Dormans criticizes, some developers have ignored the possibilities of games with fewer but symbolic actions. As a counterexample, Journey (2012, That Game Company) allows players to only walk, jump, and sing. Singing serves to gather items nearby, to activate mechanisms, to communicate with and to energize fellow pilgrims. However, it also draws the attention of dangerous enemies. It is an action that has both the positive function of recovery and the negative rule of increased danger. Journey is poetic not only in its visual and narrative aspects, but also in its mechanics. Players can open doors by singing and avoid danger by staying quiet.

 

Table 3. Examples of possible semantic categories in each language.

Verbal/Spoken Visual Interaction
Synonyms Different words,
same semantical meaning
Different images,
same symbolic meaning
Different actions,
same practical function
Antonyms Different words,

opposite semantical meaning

Different images,

opposite symbolic meaning

Different actions,

opposite practical function

Homonyms Same word,

different semantical meaning

Same image,

different symbolic meaning

Same action,

different practical function

Source: made by the author

 

By combining function with contextual signs, actions can hold strong meanings that can be played with by the authors of interactive pieces and games. As in poetry and visual arts, beauty comes when words or shapes are used in clever ways which explore their characteristics. The expressive potential of this language is related to the creative use of these possibilities. Procedural authors must know when to simulate events as they are and when to subvert their behaviour. They have to decide which actions need more detail and when to make them abstract and symbolic. They need to know how to play with the expected functions of inputs, outputs, restrictions, and conditions. By creatively playing with these choices, some patterns of composition must emerge. Just as with the rule of the thirds for photography, or redondillas in poetry, there should be characteristic stylistic elements for interaction. These will not be covered by this paper as this theory is still in an early stage, but it presents a goal for future research.

 

Conclusion

 

In search of how meaning is constructed in games, researchers have found that interactivity is a strong element of this media. Game studies should, therefore, pay attention to this element and its communicative properties. Games cannot be taken as just another representational media because interactivity brings at least two particularities: actions do not always represent something but meaning will still emerge from interpretations of how such actions function in a cultural system. Moreover, when actions are there to represent something else, they do this by simulating that something. Especially in this last case, actions become signs that reference ideas or concepts outside the game. They mediate the dialogue between the ideas of the creators and their interpretations by the players. They can be iconic, trying to be similar to the actions and behaviours they represent, or they can be symbolic, indicating events more by consensus than by accuracy. Choices concerning how to simulate these real or imaginary systems are rhetorical since the exclusions and adaptations made by authors are biased towards their intentions and knowledge. The final rules of an interactive piece—especially ludic pieces such as games—form an ergodic cybertext or cyberdiscourse that is materialized in a language of its own. In striving to understand such a language it has been loosely compared to other well-known languages in an attempt to discover useful similarities or differences. It seems that actions and rules can be positively thought of in linguistic terms. The development of this thought may lead to advantages in the analysis of video games and interactive art, and hopefully serve to improve the design of such works. Maybe in the future a basic grammar of interaction will help procedural authors to craft even more meaningful interactive multimedia discourses.

 

 

Aarseth Espen, Cybertext: perspectives on ergodic literature. (Baltimore/London: The John Hopkins University Press) (1997)

Aarseth Espen, “Computer Game Studies, Year One” Game Studies. 1:1 (2001), http://gamestudies.org/0101/editorial.html, date accessed 12 June 2017

Austin John L., How to do Things with Words. (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (1980)

Bogost Ian, Persuasive Games: the expressive power of videogames. (London: The MIT Press) (2007).

Bogost Ian, „The Rhetoric of Video Games”. in The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning, ed. Katie Salen. (Cambridge: The MIT Press) (2008).

Dormans Joris, „Beyond Iconic Simulation”, Simulation & Gaming, 42:5 (2011)

Fink Eugen, ​Play as Symbol of the World: and other writings. Ian Alexander Moore and Christopher Turner (trad.). (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (2016).

Frasca Gonzalo, „Ludology Meets Narratology: Similitude and differences between (video)games and narrative”, Ludology.org (1999) http://ludology.org/articles/ludology.htm, date accessed 12 June 2017

Frasca Gonzalo, “SIMULATION 101: Simulation versus Representation” Ludology.org (2001), http://www.ludology.org/articles/sim1/simulation101.html, date accessed 12 June 2017

Gredler Margareth, „Games and Simulations and Their Relationship to Learning”, in Handbook of research for educational communications and technology, ed. David H. Jonassen and Marcy P. Driscoll (New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates) (2014)

Gee James Paul, „Proactive design theories of sign use: Reflections on Gunther Kress”, in Multimodality and Social Semiosis: Communication, Meaning-Making, and Learning in the Work of Gunther Kress, ed Margit Böck and Norbert Pachler. (New York: Routledge) (2013)

Huizinga Johan, ​Homo Ludens: a study of the play-element in culture. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul) (1949).

Latorre Óliver Pérez, Análisis de la significación del videojuego. Fundamentos teóricos del juego, el mundo narrativo y la enunciación interactiva como perspectivas de estudio del discurso, (Barcelona: Universitat Pompeu Fabra) (2010)

Latorre Óliver Pérez, „From Chess to StarCraft. A Comparative Analysis of Traditional Games and Videogames”. Comunicar, 58:19 (2012), pp.121-128

Latorre Óliver Pérez, „The Social Discourse of Video Games Analysis Model and Case Study: GTA IV”, Games and Culture 10:5 (2015)

Murray Janet, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The future of narrative in cyberspace. (New York: The Free Press) (1997)

Robinson Stewart, „A Tutorial on Conceptual Modeling for Simulation”. Proceedings of the 2015 Winter Simulation Conference, ed. L. Yilmaz, W. K. V. Chan, I. Moon, T. M. K. Roeder, C. Macal, and M. D. Rossetti. (Piscataway: IEEE Press) (2015).

Sauvé Louise, Renaud Lise, Kaufman David and Marquis Jean-Simon, „Distinguishing between games and simulations: a systematic review”. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 10:3 (2007)

Schell Jesse, The Art of Game Design: a book of lenses, (Burlington: Morgan Kaufmann) (2008)

 

 

 

[1] Merriam-Webster’s dictionary includes other common definitions and uses of the word action, but the interest here lies on the approximation with processes and alteration.

[2] Jesse Schell, The Art of Game Design: a book of lenses, (Burlington: Morgan Kaufmann) (2008), p.41.

[3] Espen Aarseth, Cybertext: perspectives on ergodic literature, (Baltimore/London: The John Hopkins University Press) (1997), p.9.

[4] For more on this see Janet Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The future of narrative in cyberspace. (New York: The Free Press) (1997), p.149.

[5] Eugen Fink, Play as Symbol of the World: and other writings. Ian Alexander Moore and Christopher Turner (trad.). (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (2016), p.36.

[6] Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: a study of the play-element in culture. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul) (1949), p.1.

[7] See Gonzalo Frasca, „Ludology Meets Narratology: Similitude and differences between (video)games and narrative”, Ludology.org (1999) http://ludology.org/articles/ludology.htm, date accessed 12 June 2017.

[8] Gonzalo Frasca, „SIMULATION 101: Simulation versus Representation” Ludology.org (2001), http://www.ludology.org/articles/sim1/simulation101.html date accessed 12 June 2017.

[9] Stewart Robinson has a series of papers on modeling systems for simulations. See for example Stewart Robinson, „A Tutorial on Conceptual Modeling for Simulation”. in Proceedings of the 2015 Winter Simulation Conference, ed. L. Yilmaz, W. K. V. Chan, I. Moon, T. M. K. Roeder, C. Macal, and M. D. Rossetti. (Piscataway: IEEE Press, 2015), pp. 1820-1834.

[10] Ian Bogost, „The Rhetoric of Video Games”. in The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning, ed. Katie Salen. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008), pp. 117–140.

[11] Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: the expressive power of videogames. (London: The MIT Press) (2007), p. IX.

[12] Joris Dormans, „Beyond Iconic Simulation”, Simulation & Gaming, 42:5 (2011), pp. 610-631.

[13] James Paul Gee, „Proactive design theories of sign use: Reflections on Gunther Kress”, in Multimodality and Social Semiosis: Communication, Meaning-Making, and Learning in the Work of Gunther Kress, ed Margit Böck and Norbert Pachler. (New York: Routledge) (2013).

[14] John L. Austin, How to do Things with Words. (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (1980).

[15] Eugen Fink, pp.35.

[16] James Paul Gee, pp.45-46.

[17] Óliver Pérez Latorre, „From Chess to StarCraft. A Comparative Analysis of Traditional Games and Videogames”. Comunicar, 58:19 (2012), pp.121-128.

[18] For more on the differences between games and simulations, see Margareth Gredler, „Games and Simulations and their Relationship to Learning”, in Handbook of research for educational communications and technology, ed. David H. Jonassen and Marcy P. Driscoll (New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2014) pp. 571–581, and Louise Sauvé et. al., „Distinguishing between games and simulations: a systematic review”. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 10:3 (2007), pp.244-256.

[19] Joris Dormans, p.612.

[20] Another example of rule-inducted behaviour can be seen in Game Maker’s Toolkit: How Games do Health [YouTube Video] Mark Brown, 1 August 2016, and in Óliver Pérez Latorre, „The Social Discourse of Video Games Analysis Model and Case Study: GTA IV”, Games and Culture 10:5 (2015), pp. 415-437.

Playing in fractal universes: Thinking with scalable patterns in interdisciplinary game studies

Garfield Benjamin

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 47-64.

 

Garfield Benjamin

University of Birmingham

 

 

Playing in fractal universes: Thinking with scalable patterns in interdisciplinary game studies

 

Abstract

Games offer a scaled and scalable experience of technologically mediated human action and interaction. The study of games therefore holds the potential to offer a far wider analysis of our technical and social structures than might be first apparent. Yet this scaling of behaviours and frameworks is applicable not only beyond simply an increase in degree, but also across different types of meaning, society, reality, and our understanding of them. Thus, to assess the expansion of games beyond conventional dimensionality, we can identify in games and game studies a fractal metaphor to guide our analysis. Drawing on concepts of iteration, self-similarity, recursion, complexity, and scalability, this article examines key games that embody a fractal dimension to their in-game universe, the player’s experience, the game’s development, and games as a field of study. The fractal analysis of a game will thereby be revealed as also an analysis of the metagame and its situatedness in broader concerns of technoculture and its academic study. The model offered will be applied to specific games and the existing literature through which game studies is formed as an interdisciplinary fractal conceptual space of its own.

 

Key words: fractal, game studies, games, No Man’s Sky, Everything, EVE Online

 

 

Introduction

 

The playing of a particular game generates iterative and often functionally self-similar experiences for players based on the ludic and narrative constructs that constitute the game itself. Yet these experiences are increasingly interdisciplinary in their relation to human activity, creating ever more total works of media that engage with simulations and representations of our social and technological realities and fictions. This necessitates an inherent and increasing interdisciplinarity to the study of games that expand the player’s interaction from the quantum to the cosmological, from the individual to the collective, and from the fictional to the real. This article offers a new mode of viewing games as both a mode of interaction and a field of study: the fractal mediation of humanity by technology.

Firstly, we will construct a fractal metaphorical framework through close analysis of examples that directly address such mediation of humans at different levels of reality. The highly anticipated, controversial, and often much maligned game No Man’s Sky creates a procedurally generated reality that expands algorithmically to produce a fractal game on the ontological level. Everything takes the fractal experience to an extreme by offering the player the opportunity to interact with the universe by ‘being’ everything, scaled from cellular to stellar levels. Consideration will also be given to similar games that involve such fractal realities even in their construction, generating a relation with players during the design stage through user-created content and responsive beta testing. Worlds Adrift creates an environment filled with floating islands created by users during alpha testing, expanding fractal interaction between players and with the environment according to a functional mediated logic developed further through beta testing. We Happy Few takes this beta testing further with extensive player involvement that has initiated major changes in the game’s aesthetic and the relation between which ludic and narrative aspects players would prefer to see emphasized. Finally, the long-running EVE Online demonstrates fractal human organization with its emergent and expansive economies and politics from the individual to the guild up to the entire player base and game world. Across these examples, a fractal expression of representation, reality, and relationality can be elucidated in the ludic structures and open narratives. Beyond the restrictions of closed objectives that define clear methods of interaction, the ludic mediation and human engagement still results in self-similar or iterative experiences of fractal play.

We will then address the fractal study of games across disciplines – the similarly situatedness of gaming in broader social reality, and the recursive relationship between games and our own world. Focusing on the extensive literature of EVE Online and applying these findings to newer games, the discussion will explore the necessary links between different fields in game studies. In the analysis of games, particularly those with MMO, procedural, or social aspects, there is an inherent need to take into account mathematics, computer science, psychology, economics, philosophy, art, literature, media, and many other fields. Yet the mediation of the ludic experience unveils scalable and self-similar features between these fields, already embedded within the construction of game studies as a distinct discipline. Indeed, it is notable that game design itself straddles the arts and sciences, employing programmers, writers and artists (to name a few) to construct a full experience across traditional disciplines. Amidst the myriad future paths of game studies, therefore, the article will posit the need for fractal modes of thinking about play and narrative in the persistent mediation of humans by their ludic creations, as well as the broader mediation of our society and experience by technology.

 

Fractal Games

 

Fractals – a concept with a long history in science, mathematics, and culture, but given voice as a coherent theory by Benoit Mandelbrot in the 1970s – has perhaps most poetically been defined as a way of seeing infinity in the mind’s eye.[1] Indeed, fractals appear to have had almost limitless applications and have contributed to the understanding of chaos and of conceptual and actual spaces beyond the conventional three dimensions of Euclidean geometry. The term fractal has its roots in fragmentation, with the aim of breaking down the infinite complexity of nature into human-readable patterns. Yet for all their mathematical precision, it is important to remember that “there are no true fractals in nature”[2]. Fractals only ever offer an approximation of natural phenomena, an abstraction of patterns far beyond human understanding. The use of fractals should therefore always be combined with an acknowledgment of their position as an artificial framework of thought. Fractal analyses to some degree therefore always create the precise pattern they are analysing. Indeed, as an abstract human construct, the development of fractals was inherently bound to that of computers, another quantized reality that builds worlds through rigid codes not possible in the physical world. Not only did Mandelbrot work as a researcher for IBM at the time he developed fractal geometry, but it was the increasing access to and power of computers that enabled Mandelbrot and others to calculate fractals and construct the abstract shapes they produce. The artificial forms of fractals, while offering a way of abstracting and understanding nature, tend to exist “entirely inside a computer’s memory”[3]. They thus provide a constructive analogy and conceptual framework for understanding the abstract and computational dimensions of computer games. Not only that – and moving beyond the simple use of fractals as actual graphic constructions in the style of computer-generated landscapes or trees used in many films or games – but the application of fractals to diverse fields of natural and human activities lends itself to an exploration of the social aspects of games and the broader facets of game studies.

Yet fractals persist as an elusive concept, with definitions relying more on a series of typical characteristics.[4] For the present discussion, therefore, a few key concepts will suffice as a starting point to develop a fractal framework for thinking about games. Firstly, fractals are iterative, simple to define and often recursive. They produce the same patterns at arbitrary locations and use the same functioning – the same code – to create evolving and scaling structures. They are also often self-similar, spreading this symmetry and iteration across scales. These characteristics combine to form the “pattern inside of a pattern”[5] whereby the part matches both other parts and the whole. While this is not necessarily an essential part of all fractals,[6] it defines simpler linear fractals and appears in some form (for example, quasi- or statistically self-similar) in most practical definitions of the concept. Thus, self-similarity allows us to view patterns between arbitrary facets that may indeed have chaotic or emergent properties, or which obfuscate simple comprehension via high complexity. Another key concept is the notion of scale. Fractals allow us to view symmetry not only between parts of equal size, but also across scales. The recursive quality of fractals enables a shift in perspective between large and small levels of difference and irregularity, thus offering a mode of viewing functional rules in even the most chaotic data. In computer games, this shifting in perspective can occur at the technical or social level, between systems, renderings, and servers or between players, economies and conceptual spaces. This scaling goes beyond an increase in conventional dimensionality into partial and even abstract dimensions that cut across individual human perspectives and thereby reveal, at the level of the metagame, a hidden order in chaos and functional consistency between apparently disparate parts of a complex whole. Between these various parts and scales is revealed the complexity of fractals, which cannot be expressed through simple geometry. Indeed, the emergence of games as a distinct field of study highlights the additional experiential intricacies compared to traditional art, film, or other media. From complexity stems the notion of a fractal dimension, itself open to variable definition but always signalling a dimensionality greater than its topology. At a basic level, this can be expressed in the link between the concrete world presented on the screen and the vast array of code beneath it. Using procedural generation and non-linear structures, across player narratives and experiences it forms the ‘greater than the sum of its parts’ quality that generates the ‘replay value’ of games. Procedural generation, originally developed in ‘roguelike’ games of the late 1970s and early 1980s, is a process of compressing the game world. This was exemplified in the space exploration game Elite, which sought to create a huge world using only 22k of memory.[7] By reducing the internal reality of the game from a detailed description to a functional algorithm, a much greater space can be unfolded from comparatively minimal code. Finally, fractal dimensionality can be seen in the multiple fields that games straddle and the implied relation to our own world that games can address, stage, and critique, expanding our metaphor to situate games in their broader context. We will now elaborate this conception of games through examples that address gaming reality, gaming experience, and game design.

 

No Man’s Sky: a fractal gaming reality

 

Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky is a vast procedurally generated universe of unprecedented size, containing 264 (18,446,744,073,709,551,616) planets. While this 64-bit algorithmically-created galaxy falls far short of the unknown limits of our own physical universe, the scale in relation to human perception achieves the same relative infinitude. Even at the impossible rate of one planet per second, it would take over five billion years to explore every single planet in the game – longer than the lifespan of our own sun.[8] Fractals, as a way of converting limitless complexity into scales perceivable by humans, offer a convenient method of understanding the construction of this game reality. Much like the mathematical functions of fractals, No Man’s Sky creates its reality according to strict deterministic calculations that can nevertheless generate a far larger universe than any single human could ever hope to experience. Yet it is not only the construction of No Man’s Sky at the planetary scale that takes on a fractal quality, the analogy scales too. Rather than loading a new environment when a player hopes to explore a given planet, the game’s procedural generation scales down to render landscapes, mineral deposits, environmental factors such as weather, and a rich population of fauna and flora. Yet this functionally limitless expanse returns to haunt us in its endless iteration. The looping nature of the gameplay extends beyond an identical algorithmic mediation of one player and another. The algorithmic construction of similar planets initially offers wonderment and variety, but after visits to multiple planets the appearance of the same kinds of worlds exposes the underlying iteration and an evolving self-similarity through time. This limit of the aesthetics of the game reality applies also to the gameplay. The open exploration, the often repetitive (particularly in the initial release before the streamlining aspects of later updates) nature of gathering resources needed for survival and travel, and the scaling of achievements (in terms of both in-game economic attainment and the convention of ludic ‘achievement’ rewards) can end with the player seeing through the complexity and reaching a level of predictability to the game over longer timescales through fractal understanding. Thus, the kaleidoscopic non-novelty highlights the creative limitations of self-similarity and the ontological limitations of the No Man’s Sky reality, as after a certain number of iterated experiences everything looks the same (much like many fractal images), creating a scalar shift in perception whereby the detail becomes flattened. Here we can attempt to behold the entirety of the complexity at work, and the processes of mediation reveal themselves within the literal frame of the screen and the conceptual framing of the universe held within the computer and within the game.

However, the narratological aspects of No Man’s Sky further this relation to iteration and scalability in constructing a reflexive ontology that loops into itself. What sparse storyline there is to find across the vast emptiness of space reveals a universe that embraces its algorithmic functionality and challenges its relation to the player. The main ‘goal’ –  although this is entirely optional and only one path of achievement a player can explore – of No Man’s Sky is to follow the instructions of a being called Atlas to reach the centre of the galaxy. Along this path the play encounters two recurring NPCs, Nada and Polo, who describe themselves as errors within the simulation. They are counterposed to the Sentinels, a variety of robotic entities that enforce the rule-based system of the Universe’s will by attacking players who rapidly interfere with the landscape by mining for resources or killing fauna. The player is part of a universe-wide experiment to break free of these rules and discover the source of the Sentinel’s power,[9] and it is the ultimate quest of the player to become an anomalous entity by achieving self-awareness of the rules and systems of the universe. The ending of the game, the big reveal at the centre of the galaxy, takes on a tragic tone that embraces the full despair of mediation and control by technology. The universe is revealed to be a simulation, nothing more than an absolute deterministic causal structure – a game – and while the character (the ‘traveller’) becomes self-aware, the player is returned as a new traveller on a new starting planet at the edge of the galaxy to begin the cycle anew. As the player learns more and more information, gaining greater and greater detail as they move closer to the centre of the reality, they end up being thrust outwards to the broadest scale. The player’s perspective, and their causal relations with the game, go beyond even a fractal towards a strange loop, “a paradoxical level-crossing feedback loop”.[10] Even in a supposed critique of the medium itself, the recursive element exposes the iterative repetition of game playing and the rigid and ultimately deterministic causality of apparent complexity and chaos in both fractals and gaming structures. Perhaps this is why Mandelbrot himself focused on consequences over causes,[11] working backwards from human-readable problems to create gradually more detail from the chaos of recursive complexity. Cast into a universe and expected to find not only our own meaning but to discover for ourselves the limits of the simulation, the monstrous character of fractals unfold in No Man’s Sky as a ludic and narrative experience beyond rational scientific or philosophical explanation.

 

Everything: a fractal gaming experience

 

A game that embodies fractals in the experience of the player is Everything by David OReilly. Described as “a magical playpen of being, rather than doing”,[12] and – with an eleven-minute trailer that made it the first video game to qualify for an Oscar – Everything displays the fractal experience of being-in-the-world. Players interact with the universe through being anything and ‘everything’. Starting as a mammal, players can shift from item to item and ascend/descend scales to play as approximately three thousand different objects. These items fall into a variety of categories and include natural objects such as animals as well as man-made objects as well as more abstract entities. Examples include a shoe [attire], cigarette butt [trash], warped ruins [space junk], scale manipulator [tool], recursive house [home], convex stellated polyhedron [3d], and Planck length [1d]. This selection in particular highlights a focus on scale and a relation to fractal perspectives and experience. The objects themselves and the perspectives the player encounters create a fractal reality whereby we are offered the self-similar experience of simply ‘being’ across all scales of matter. Like No Man’s Sky, this universe is procedurally generated, but it is also connected and persistent, remembering the state of a previous scale when you next return. However, the map at each scale is not particularly large, enacting spatial loops where necessary that are visible upon zooming out but not ascending to the next scale. But a fractal universe does not need to be large (and even if it is, as with No Man’s Sky, there is fundamentally no difference between ‘more’ space and ‘more of the same’ space). The expansive environment here comes from the fractal dimension, moving beyond three dimensions to folded spaces of experience and new perspectives of scale.

Initially, however, the player can simply move around (and even that is somewhat stilted as the movement animation for mammals is a rather ignominious and awkward four-frame roll). As one early-encountered NPC (a mammoth) remarks, “you can’t control Everything//not yet anyway”.[13] Indeed, the game often plays with the double meaning of its own title and the objects it contains, applying the different levels of parts and the whole within its very construction. The ability to move around as objects (no matter how improbable their independent locomotion might be in our universe) is gradually augmented through talking to (or ‘thinking as’) other objects. Increased abilities include being able to join with other entities of the same kind or category, moving around as a collective being and even dancing together in order to create new objects. The player also obtains the ability to ‘ascend’ and ‘descend’, moving up and down in scale. Manipulation of the environment here stems directly from expanded notions of being in greater dimensions beyond human perception, a philosophical and even spiritual sentiment reinforced by the inclusion of recordings of a lecture by Zen philosopher Alan Watts concerning nature, patterns across scale, and being. This grows in Everything with the player’s expanding experience. For example, once you have ‘become’ a particular item, you can become it again at any time via the encyclopaedia, but it will then be scaled to the current perspective, offering a self-similar and scale invariant quality to even objects usually experienced at a single given scale. Further, if one is to keep ascending or descending far enough, the game universe loops round between galaxy clusters and atoms via a ‘feedback sphere’ at the one-dimensional Planck scale. This embodies Hofstadter’s ‘strange loop’ in terms of space-time, a sentiment echoed in Max Tegmark’s loop between cosmology and quantum mechanics via a multiverse of mathematical structures.[14] It also embodies recursion in terms of human consciousness as a feedback loop that intensifies over time.[15] In Everything these two feedback loops are one and the same, for our consciousness of the game expands fractally alongside our experience of being at different scales, or even simply perceiving/thinking as the game autoplays if left to its own devices.

The fractal strange loop of causality and the gaming medium that we saw in the ending of No Man’s Sky returns once more to haunt us at the ending of Everything. As another game with sandbox-like and experiential open play, the term ‘end’ must be used loosely, but open reaching a certain level (having achieved ‘being’ a certain number of objects) the player may descend into the ‘Golden Gate’. Here an abstract space of random objects awaits in a collision of different scales. Among these, surrounded by pieces of skeletons, is a computer which duplicates the player’s screen on its own monitor. After a lengthy but vague monologue lamenting the frustration of Everything in this place, the player is instructed to ‘empty your mind’ in order to escape this world. The player is finally allowed to ascend the Gate, triggering an ending cut scene of a glowing particle flying through different scales before returning the player once more to a starting position (with new abilities such as instantly bonding with objects or a documentary mode). There is no escape from a fractal game, as with all games. The fundamental mediation of a game system is to keep playing, returning always once more to a reality of rules which deterministically controls not only itself but our own actions. Whether we play as an abstract concept or a piece of shit, we experience the same mediated play in a simulated universe, beholden to the whims of the game developers.

 

Fractal game development and its problems

 

If fractals can be used to analyse the in-game ontologies and the experiences of the players, they can be applied also to the existence of the game throughout its development. No Man’s Sky received much positive attention prior to its release, so much so that the developers received death threats after announcing a delay to the release date. And when the final release of the game failed to meet certain advertised promises, the backlash was again significant. These issues span creative, cultural, and legal concerns in the feedback loop of perception and expectation. The spiral of hype that led to death threats, as part of the often vitriolic cultural sphere of gaming,[16] was echoed in the spiral of disappointment that led to a (cleared) advertising standards investigation. This latter issue, whereby key features such as multiplayer, ship design and others were missing from the initial release, sparked a fractality to the development of the game itself. While DLC add-ons to games is becoming increasingly common, and updates or patches are standard practice, the free updates to No Man’s Sky instigated major changes to the way the game plays. The development of the game after its release thus constructed a temporal fractal zoom, adding greater and greater detail to the game with each iteration. Each upgrade made visual improvements, refined the interface, and provided more content in various categories. The first (1.1 Foundation) update added the freighters and base building that were originally missing; the second (1.2 Path Finder) added exocraft, online base sharing, multiple ship ownership and ship specialization; and the third (1.3 Atlas Rises) added missions, increased story mode, portal travel and (crude) multiplayer. This last development was a major change, and one that was high on the list of missing features. While communication between players outside the game made it possible relatively easily, the original idea with No Man’s Sky was that it would essentially be single-player in a multi-player universe, for the odds of randomly encountering another player were astronomically low. Yet this feature was only added later, transforming the game fractally by adding greater levels of interaction and expanding the experience not only in level but also in kind, creating new dimensions of play. As an indie developer trying to create an AAA title, Hello Games had given themselves an unenviable task. Yet the later additions have not simply added what was originally promised. Rather, they have evolved in an emergent manner in light of the game being released in the world. The interaction between players and developers creates new perspectives and functions that otherwise may not have been thought up.

In the wake of the release disaster of No Man’s Sky, other games appear to be learning from their mistakes. While open beta and early release testing is now commonplace via platforms such as Steam, Worlds Adrift by Bossa Studios involved players before even the alpha release in order to create a user-generated world. Functionally quite similar to No Man’s Sky, Worlds Adrift is an open environment for exploration and resource gathering. However, it has several key differences. The game is highly multiplayer, indeed for many activities collaborative play is nearly essential, and it is highly creative, being based on players/groups designing and building their own ships with which to travel between floating islands in a limitless sky. Thus, while the expansive universe of areas is much reduced, there are greater dimensions of interaction. Not only that, but the islands themselves are procedurally generated content as well as user-created content, embedding players in the pre-alpha stage via a separate, free, Worlds Adrift Island Creator game. Thus, throughout and before the extensive closed and open beta phases, players were able to work with Bossa Studios to collaboratively create a game that itself opens up opportunities for free interaction between players, building on core functionality before adding visual detail in a fractal development of form and content. Beyond the initial release, Bossa set up mechanisms to continually include players in the game’s ongoing development. The Sky Crier, a weekly news summary of stories from players, highlights the importance of player experience in the history of the game, while further developments to the Island Creator have been aimed at turning players into game designers by producing new levels and new experiences for other players.

The desire to integrate this degree of player involvement is also echoed in Compulsion’s We Happy Few, which, in strong contrast to Hello Games’ closed development and the misinformation of No Man’s Sky, focuses on transparency and inclusion.[17] As another small studio thrust into creating a higher profile game than they had intended, Compulsion sought to make regular public announcements about the process. This helped guide their relationship with players through an extended, delayed, and not unproblematic development. But it was not only communication that aided them, for they made several key changes to the game in response to early player comments. As the developers describe, “What the public and the press were telling us they loved about our game wasn’t anything like the procedural, story-light, rogue-like survival game we were creating at all”.[18] As a result, they switched their focus to develop in greater detail the story, the world, and the mechanics in response to what players wanted. The move to Kickstarter also emphasized a literal investment by players, drawing them into the game world not only through the experiential suspension of disbelief for this psychedelic drug-fuelled horror game, but also as co-creators and co-owners, bringing all perspectives into the discussion across different scales and types of engagement. This extended to further types of gameplay based on five drug-specific modes, as well as a suspension of the gaming framework with the addition of a non-violent ‘Birdwatcher’ mode in which players could simply explore the environment and, much like Everything, enjoy ‘being’ in the game. After the shift in expectation towards an ‘AAA’ level game by partnering with Gearbox Software, however, the communication and inclusion broke down somewhat. The sudden doubling in price and further delays angered many fans, although the level of engagement already established did allow for some mitigation of these problems. Bonus content was promised to early backers, and the financial support from the larger studio enabled a fourfold scaling of Compulsion’s team. This reminds us that the business side of gaming cannot be forgotten, for while the reactive nature of the development that increased in size to handle the increased expectation does itself embody a certain fractal quality, the problem of shifting scales highlights the competing forces at work in game development. In We Happy Few, we can at least see the creative intent towards creating a fractal experience that extends between layers of in-game perspective, modes of gameplay, and involvement in the design process.

The fractal model at the level of the metagame is thus achieved by enabling players to engage at multiple scales, creating their own local perspective through the emergent differences between iterations. Far from being a rigid abstract reduction, the conceptual ‘geometry’ of such games could only be mapped in multidimensional relations between the designers, the manifold facets of the game, and its many players. The feedback loop of a fractal game extends spatially, temporally, and conceptually back into itself as an evolving experience for all involved.

 

Fractal Game Studies

 

We have explored how fractals might be used to view games, but what of game studies as a discipline? Fractals can be considered one of three major revolutions in twentieth century science[19] and, perhaps even more so than the other two (relativity and quantum mechanics), have far-reaching interdisciplinary applications not only within the sciences but across social science and the arts. Mandelbrot’s initial work on fractals, coalescing a collection of vaguely similar approaches in mathematics spread sporadically across several centuries, was driven by a combination of geography (the problem of measuring an infinite coastline at high enough resolution) and economics (the need to balance sudden dramatic fluctuations with periods of stability). But his own work and the work of others quickly spread the fractal concept across a wide range of disciplines, and today there is a rich yet often unconnected literature that applies fractals to diverse fields. Indeed, perhaps the fractal as a field of study is itself fractal in its iterative self-similarity and possible application at various scales and in various locations. However, it must be remembered that fractals only ever offer an approximate representation of reality, an abstraction and reduction of complexity into human frameworks of thinking. The broader application of fractals therefore takes on an inherently aesthetic quality within scientific thought, a mathematical description of a topic rather than a rigid methodological framework. Examples abound of this fractal interpretation of our universe and society: in physics, fractals have been used to understand the two other key developments of modern science (quantum physics[20] and relativity[21]) as well as cosmology[22]; in economics they have been applied not only by Mandelbrot but also to financial crises[23]; in organization theory they are useful for assessing interdependence and multi-dimensional folding in networks[24], as well as management[25] and organization design[26]; in biology, furthering Mandelbrot’s focus on analysing nature, they are relevant in, for example, the organization of cell nuclei[27]; in psychiatry to movement and depression[28]; and in applied computing it can assist in understanding IT needs for complex organizations.[29] Fractals can be useful to understand any natural, human and artificial systems at scale, and the field itself therefore takes on its own implicit metafractal quality in its interdisciplinary application.

In a more explicitly and intentionally interdisciplinary manner, games as a field of study also acts as a fractal description of human culture and its mediated constructions of reality. There is a microcosmic quality to many games, particularly those that display MMO, exploration, or social characteristics. Indeed, the field of serious and educational games demonstrates the usefulness of games as a scaled-down staging of wider society or reality, especially when speculating on complex behaviours in exceptional environments or circumstances. From individual experiences to inter-human relations and up to the overarching societal structures, games offer a sandbox arena for experimentation (for designers and players) and analysis (for scholars). However, we must remember that games are never an accurate or neutral microcosm for concrete experiments. Rather, they are a hyperreal, mediated representation. It is this quality that expresses the fractal nature of the field, amplifying characteristics of reality with their dimensional reduction to the scale, logic, and experience of a game. A game can thus act as a more extreme expression of diverse problems in diverse fields, iterating broader concerns in specific implementations and intensified at a smaller scale. Some aspects will always be lost (otherwise the game would simply be reality), but this in turn generates the non-integer dimensionality of games as a fractal simulation of reality. The chimerical nature of games as a discipline is applicable in inspiring an engaged and experiential response to many issues, from the grand questions of reality down to the specific problems of individuals in an unequal world. The complexity of these issues drawn into the sandbox experiment of the game universe and mediated framework reveals an increased dimensionality of the impact of games in their necessary analysis through the lens of other fields. These various perspectives combine to generate a much broader view that expands into the spaces between disciplines and between the game and reality. We will now turn our fractal metaphor to the context of games within their field of study, taking the exemplary case of EVE Online.

 

EVE Online: a fractal metaverse of game studies

 

EVE Online is a ‘sandbox’ reality, not quite a game and not quite a virtual world but displaying characteristics of both. This space exploration and conquest environment combines the vast open universe and free economy of virtual worlds with the player-versus-player space combat one might expect from a game. There are a number of key aspects of its design, however, that differentiate it from other such games or worlds and emphasize its fractal quality as an object of game studies. Firstly, EVE Online goes beyond the iterative environments of many MMORPGs (such as World of Warcraft) in that, rather than placing players on different servers to deal with population overload and different rulesets, EVE takes place in a single universe on a single server with scalable architecture and adaptive workload management. While there is also a free to play version with much reduced player violence, this is more like a demo than a separate game environment. The main EVE platform is therefore not only a marvel of scalable technological achievement but in making the entire universe open to players, what is usually a series of parts becomes a whole system and the simulated reality becomes itself a closer iteration of our own physical environment. The similarity with the material world is emphasized through EVE’s second distinctive feature, the lack of constraints. Other than active cheating, almost anything is permitted in EVE, including mass player on player violence, scamming and other such nefarious activities. Like a Wild West in space, EVE reflects humanity’s best and worst relations, bringing together conflict and collaboration as large-scale guilds are formed for mutual protection and economic or political attainment. As one player review comments, “imagine if every chat troll had guns, and were in the same room as you. That’s EVE in a nutshell”.[30] The characteristic behaviours of humans playing games is amplified in a social feedback loop that allows us to zoom in on radical social interactions at a much faster pace and greater scale than is often the case (in either a game or the real world), and the actual financial value of assets that might be lost or stolen only further emphasizes the social intensity of EVE.

The universe of EVE takes on a further fractal character through its persistence – a temporal scaling of experience that has, running since 2003, outlasted many other continuous game worlds. This historicity, to an even greater extent than what Worlds Adrift is attempting to achieve, forms a feedback loop of the game’s internal truth, reality, and identity, between the players, the technology and the designers. Aside from any fictional narrative, the history of EVE Online is now that of its players, its guilds, its own pivotal moments, all of which express the shift from narrative to ludic history that Neal Stephenson later detailed as the battle not between arbitrary good and evil of writers but between player-chosen colour palettes in his novel Reamde.[31] EVE now includes player activities in its own lore, embedding the human interactions within the game structure in a fractal narrative with a higher degree of ‘reality’. This history and player experience scales even beyond the singular game itself, with a tie-in first-person shooter game Dust 514 expanding the universe onto the planet’s surface. More than a game set in the same fictional universe, Dust offered a fractal experience in the same game universe, connected in real time with the events of EVE, to the extent that players on the surface in Dust could signal for orbital bombardment from their guild’s battleships in EVE, and the players in EVE could benefit from resources won in Dust. The universe of EVE Online is thus constantly expanding in a fractal level of detail in space and time, with new experiences contributing to the constant increase in the game’s multidimensional size and impact. This impact extends also into the real world, with Project Discovery turning minigames with in-world rewards to the cause of actual space discovery, using players’ enthusiasm for astronomy to sort through telescope data to find new exoplanets. The fractal metagame thus expands outwards from itself, iterating through our own reality in social and epistemic detail.

In academia, the scale of the game’s impact is such that there is even an EVE Online reader,[32] establishing the singular game/platform as a worthy field of study on its own. And, much like fractals themselves, EVE Online has acted as a lightning rod for various disciplines as a scaled study of many aspects of human behaviour, society, and technological mediation. This includes (again, offering only a representative sample) applications in: law, for an assessment of property[33] and normative behaviours;[34] history, as collective memory;[35] politics, for the study of online propaganda[36] and political economy;[37] social sciences more broadly for issues in identity,[38] gender[39] and ethnography;[40] business, for studying the links between supply chains and skills development;[41] technology and networking, for issues of workload and player behaviour,[42] scaling,[43] and EVE Online’s unique novel approach to server architecture to overcome these challenges;[44] and mathematics, in relation to science fiction and reality.[45] Of particular note is the importance of scaling in both the technology and the socio-political structures. Scalability is a challenge in system design whether it be of the order of CPUs or legal frameworks, echoing human society in general in the complexities across scales of material and social dilemmas. The fractal nature of games reiterates the fractal character that appears in all technology, its design and mediation of human life. The importance of technology studies as an interdisciplinary confrontation with our mediated society reflects the necessity of game studies as a fractal field of its own – a scale model of the relation between humanity and technology that can provide valuable insights into the fundamental processes of mediation that increasingly define our digitized world.

 

Conclusion

 

We have demonstrated the application of fractals as a metaphor for the construction and analysis of games as objects, as a medium and as a field of study. The scalability of gaming experiences offers not only an application of the fractal model but also a model with which to view the interdisciplinary relations inherent to technologically mediated human society. Through the analysis of feedback loops, self-similarity across iterative player experiences in different parts of the same game, and the scaling of experiences to the game world as a whole and the metagame of development and expansion, we have viewed No Man’s Sky, Everything, Worlds Adrift, and We Happy Few as models of fractal games, and EVE Online as a model of fractal game studies. A fractal mode of approaching games allows us to view multiple aspects of ludic and narrative experience alongside external facets of the game in its context. Thus, the fractal metaphor becomes a metafractal analysis whereby the model is itself fractal in nature, self-similar across the various scales and objects of its intellectual gaze, and iterative across disciplines. Games and game studies stand currently at a multidimensional crossroads, having transcended the ludo-narrative dissonance of the field itself, while integrating and spreading across multiple traditional disciplines. It will be essential to find new ways of understanding the intersecting topics and interactions across the ever-expanding dimensions of gaming as a medium.

 

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[1] James Gleick, Chaos, (London: Vintage) (1998), p. 98.

[2] Kenneth Falconer, Fractal Geometry: Mathematical FOundations and Applications (3rd ed.), (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons) (2014), xxix.

[3] Benoit Mandelbrot, A Fractal Geometry of Nature, (New York: W.H. Freeman and Co) (1983), p. 10.

[4] Kenneth Falconer, Fractal Geometry: Mathematical FOundations and Applications (3rd ed.), (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons) (2014), xxviii.

[5] Gleick, p. 103.

[6] Mandelbrot, p. 166.

[7] David Braben in Emma Boyes, “Q&A: David Braben–from Elite to today,” Gamespot, https://www.gamespot.com/articles/qanda-david-braben-from-elite-to-today/1100-6162140/ date accessed 27 February 2018.

[8] Chris Higgins, “No Man’s Sky would take 5 billion years to explore,” Wired, http://www.wired.co.uk/article/no-mans-sky-planets date accessed 1 September 2017.

[9] See from 10:00 – Wanderbot, “Let’s Play No Man’s Sky Update 1.3: Atlas Rises – PC Gameplay Part 1 – All Sorts Of New Stuff!” Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bITSv0TXJ7k date accessed 1 September 2017.

[10] Douglas Hofstadter, I Am a Strange Loop, (New York: Basic Books) (2007), p. 102.

[11] Mandelbrot, p. 423.

[12] Colin Campbell, “Everything review”, Polygon, https://www.polygon.com/2017/3/21/14991494/everything-review-ps4-PC date accessed 1 September 2017.

[13] See from 9:16 – JackSepticEye, “BLOW YOUR MIND | Everything #1”, Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GeJvh212pEQ date accessed 1 September 2017.

[14] Max Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe, (London: Penguin) (2015), p. 358.

[15] Hofstadter, pp. 19-23.

[16] Such as gamergate, an example of mass abuse by collections of gamers against (in this case female) games developers.

[17] Jessica Conditt, “How ‘We Happy Few’ plans to avoid the pitfalls of ‘No Man’s Sky’”, Engadget, https://www.engadget.com/2017/08/17/we-happy-few-fans-feedback-release-date-gearbox-compulsion-interview/ date accessed 1 September 2017.

[18] Quoted in Conditt.

[19] Gleick, p. 6.

[20] Arkadiusz Jadczyk, Quantum Fractals from Heisenberg’s Uncertainty to Barnsley’s Fractality, (Singapore: World Scientific) (2014).

[21] Laurent Nottale, Scale Relativity and Fractal Space-time: A New Approach to Unifying Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, (London: Imperial College Press) (2011).

[22] Jonathan Dickau, “Fractal cosmology” Chaos, Solitons and Fractals 41 (2009), pp. 2103-2105.

[23] Jay Sorkin, Shera Buyer, “Using fractal geometry in a financial crisis” Futures 31:10 (2002), p. 48.

[24] Kathryn Pavlovich, “A Fractal Approach to Sustainable Networks” E:CO 11:3 (2009), pp. 49-60.

[25] Ikujiro Nonaka, Mitsuru Kodama, Ayano Hirose, Florian Kohlbacher, “Dynamic fractal organizations for promoting knowledge-based transformation – A new paradigm for organizational theory” European Management Journal 32 (2014), pp. 137-146.

[26] S.M. Saad, A. M. Lassila, “Layout design in fractal organizations” International Journal of Production Research 42:17 (2004), pp. 3529-3550.

[27] Aurélien Bancaud, Christophe Lavelle, Sébastien Huet, and Jan Ellenberg, “A fractal model for nuclear organization: current evidence and biological implications” Nucleic Acids Research 40:18 (2012), pp. 8783-8792.

[28] Selma Aybek, Anisoara Ionescu, Alexandre Berney, Oury Chocron, Kamiar Aminian, Francois Joseph Godfried Vingerhoets, “Fractal temporal organisation of motricity is altered in major depression” Psychiatry Research 200 (2012), pp. 288-293.

[29] Rajiv Ramnath, David Landsbergen, “IT-enabled sense-and-respond strategies in complex public organizations” Communications of the ACM 48:5 (2005), p. 58-64.

[30] Styxies, [Steam comment – 5 May 2017], Steam http://store.steampowered.com/app/8500/EVE_Online/ accessed 24 May 2017.

[31] Neal Stephenson, Reamde (London: Atlantic Books) (2012).

[32] Marcus Carter, Kelly Bergstrom, Darryl Woodford (eds), Internet Spaceships Are Serious Business: An EVE Online Reader, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (2016).

[33] Bobby Glushko, “Tales of the (Virtual) City: Governing Property Disputes in Virtual Worlds” Berkeley technology law journal 22:1 (2007), pp. 507-532.

[34] Nicolas Suzor, Darryl Woodford, “Evaluating Consent and Legitimacy amongst Shifting Community Norms: an EVE Online Case Study” Journal of Virtual Worlds Research 6:3 (2013), 16p.

[35] Nicholas Webber, “EVE Online’s War Correspondents: player journalism as history”, in Fans and Videogames: Histories, Fandom, Archives, ed. Melanie Swalwell, Angela Ndalianis and Helen Stuckey (New York: Taylor and Francis) (2017), pp. 93-110.

[36] Marcus Carter, “Emitexts and Paratexts: Propaganda in EVE Online” Games and Culture 10:4 (2015), 311-342.

[37] Nicholas Taylor, Kelly Bergstrom, Jennifer Jenson and Suzanne de Castell, “Alienated Playbour: Relations of Production in EVE Online” Games and Culture 10:4 (2015), pp. 365-388.

[38] Marcus Carter, Martin Gibbs, Michael Arnold, “Avatars, Characters, Players and Users: Multiple Identities at/in Play” OZCHI’12 (2012), pp. 68-71.

[39] Kelly Bergstrom, “Virtual inequality: a woman’s place in cyberspace” FDG’12 (2012), pp. 267-269.

[40] Oskar Milik, “Virtual Warlords: An Ethnomethodological View of Group Identity and Leadership in EVE Online” Games and Culture (2015), p. 1-22.

[41] Michael Hugos. Essentials of Supply Chain Management, (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons) (2011), p. 219.

[42] Wu-chang Feng, “A Long-term Study of a Popular MMORPG” ACM SIGCOMM NetGames ‘07 (2007), pp. 19-24.

[43] David Brandt, “Scaling EVE Online, under the hood of the network layer” NetGames ‘05 (2005).

Daniel Horn, Ewen Cheslack-Postava, Tahir Azim, Michael J. Freedman, Philip Levis, “Scaling Virtual Worlds with a Physical Metaphor” Pervasive Computing Jul-Sept (2009), pp. 50-54.

[44] Halldor Fannar Guðjónsson, “The server technology of EVE Online: How to cope with 300,000 players on one server” Proc. Austin GDC (2008).

[45] Darren Jorgensen, “The Numerical Verisimilitude of Science Fiction and EVE-Online” Extrapolation 51:1 (2010), pp. 134-147.

Warping Diegesis: The Evolving Role of the Sound-track in Virtual Reality Gaming

Katherine Mancey

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 83-101.

 

 

Katherine Mancey

University of Liverpool

 

 

Warping Diegesis: The Evolving Role of the Soundtrack in Virtual Reality Gaming

 

Abstract

Whilst the study of music in audio-visual media is a well-established academic field, the fast and constant evolution of gaming technology creates the need for a simultaneous evolution in the analytical methodologies of video game music, and results in a need to draw from a wide range of disciplines, from film music studies to cognitive science. The rising popularity of virtual reality gaming, with the mass market introduction of VR headsets such as the Oculus Gear VR and Sony’s PSVR opens up a new field of discussion for the evolving role of non-diegetic music in gaming, and its subsequent effect on the player experience. My article addresses the shifting role of music from 2D screens to the in-world experience of virtual reality, and how this alters our perception of diegesis. This is supported by a discussion of varying neuropsychological explanations for the relationship between music and emotion, its effect on various theories of immersion/presence, and their application to this new visual immediacy. Through an analysis of a selection of films and video games, including the most recent Batman: Arkham VR, I will be questioning whether the same need for a non-diegetic underscore exists, or if this new visual experience calls for more musical fluidity across the diegesis where soundtrack and in-game audio flow seamlessly. Now that the physical distance between the player and the graphics has been drastically reduced, I question whether traditional non-diegetic video game scores will break the fourth wall rather than enhancing the player’s immersive experience. By examining where we draw lines within diegesis, this paper acknowledges the need for a re-evaluation of the relationship between soundtrack and in-game audio, as gaming technology moves away from the traditional static screen experience and into an edgeless game world, highlighting the significance of analysing all game sound as a guide to emotional response.

Key words: music, virtual reality, video games, soundtrack, Batman, film

 

The soundtrack has been a vital part of audio-visual media since its introduction in early film. However, before discussing the evolution of the soundtrack from silent film to virtual reality gaming, it is important to first contextualise virtual reality within both the gaming world and the wider technology sector. Whilst VR video games and 360º visual experiences have only recently emerged on the mass market, the design principle of Darlene Wheatstone’s 1838 stereoscope is still used today for the Google Cardboard and other lower budget VR head-mounted displays for mobile phones, using two different 2D images side by side to build a 3D image. One of the first ‘VR’ gaming experiences for the mass market was Nintendo’s table top console, Virtual Boy. Released in 1995, it used the same stereoscopic principles to create a 3D display but without free head movement. This proved unpopular with global sales of only 770,000 units[1]. Since then, developments in technology, such as an increase in graphical fidelity, have led to greater sophistication in virtual reality technology and in 2016 three premium VR headsets were released, the HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift, and the PSVR. Of the three, the PSVR has been the most commercially successful, perhaps due to its lower price point and easier set-up, requiring a PS4 to use rather than a high specification gaming PC, selling roughly one million units in its first six months.[2]

The HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift have applications outside of the gaming world, with their virtual reality technology starting to be introduced into a range of industries. For example, VR headsets allow architects to better ‘feel’ the spaces they are designing[3]. There has been a rise in 360º video production too, with popular entertainment outlets such as Buzzfeed sharing numerous 360º videos on their YouTube channel. To be experienced, their videos use stereoscopic principles which require lower-end VR headsets such as Google Cardboard, or they can be viewed without a headset by scrolling around the video, bringing this new cinematic experience to a much wider audience, and beginning to normalise the virtual reality experience in popular culture. Although these videos are not interactive, it shows a rise in the popularity of this visual engulfment, with their ‘How Animals See the World’ video being viewed over 4 million times[4]. In contrast, the PSVR is only used for gaming as it works in conjunction with the PS4. Due to its popularity and sole gaming function, I will be focusing on the PSVR and games made for the PSVR specifically whilst discussing the shifting role of music from film to 2D video games, through to virtual reality.

The soundtrack is well established as an essential part of film, television, and video games, serving many functions both practically and aesthetically. Before the advent of synchronised dialogue in 1927, films were completely silent but the theatres themselves were far from silent. The machinery involved in projecting films was loud, and audiences treated going to the movies as a social occasion. This gave music a functional purpose as it could drown out the real world, drawing attention to the screen. Music was seen as part of the performance of a film, with composers Hans Erdmann and Giuseppe Becce questioning in 1927 whether films needed music at all[5], as it was believed that non-diegetic music during dialogue scenes could annoy viewers who were trying to concentrate on the dialogue. But this opinion was not universal; when film makers managed to synchronise dialogue with image, the fidelity of the sound playback was poor. Actors had to stand awkwardly still and close to hidden microphones which lead to unnatural line delivery. This resulted in actors on screen appearing ghostly, as suggested by Adorno and Eisler, ‘For the talking picture, too, is mute. The characters in it are not speaking people but speaking effigies’[6]; without music films became ‘emaciated, bloodless, lacking in emotional appeal’[7]. It was music’s job to bring emotion to scenes and to breathe life back into the ghostly figures, overcoming the ‘questions of belief, immediacy and illusion’[8] from the audience. Musical ensembles differed between theatres, with some using full orchestras, but most movie theatres employed solo theatre organists or pianists to accompany the film. After reading the director’s ‘emotion’ annotation for the scene, they would use a mixture of improvisation, original scores, and compiled scores from pre-existing music to express this emotion to their audience; as noted by Stuart Oderman, ‘The tremolo increased suspense…A diminished chord called for resolution’[9], creating the foundations of a soundtrack. This use of soundtrack to convey human emotion has carried through to video games. As Collins suggests, sound in video games is a ‘simulacrum of the real’[10], whilst this also applies to the reactive sound effects in games, the principles behind the use of sound are still the same, to stop the on-screen action from feeling alien and detached.

We can draw parallels between the use of musical cues in early film and in video games. Just as audiences had to read slides, in early video games the players had to read text to continue the narrative, reinforced by music (see Fig 1.1). Without the capacity to play dialogue, music had to bring the text to life. Whilst still very obviously non-diegetic, this music was a key communicator of diegetic mood. Square Co.’s Final Fantasy I (1987) employs this technique. After reaching the Light Warrior Memorial Bridge, a prologue screen opens accompanied by the Final Fantasy overture (see Example 1.1)

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Example 1.1: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nWX1M6xTA0>

 

The music during the prologue has to set the scene for adventure, achieving this through a variety of compositional techniques. If we analyse the opening melodic statement (See Fig 1.2 and 0’0’’ to 0’13’’ from Example 1.1) we can see how its structure mirrors the beginning of a journey. It starts with the tonic note in the bass and the fifth in both melodic lines, followed by a minor seventh leap. The seventh pushes us to the expansion of an upper octave in the safety of the tonic key opposed to a more nostalgic return to the original octave[11]; therefore, its use in the opening of the prologue readies the player for expansive adventure as the on-screen text reads, ‘And so, their journey begins…’. The use of the seventh is repeated in sequence; transposed up a tone to G minor it accompanies the text, ‘What awaits the Four, they do not know’. By using rising sequential repetition and a minor chord, tension builds which creates an air of mystery to mirror the text, finishing with a C major 7 chord which propels the music forwards as the ear wants it to resolve, again creating an expectation of exploration and a sense of adventure.

Zrzut_08 2018-07-29 00.46.36

The melody, harmonic structure and overall musical phrasing is reminiscent of baroque music, using a continuo bass and melodic counterpoint alongside binary form and faster-paced chord changes. However, Finally Fantasy I is not set in 17th Century Western Europe, therefore the decision to use this baroque style is not reflective of the diegetic world. When Final Fantasy I was released for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System, only three audio channels were available, and during gameplay one channel had to be left open for sound effects. As Collins suggests, ‘technological constraint has shaped aesthetic decisions’[12]. The use of this baroque style fit nicely within the three-channel system, it allowed for melodic lines to be effective whilst sounding in similar timbres akin to the contrapuntal melodic lines in Bach’s piano preludes, building and resealing tension to add depth to the pixilated characters. It also gave a sense of grandeur to the otherwise thin textures, making the resolve to the major tonic feel triumphant.

Final Fantasy I has spawned a series of sequels since its 1987 release. The most recent, Final Fantasy XV (2016), has a vastly greater capacity for audio with huge development in both the technology within the game engine and consoles (such as memory and processing capacity), and the technology used to record the music itself (such as microphone fidelity and digital processing) since the 8-bit three channel system, resulting in a high-fidelity and far more musically intricate soundtrack. It uses the same prologue theme from Final Fantasy I, but this time it is heard at the end of the game and in much richer scoring (see Example 1.2).

 

Example 1.2: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=EojQj4UI58A>

 

As Summers suggests, ‘The total time, on average, that a player spends with any one game is significantly longer than the running time of most mainstream films’[13], and the player’s exposure to this prologue motif is significantly longer if they have played through all fifteen games in the series. This familiarity and long-term association with the motif adds greater emotional value to the piece above the sociocultural meaning accompanying its musical style, reinterpreting the prologue theme from the opening game play of Final Fantasy I as a finale theme to bring the whole series full circle. Yoko Shimomura’s re-orchestration of the prelude theme takes the music from a string quartet, to a piano-led quintet, through to a fanfare using brass, percussion, and a choir. This mirrors the journey the player has taken throughout the game (and throughout the whole series,), moving away from the baroque scoring techniques used in Final Fantasy I and using more contemporary scoring techniques with no technological restriction. For example, the opening string quartet uses homophonic harmonic movement with a leading violin melody on top, previously impossible via earlier 8-bit technology (See Fig. 1.3). However, both Example 1.1 and 1.2 are taken from cut scenes. These passive moments from otherwise interactive experiences allow for a linear score which lends itself to filmic musical tropes: scoring can be thicker, and the certainty of linear playback allows for greater melodic and harmonic development. Whilst this interpretation of the theme is much grander and has been humanised through the use of acoustic timbres and performance techniques such as varying vibrato, the music is still firmly non-diegetic and there is a clear distinction between the sounds and timbres of the game world and those of the soundtrack.

 

Zrzut_09 2018-07-29 00.46.57

 

Numerous studies have been conducted analysing the effect that music has on emotion; Schäfer et al. found in their study that the faster the rhythms, the more stressful and dangerous a situation the listener experiences[14]; this correlates with the use of fast-paced music in chase scenes. Chia-Hung Yeh et al. found that participants in their study could easily and accurately identify the emotions behind a piece of popular music even through different cover versions of the piece using varying lyrics in different languages[15], thus showing how powerful melody can be. Lipscomb and Kendall analysed participants’ ability to determine which music best fit a scene from Leonard Nimoy’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home from five musical examples. They found that participants could identify the ‘correct’ music for each scene with a high degree of accuracy, and this level of accuracy increased when scenes included human characters as the music worked to mirror human gestures[16].

This reaction to musical cues works in reverse too, as found in Bullerjahn and Güldering’s study in which participants watched intentionally ambiguous film clips accompanied by a range of music, and found that musical genre had a great impact on the participants film outcome predictions, such as ‘thriller’ music leading them to imagine a more adventurous and violent film ending than the ‘melodrama’ score which lead to visions of happier, family-centric plot conclusions[17].  Imagining an accompanying image is a commonly reported reaction to music[18] and whilst each image in the mind of the listener may differ from the next, Osborne found that listeners often associated relatively similar images to specific music[19], which shows how music can be used as a powerful tool in video games to underpin gameplay and create a vaster picture of a game world than can be shown on the screen. Musical foreshadowing is a powerful tool in video games too; as Whalen suggests, ‘the paradigmatic atmosphere music also acts as melodic foreshadowing’ in relation to the interactive ocarina feature in Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, in which ‘the melodies they learn have an eerie familiarity’ as they are heard throughout the game [20]. Therefore, as discovered in each of these studies, music has a profound impact on the players’ emotional reading of a scene, with musical cues both aiding the emotional understanding of current gameplay and also creating narrative expectations for gameplay sequences to come.

There are varying neuropsychological explanations for these emotional responses to music. Juslin and Västfjäll suggest that the emotional response is controlled by brainstem reflexes, and that emotions are induced by music because of their fundamental acoustical characteristics, signalling a potentially important and urgent event[21]. For example, a large shift in dynamic from pianissimo to fortissimo is alarming to the brain and can result in an emotion of fear or shock, manipulating an evolutionary response to sound. Berlyne suggests this emotional-arousal property of music, regulated by the brainstem, explains why there is a preference for certain music at certain times[22], such as soft and harmonically predictable music being relaxing. Another explanation for the relationship between music and emotion is evaluative conditioning, which suggests that a formerly neutral stimulus such as music is transformed into a conditioning stimulus by its repeating pairing with an already existing emotionally charged stimulus[23], such as the repeated pairing of kiss scenes in film with lyrical string melodies to create an association between lush string scoring and romance. Another theory, emotional contagion, relates musical expression and gesture with an internal mimicking of that gesture by the listener, which in turn reproduces the emotions felt by the performer. This phenomenon has been seen in facial expressions in which musical expressions of fear have been recreated in the tensing of certain facial muscles by the listener[24]. Davies’s theory of emotional episodic memory works with theories of the personal semiotic values of music, as it suggests that specific emotions can be induced by the relationship between an emotional memory and the sounds of that time, also called the ‘Honey, they are playing our tune’ phenomenon[25], and can also be used to explain the emotional currency of nostalgia. All of these theories attempt to describe the way music can trigger emotion within the listener, and whilst exact emotion responses are unique to each person, they all suggest there is some commonality in emotional reactions to certain audio stimuli, whether it be an evolutionary response or a culturally embedded and subconsciously learned response to certain musical stimuli.

This use of music to aid emotional depth is a significant contributing factor to a player’s level of immersion, so that the player can experience the sensation of feeling spatially located in the game world environment[26]. There are a range of theories as to what creates this feeling of immersion and how it can be sustained, but there is a general consensus amongst scholars that immersion is a multi-faceted process. Wirth et al. suggest that this immersion process happens on two levels, influenced by media factors, process components, user actions and user factors. Primarily, the media factors and user factors work together to create both controlled attention, such as the player actively choosing to play a video game, and automatic attention, such as game music drawing the player’s eye to the screen. Once the player is engaging with the game, they suggest that immersion moves to a secondary level where the player experiences a ‘suspension of disbelief’ as they adapt to the laws and physics of the game world[27]. Brown and Cairns suggested a three-tier system: The first is engagement, which includes learning the controls and game mechanics when a conscious effort has to be made to play the game. The second is engrossment, when the controls have become second nature the player is susceptible to emotional influence from the game as their focus moves from learning to experiencing. The third is immersion, when the player is totally emotionally invested in the game at that moment and their own emotions are influenced by the characters and narrative in the game world[28].

Sweester and Wyeth focused on quantifying what creates immersion, developing their GameFlow model, using a table of ‘GameFlow criteria for player enjoyment in games’ in an attempt to explain the process of becoming immersed in video games[29]. From this table they can award games an individual GameFlow score, but their calculation does not take into account the role of music on any of their criteria, which is arguably a prominent influencer on player immersion, as suggested by Lipscomb and Zehnder’s study[30]. Using game play sequences from Electronic Arts’ Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, they measured player enjoyment with and without music using a verbal scale and found a positive correlation between music and enjoyment. Nacke, Grimshaw and Lindly’s study furthers this notion, analysing the impact of both music and sound effects on player enjoyment in a first-person shooter game, and found through their gamer experience questionnaire that the most enjoyable play occurred when both music and sound effects were present, and that playing without music and sound effects resulted in a tenser and less enjoyable gameplay experience[31]. The fact that these two studies focused on games from distinctly different genres but resulted in similar findings highlights the universal importance of music for player enjoyment, as it created a better environment for player immersion to occur.

 

The Batman franchise serves well as a case study to discuss the varying use of music to evoke emotion from early film through to virtual reality gaming, with a long lineage of films, video games and now a virtual reality video game for PSVR to analyse. Batman is a long-standing figure in popular culture, with the first Batman story, ‘The Case of The Chemical Syndicate’ published in Detective Comics issue #27 in May of 1939[32]. He first appeared in films during the 1940s and has since been a staple character of the blockbuster, rebranded in 2005 with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, taking him further away from the underpants-over-tights comic book hero and into the more sophisticated ‘dark’ hero that Batman is best recognised as in current popular culture. This new image for Batman proved popular, with the two sequels The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012), also directed by Christopher Nolan, earning over $1 billion worldwide.[33]

Throughout his appearances in film, television and video games, Batman has existed at the extremes of musical gesture. Lambert Hillyer’s 1943 The Batman, released during Hollywood’s ‘golden age’, uses a full orchestral score synonymous with that era of film, with culturally embedded musical tropes such as tremolo strings and rising melodic lines to create suspense (See Example 2.1). In 1966, Batman was brought to television with a live-action series based on the comic books, its theme tune is in stark contrast to the music of Lambert Hillyer’s film, with obvious influence from popular music of the 1960s in both musical style and instrumentation, using a jovial, catchy melody (See Example 2.2). In further contrast, the use of music in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins moves away from the heavy orchestral scoring of the 1940s and the up-tempo theme of the 1960s, and takes a more reduced, almost acousmatic approach to scoring Batman’s scenes (See Example 2.3). The first Batman video game, Ocean Software’s Batman, was released in 1986 for the ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, and other 8-bit personal home computers. Even with the limitations of the three-channel audio system, the game opens with a chip-tune version of the Batman theme from the 1966 television series (See Example 2.4). This ease of adaptation to fit changes in contemporary popular culture aesthetics throughout the past century shows the robust nature of Batman and his sustained popularity as a character, from early film to television through to video games.

 

Example 2.1:  <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zVmIit0PXU>

Example 2.2: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDWSHNEbkII>

Example 2.3: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8tT_2QMwxI>

Example 2.4: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5_cHljImI0>

 

Just as there is a long and varied history of Batman films, Batman has been a staple character of video games across gaming platforms for decades, appearing in over sixty titles, of which he is the main character in over thirty. The portrayal of Batman in these games has largely stayed in line with his portrayal in film and television. Due to technological limitations of the 8-bit systems, the earliest Batman video games used soundtracks typical of 8-bit games during gameplay but still took musical cues from other Batman media where possible (See Example 2.4). In 1990, SunSoft developed four video games with the title Batman; each game was tailored to its platform (Nintendo Entertainment System, Game Boy, Sega Genesis, PC) resulting in a difference in gameplay across platforms, but it is best associated with the release for the Nintendo Entertainment System, selling over a million copies[34]. Whilst it was released just after Burton’s film Batman (1989), the game’s narrative does not bear much resemblance to the film, and Naoki Kodaka’s soundtrack is independent of Elfman’s film score. However, they do share some melodic characteristics. For example, in the first level (See Example 2.5) the overall melodic contour is similar to that of Elfman’s scoring for the film’s opening scene (See Example 2.6), with both melodies rising up from the tonic to the sixth and falling to a sustained fifth (See fig 2.1).

 

Example 2.5: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HktXo2AgWBk>

Example 2.6: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXGXllCMOQg>

Zrzut_10 2018-07-29 00.47.32

As the possibilities of game audio increased, the music of Batman video games became more stylistically reminiscent of film scores as it was possible to use a full orchestral linear score during interactive cinematic cut-scenes and more sophisticated modular cues that are triggered during gameplay. Tsunami Music’s score for Eurocom’s Batman Begins (2005) is far more closely linked to Nolan’s film Batman Begins (2005) than Sunsoft’s Batman (1990) was to Burton’s Batman (1989) in both character representation (See fig 2.3) and soundtrack, due to improvements in both graphic and audio fidelity. This considerable increase in game audio fidelity caused a shift in video game soundtracks as composers could broaden their use of timbres and move away from the synthesized sounds of 8-bit and 16-bit consoles.

Whilst the music in Batman video games does reference its use in film, especially during interactive cinematics, film uses a fixed linear narrative which creates a passive audience experience, while video games use a more flexible interactive narrative and active player engagement which calls for a difference in compositional approach during gameplay. Ryan suggests that interactivity appears on two levels, one constituted by the medium and one intrinsic to the work itself. She suggests these can exist as internal, where the user plays the role of an individual in the narrative, or as external, where the user has a god-like role. This creates two main types of user experience: the first is exploratory, in which the user has no creative power in the story world, such as in films; the second is ontological, in which user actions create objects and cause effects that bring lasting change, as in video games. These can be combined to create four types of interactivity: external-explanatory, external-ontological, internal-ontological, and internal-exploratory[35]. Dogramain and Liptay discuss the relationship between ‘solid’ and ‘liquid’ realities, suggesting that the anticipation of liquid spaces breaks down the barrier between the viewer and media[36]. Although they discuss this in relation to visual art, this anticipation of liquid space works within Ryan’s descriptions of interactivity as the premise of a liquid narrative environment invites player immersion, as seen in the external-ontological and internal-ontological narrative structures. This ontological narrative results in a need for dynamic, reactive scoring, based on modular cues. As discussed, music has a prominent effect on emotion, but the player’s ability to direct the narrative leads to the condensing of musical tropes to short looping cues which can seamlessly fade in and out of the non-diegetic score during gameplay. This use of adaptive scoring further cements the internal-ontological status of the player within the game world, as they are leading the soundtrack through their narrative choices.

Though there is a need for different approaches to music with linear versus modular scoring, film and 2D video games share a need for music to draw focus to the screen and to help transport the audience/player into that 2D world. However, virtual reality gaming brings a new visual experience to the player, totally separate from that of 2D video games, film and even 3D film. It creates for the first time an edgeless game world, where the player experiences total visual engulfment. With the headset on, there is no room to look away from the screen, giving the game world an immediate sense of vastness. There is no separation between the player and the action, with characters appearing to be standing directly in front of their face. This alters music’s function as it no longer needs to attract the player’s attention to the screen, and this change in function can be seen in comparing the opening of Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009) with their Batman: Arkham VR (2016). The opening of Batman: Arkham Asylum (See Example 3.1), uses orchestral timbres such as horn swells, rising sequential string melodies and a choral pad. In stark contrast to this, the opening of Batman: Arkham VR (See Example 3.2) uses a more processed string sound, synthesised pad swells and a melody heard once in octaves on horn and strings before launching straight into thick atmospheric sounds. There is no melodic development, more synthesised timbres, thinner scoring, and a much shorter title sequence. It still depicts the darkness of Gotham City and the image of Batman as the dark hero, but in a musically simplified way in comparison with the 2D game. The ‘Suit Up’ scene in Batman: Arkham VR (See Example 3.3) does use a slightly thicker score for this interactive cinematic, but it is still far sparser than the music of the 2D game. We hear the theme but again in octaves with no countermelody or obvious harmonic reinforcement, underpinned by a synthesised pulse and low horn and string pad which swells when the player is not engaging with the game mechanics. This use of more prominent processed timbres and less prominent orchestral timbres both reinforces the visuals of the technology surrounding the player and also compliments the new ‘high-tech’ experience of virtual reality.

 

Example 3.1: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHXR4QIQPsA>

Example 3.2: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RTiTnY9FPgk>

Example 3.3: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bedb1UBtEc>

 

Another explanation for this use of reduced scoring could be the change in the physical delivery of the sound to the player. More than ever before players are encouraged to use surround sound headphones with the PSVR; a pair is included with the headset and there is a headphone jack on the headset control with its own volume control, making it easy to adjust the sound. This change in delivery plays with the notion of diegesis as the sound feels closer to the player and there is greater accuracy in the reception of stereo imaging. A busy soundtrack using orchestral timbres runs the risk of breaking the fourth wall for players as it becomes more obviously non-diegetic whilst they are totally visually situated within this game world. Using these electronic timbres that are more congruent with sounds of the game world creates a less obviously non-diegetic soundtrack which can aid player immersion and comfort without making players hyper aware that they are playing a video game. This soundtrack is reduced further during gameplay, when moving sound creates a 360º audio picture to accompany the image and to further reinforce the player’s feeling of being surrounded by the game and at the centre of the image (See Example 3.4). Just as the player is totally encompassed by visuals, they are totally cloaked in sound. Techniques applied to orchestral scores to create tension are instead applied to game world sounds to create a sense of unease without it being obviously musical. There is a constant pitter-patter of rain, setting a pulse, then rhythmic fragments are created by the blowing wind which moves between left and right and occupies the higher-end frequencies usually inhabited by violins and upper woodwind in an orchestral setting. This is underpinned by a consistent sub-bass rumble, then dissonances used to create tension come from the moving sounds of trams which pan from side to side and slide in pitch from high to low or low to high depending on their starting position in relation to the player, reminiscent of the doppler effect. Where these sounds intersect, dissonances are created, as if these tram sounds were an evolving instrumental pad; the dissonances do not resolve, they simply fade away as the trams pass, building suspense as the ear waits for a solid resolution.

 

Example 3.4: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTsjbn-6e30>

 

This use of music alters our perception of diegesis as it uses a mixture of diegetic and non-diegetic timbres that work together to create a soundtrack, existing somewhere in between the two sound worlds. It also changes the relationship between music and sound effects: rather than existing as two independent devices, they exist as one multifunctional device. Barnabé suggests that the notion of space in video games can be broken down into three concepts. The first, cosmos, is the game world that exists regardless of play participation, game narrative, or game objective. The second, diegesis, is the cosmos which is oriented by the story as its construction is necessary to allow for gameplay. The third, ludiegesis, is the diegesis as ruled by the player’s actions, the space that exists as a result of the player’s decisions[37]. If we apply this framework to virtual reality, the collaboration between in-game and external sound sources facilitates the smooth transitions between these virtual spaces as the player moves from the diegetic, such as an interactive cinematic scene, to the ludiegesis during gameplay. For example, Batman transitions from the ludiegesis, where he has the ability to capture the Penguin, to the diegesis, where he listens to the Penguin’s dialogue, back to the ludiegesis, without an obvious break between the fixed scene and the gameplay as there is no change in the sound world (See Example 3.4). Virtual reality easily accommodated this transition as the characters appear to be directly in front of the player, so a full screen close-up of their face can appear in both gameplay and the cinematic without needing an obvious change in camera angle. The seemingly randomised interactions between the various sound sources that creates the soundtrack also means there is no sense of interruption to the underlying score as the player transitions between these game states, allowing the player to feel as if they are always actively engaged in play even when a non-player character is delivering dialogue to progress the narrative.

From Wheatstone’s stereoscopic invention to modern day virtual reality technology, there has been growing interest in experiencing total visual engulfment. Although it has many cross-industry applications, the largest mass market for virtual reality is currently in video games, and an increasing number of game developers are creating virtual reality-only games and adding virtual reality downloadable content to their other titles. Throughout history, sound has accompanied moving image and has adapted to developments in visual and in audio technology. By analysing the way soundtracks have been used from early film through to virtual reality, we can see its evolution from the thick romantic scoring of the ‘golden age’, to the baroque stylings of early video games, to the use of modern film music technique. However, what has been shared throughout all these iterations of soundtrack is the use of a clear distinction between the diegetic world and the non-diegetic music, whether this is the live accompaniment during silent films or the full orchestral scores used in Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009). Virtual reality brings with it another change in music scoring technique, sound design and sound delivery to the player. It shares some fundamental characteristic with 2D video games, such as anchoring the player in the game world, but there is a contrast between the way these are executed. Now, the player’s perception of diegesis is warped as they are wholly visually engulfed in the game world, and the use of greater fluidity between music and game-world sound reflects this. We are still at the beginning of mass market virtual reality gaming, and whilst it is popular, it could take a few generations of virtual reality technology and a decrease in system prices before more players become accustomed to the new visual experience. However, through combining theories of immersive play, music’s representation of emotion, and its influence on feelings, with a discussion of the development of soundtrack over the past century, it is clear that music and sound are still vital to the gaming experience. The new game world of virtual reality may be edgeless, but our field of vision is still 114º, needing sound to add emotional context and depth to build a 360º experience.

 

References

Adorno, T. Eisler, H. Composing for the Films, (New York: Oxford University Press) (1947).

Bakshy, A. With Benefit of Music. The Nation, 27 May (1931).

Barnabé, F.  ‘Storytelling in Videogames: From ‘Narraive’ Towards ‘Fictional Universe’, presented at: Poetics of the Algorithm – Narrative, the Digital, and ‘Unidentified’ Media. Liège, 18th June 2016. <http://orbi.ulg.ac.be/handle/2268/198777>  accessed 5th January 2017.

Berlyne, D. E. Aesthetics and Psychobiology. (New York: Appleton-Century-Croft) (1971).

Bocking, S., Hartmann, T., Klimmt, C., Schramm, H., Vorderer, P., Wirth, W. “Spatial Presence Theory: State of the Art and Challenges Ahead”, in Immersed in Media: Telepresence Theory, Measurement & Technology, eds. Biocca, F., Freeman, J., IJsselsteijn, W., Lombard, M., Schaevitz, R. J. (New York: Springer) (2015).

Brown, E., Cairns, P. “A Grounded Investigations of Game Immersion”. CHI’04 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors and Computing Systems (Vienna, April 2004).

Bullerjahn, C., Güldenring, M. “An empirical investigation of effects of film music using qualitative content analysis”, Psychomusicology 13:1 (1994).

Collins, K. “In the loop: Creativity and constraint in 8-bit video game audio”, Twentieth-century music 4:2 (2008).

Collins, K. Playing with Sound: A Theory of Interacting with Sound and Music in Video Games. (Cambridge: MIT University Press) (2013).

Curtis, M. E., Bharucha, J. J. The Minor Third Communicated Sadness in Speech, Mirroring Its Use in Music, Emotion 10:3 (2010)

Daniels, L. Batman – The Complete History: The Life and Times of the Dark Knight. (San Francisco: Chronicle Books) (2004).

Davies, S. “Philosophical perspectives on music’s expressiveness”, in Music and Emotion: Theory and Research, eds. Juslin, P. N., Sloboda, J. A. (Oxford: OUP) (2001).

Dogramain, B., Liptay, F. “Immersion in the Visual Arts and Media”, in Immersion in the Visual Arts and Media eds. Dogramain, B., Liptay, F. (Leiden: Brill) (2015).

Edwards, B. Unraveling The Enigma Of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, 20 Years Later. Fast Company. <https://www.fastcompany.com/3050016/unraveling-the-enigma-of-nintendos-virtual-boy-20-years-later> accessed 13th May 2017.

Field, A. P., Moore, A. C. “Dissociating the effects of attention and contingency on awareness on evaluating conditioning effects in the visual paradigm”, Cognition & Emotion. 19:1 (2005).

Fruchter R., Lia, A. Developing a collaborative workflow from BIM to virtual reality. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University) (2015).

Good, O. S. PlayStation VR sales figures revealed in exec’s interview. Polygon. <https://www.polygon.com/2017/2/26/14742880/playstation-vr-sales>  accessed 17th May 2017.

Groner, R., Weibel, D., Wissmath, B. “Dubbing or Subtitling? Effects on Spatial Presence, Transportation, Flow, and Enjoyment”, Journal of Media Psychology 21:3 (2009).

Halfyard, J. K. “Cue the Big Theme? The Sound of the Superhero”, in The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics, eds. Richardson, J., Gorbman, C., Vernallis, C. (2013).

Juslin, P. N., Västfjäll, D. “Emotional responses to music: the need to consider underlying mechanisms”, Behavioural Brain Science 31:1 (2008).

Lastra, J. Sound Technology and the American Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press) (2000).

Lipscomb, S. D., Kendall, R. A. “Perceptual judgment of the relationship between musical and visual components in film”, Psychomusicology 13:1 (1994).

Lipscomb, S. D., Zehnder, S. M. “Immersion in the Virtual Environment: The Effect of a Musical Score on the Video Gaming Experience”, Journal of Physiological Anthropology and Applied Human Science 23:1 (2004).

Lundqvist, L. “Facial expressions are contagious” Journal of Psychophysiol. 9:1 (1995).

Maman, F. The Role of Music in the Twenty-first Century. (California: Tama-Dõ) (1997).

Nacke, L. E., Grimshaw, M. N., Lindly, C. A. “More than a feeling: Measurement of sonic user experience and psychophysiology in a first-person shooter game”, Interacting with Computers 22:5 (2010).

Oderman, S. “The sound of silents”, Films in Review 47:3 (1996).

Osborne, J. W. “A phenomenological investigation of the musical representation of extra-musical ideas”, Journal of Phenomenol Psychology 20:1 (1989).

Reay, P. Music in Film: Soundtracks and Synergy  (New York: Wallflower Press) (2014).

Ryan, M. Narrative as Virtual Reality 2: Revisiting Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press) (2015).

Schäfer, T., Huron, D., Shanahan, D., Sedlmeier, P. “The sounds of safety: stress and danger in music perception”, Frontiers in Psychology 6:9 (2015).

Strangman, R. Memoirs of a Virtual Caveman. (North Carolina: Lulu Press) (2014).

Subers, R. Around-the-World Roundup: ‘Dark Knight Rises’ Joins Billionaire Club. Box Office Mojo. < http://www.boxofficemojo.com/news/?id=3514&p=.htm>  accessed 18th May 2017.

Summers, T. “Wagner and Video Game Music” in: Music in Video Games: Studying Play eds. Donnelly, K. J., Gibbons, W., Lerner, W. (UK: Routledge) (2014).

Sweester, P., Wyeth, P. “GameFlow: A Model for Evaluating Player Enjoyment in Games”, ACM Computers in Entertainment 3:3 (2005).

Tan, S. L., Kelley, M. E. “Graphic representations of short musical compositions”, Psychology of Music 32:2 (2004).

Whelan, Z. N. Play Along: Video Game Music as Metaphor and Metonymy (Florida: University of Florida) (2004).

Wingstedt, J., Brändström, S., Berg, J. “Narrative Music, Visual and Meaning in Film”, Visual Communication. 9:2 (2010).

Yeh, CH., Tseng, WY., Chen, CY. et al. “Popular music representation: chorus detection & emotions recognition”, Multimedia Tools and Applications 73:3 (2014)

 

Films

Batman (1989, Tim Burton)

Batman and Robin (1949, Spencer Gordon Bennet)

Batman Begins (2005, Christopher Nolan)

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986, Leonard Nimoy)

The Batman (1943, Lambert Hillyer)

The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)

The Dark Knight Rises (2012, Christopher Nolan)

The Pawnshop (1916, Charlie Chaplin)

 

Video Games

Batman (1986, Ocean Software)

Batman (1990, SunSoft)

Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009, Rocksteady)

Batman: Arkham VR (2016, Rocksteady)

Batman Begins (2005, Eurocom)

Final Fantasy I (1987, Square Co.)

Final Fantasy XV (2016, Square Enix)

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002, Electronic Arts)

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998, Nintendo)

 

[1] Edwards, B. Unraveling The Enigma Of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, 20 Years Later. Fast Company. <https://www.fastcompany.com/3050016/unraveling-the-enigma-of-nintendos-virtual-boy-20-years-later> accessed 13th May 2017.

[2] Good, O. S. PlayStation VR sales figures revealed in exec’s interview. Polygon. <https://www.polygon.com/2017/2/26/14742880/playstation-vr-sales>  accessed 17th May 2017.

[3] Fruchter R., Lia, A. Developing a collaborative workflow from BIM to virtual reality. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University) (2015).

[4] How Animals See the World, Buzzfeed. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HqmBa8FPMx8> accessed 28th August 2017.

[5] Discussed by Reay in Music in Film: Soundtracks and Synergy  (New York: Wallflower Press) (2014).

[6] Adorno, T. Eisler, H. Composing for the Films, (New York: Oxford University Press) (1947) p76.

[7] Bakshy, A. With Benefit of Music. The Nation, 27 May (1931) p359.

[8] Lastra, J. Sound Technology and the American Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press) (2000) p64.

[9] Oderman, S. “The sound of silents”, Films in Review 47:3 (1996) p38.

[10] Collins, K. Playing with Sound: A Theory of Interacting with Sound and Music in Video Games. (Cambridge: MIT University Press) (2013) p135.

[11] Maman, F. The Role of Music in the Twenty-first Century. (California: Tama-Dõ) (1997).

[12] Collins, K. “In the loop: Creativity and constraint in 8-bit video game audio”, Twentieth-century music 4:2 (2008) p209.

[13] Summers, T. “Wagner and Video Game Music” in: Music in Video Games: Studying Play eds. Donnelly, K. J., Gibbons, W., Lerner, W. (UK: Routledge) (2014) p206.

[14] Schäfer, T., Huron, D., Shanahan, D., Sedlmeier, P. “The sounds of safety: stress and danger in music perception”, Frontiers in Psychology 6:9 (2015).

[15] Yeh, CH., Tseng, WY., Chen, CY. et al. “Popular music representation: chorus detection & emotions recognition”, Multimedia Tools and Applications 73:3 (2014).

[16] Lipscomb, S. D., Kendall, R. A. “Perceptual judgment of the relationship between musical and visual components in film”, Psychomusicology 13:1 (1994).

[17] Bullerjahn, C., Güldenring, M. “An empirical investigation of effects of film music using qualitative content analysis”, Psychomusicology 13:1 (1994)

[18] Tan, S. L., Kelley, M. E. “Graphic representations of short musical compositions”, Psychology of Music 32:2 (2004).

[19] Osborne, J. W. “A phenomenological investigation of the musical representation of extra-musical ideas”, Journal of Phenomenol Psychology 20:1 (1989).

[20] Whelan, Z. N. Play Along: Video Game Music as Metaphor and Metonymy (Florida: University of Florida) (2004) p43.

[21] Juslin, P. N., Västfjäll, D. “Emotional responses to music: the need to consider underlying mechanisms”, Behavioural Brain Science 31:1 (2008).

[22] Berlyne, D. E. Aesthetics and Psychobiology. (New York: Appleton-Century-Croft) (1971).

[23] Field, A. P., Moore, A. C. “Dissociating the effects of attention and contingency on awareness on evaluating conditioning effects in the visual paradigm”, Cognition & Emotion. 19:1 (2005).

[24] Lundqvist, L. “Facial expressions are contagious” Journal of Psychophysiol. 9:1 (1995).

[25] Davies, S. “Philosophical perspectives on music’s expressiveness”, in Music and Emotion: Theory and Research, eds. Juslin, P. N., Sloboda, J. A. (Oxford: OUP) (2001).

[26] Groner, R., Weibel, D., Wissmath, B. “Dubbing or Subtitling? Effects on Spatial Presence, Transportation, Flow, and Enjoyment”, Journal of Media Psychology 21:3 (2009).

[27] Bocking, S., Hartmann, T., Klimmt, C., Schramm, H., Vorderer, P., Wirth, W. “Spatial Presence Theory: State of the Art and Challenges Ahead”, in Immersed in Media: Telepresence Theory, Measurement & Technology, eds. Biocca, F., Freeman, J., IJsselsteijn, W., Lombard, M., Schaevitz, R. J. (New York: Springer) (2015).

[28] Brown, E., Cairns, P. “A Grounded Investigations of Game Immersion”. CHI’04 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors and Computing Systems (Vienna, April 2004).

[29] Sweester, P., Wyeth, P. “GameFlow: A Model for Evaluating Player Enjoyment in Games”, ACM Computers in Entertainment 3:3 (2005).

[30] Lipscomb, S. D., Zehnder, S. M. “Immersion in the Virtual Environment: The Effect of a Musical Score on the Video Gaming Experience”, Journal of Physiological Anthropology and Applied Human Science 23:1 (2004).

[31] Nacke, L. E., Grimshaw, M. N., Lindly, C. A. “More than a feeling: Measurement of sonic user experience and psychophysiology in a first-person shooter game”, Interacting with Computers 22:5 (2010).

[32] Daniels, L. Batman – The Complete History: The Life and Times of the Dark Knight. (San Francisco: Chronicle Books) (2004).

[33] Subers, R. Around-the-World Roundup: ‘Dark Knight Rises’ Joins Billionaire Club. Box Office Mojo. < http://www.boxofficemojo.com/news/?id=3514&p=.htm>  accessed 18th May 2017.

[34] Strangman, R. Memoirs of a Virtual Caveman. (North Carolina: Lulu Press) (2014).

[35] Ryan, M. Narrative as Virtual Reality 2: Revisiting Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press) (2015).

[36] Dogramain, B., Liptay, F. “Immersion in the Visual Arts and Media”, in Immersion in the Visual Arts and Media eds. Dogramain, B., Liptay, F. (Leiden: Brill) (2015).

[37] Barnabé, F.  ‘Storytelling in Videogames: From ‘Narraive’ Towards ‘Fictional Universe’, presented at: Poetics of the Algorithm – Narrative, the Digital, and ‘Unidentified’ Media. Liège, 18th June 2016. <http://orbi.ulg.ac.be/handle/2268/198777>  accessed 5th January 2017.

Intermediality and Digital Games: On Player-figures and Media Borders in Uncharted 4

Kristian Ahm

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 102-121.

 

Kristian Ahm

University of Copenhagen

 

 

Intermediality and Digital Games: On Player-figures and Media Borders in Uncharted 4

 

Abstract

This paper will present the argument that Nathan Drake, the player-figure in Uncharted 4, is an intermedial entity. By this, I mean that he is an entity with the ability to cross media borders. Based on this argument, the concept of gameworlds will be discussed and it will be suggested that the worlds players encounter in modern digital games should be perceived as intermedial landscapes. This landscape is traversed by the player via a player-figure that is imbued with the ability to cross media borders. In doing so, the analysis is meant to highlight the potential fruitfulness of utilizing perspectives from intermedial studies in the analysis of individual games, instead of mostly focusing on processes of transmedial adaptation.

The paper will begin by defining the concept of the player-figure and Nathan Drake as a player-figure will be analysed. It will be argued that by appropriating the same player-figure to different contexts, the player-figure switches back and forth between being perceived as an avatar and a character.

Subsequently, the concept of intermediality will be introduced and an analytical framework from that field will be utilized to analyse how the player-figure crosses media borders. It will be argued in this analysis that a fundamental change takes place on the spatiotemporal modality when the game transitions from gameplay to cutscene. This marks a crossing between two qualified media – from that of games to cinema.

In the discussion, the argument is presented that Nathan Drake is an intermedial entity because of the audio-visual consistency of the player-figure, which means it is the player-figure itself traversing the media borders. From a media studies perspective, this paper focusses on the intermediality of the player-figure to highlight how intermedial perspectives can be useful in the analysis of the player-figure and its relations to the player controlling them.

Finally, a jumping-off point for future research will be established, focusing on what intermediality could potentially bring to game studies. Most importantly, it will allow for a more granular analysis of what defines the digital game as a medium.

 

Key words: intermediality, player-figure, gameworlds, ludo-narrative, media borders, game studies, digital games

Introduction

 

While digital games are always mediated, seeing as they are dependent on the processing power of computers and (almost) always on some sort of screen output, it is only in recent years that researchers have highlighted the fact that contemporary digital games are something more than just games. Aarseth points out that games, fundamentally, are “complex software programs that can emulate any medium, including film, text/novel [and] graphic novel […]”[1]. He goes on to call these “games” ludo-narratological constructs, highlighting their composite nature, consisting of elements from games as well as narrative media[2]. For clarity’s sake, the paper will primarily refer to games as ludo-narrative software. The acknowledgement of the multimodality of digital games seems to suggest that the intermedial perspective would be especially fruitful for the analysis of digital games. This is especially the case for contemporary games that, due to great advances in processing power, can mix earlier and newer media in innovative and interesting ways[3]. For now, we can broadly define intermediality as a concept describing “the totality of cross-media phenomena, […] involving a crossing of borders between media”[4]. Within game studies, the intermedial perspective has been used to study transmedial phenomena such as the adaptation of games into movies or tv series into games[5];[6]. This paper makes a distinction between what we could call external intermediality, which focuses on transmedial processes of adaptation, and internal intermediality, which focuses on the crossing of media borders within a single media object. The present paper will not engage with external processes of adaptation across media, but instead focus on the internal intermediality of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (Naughty Dog, 2016). As such, the object of analysis is the crossing of media borders within the ludo-narrative software itself, between the qualified media that constitute it. Recently, Fuchs performed an intermedial analysis of Alan Wake in the same internal vein, focusing on how the constellation of several media managed to create a sense of gothic uncanniness[7]. This paper however, will focus on the player-figure of Nathan Drake, the swashbuckling hero the player controls during gameplay.

This article will consist of four parts. In the first part, Nathan Drake will be analysed through the lens of Vella’s concept of the player-figure. Next, the concept of intermediality will be presented and an analytical framework from that field will be utilized to analyse how the game transitions between gameplay and cutscenes. Part 3 will discuss the results of the analyses and present the following arguments:

1) Nathan Drake in Uncharted 4 is an intrinsically intermedial player-figure. This distinguishes him as a new kind of media entity, different from earlier, multimodal player-figures.

2) The worlds encountered in modern ludo-narrative software should be conceptualized as intermedial landscapes which players traverse via a player-figure that is imbued with the ability to cross media borders.

Finally, a jumping-off point for future research will be established, focusing on how intermediality can contribute to the field of game studies. Specifically, it will be highlighted how intermedia studies can present new perspectives on what constitute digital games as a medium.

 

  1. The Player-Figure

 

Theory

 

Klevjer argues that avatar-based gameplay, i.e. games where players take control of a character in the gameworld, creates a sense of bodily immersion which is based on the embodied experience of play[8]. The immersion is not a trick of fiction, but the result of experiencing playing the game. This prosthetic agency is created through real-time control of in-game elements[9]. He also remarks that a distinction needs to be made between the avatar understood as a playable character and the avatar as an entity that grants the player agency and presence within the gameworld[10].

This is where Vella’s theoretical framework enters the picture. In his dissertation he lays the foundation for his concept of the player-figure. He makes an ontological distinction between avatar and character[11]. The avatar refers to the player-figure as a game component, while the character refers to the player-figure as a represented individual in the game’s heterocosm[12]. He goes on to define an avatar’s most important characteristic: that all player interactions are structured through them[13]. The character, on the other hand, is both a mimetic representation of a possible person, and a textual construct constituted of signs[14]. A character is built up of characterization statements (from now on called CSs), a stream of signifiers that allow the player to construct a mental image of a character[15].

This differentiation into avatar and character does not imply a duality. Instead, Vella describes the player-figure as a hybrid-identity, where the player may waver between perceiving it as an avatar or a character[16]. This hybrid-identity is possible because of what Vella calls the double perspectival structure; that the player has an internal and an external perspective on the game’s events[17]. From the internal perspective, the player inhabits the I can of the avatar and has a first-personal experience of playing out subjective experience within a domain. From the external perspective, the player sees a translation of events of her being-in-the-gameworld into discourse “in the form […] of a temporal sequence of audio-visual representation”[18]. This again relates to the player either perceiving the player-figure as avatar or character.

 

On- and off-line engagement

 

In the coming analysis of the Nathan Drake player-figure, I will be focusing on the differences in perception of the player-figure during gameplay and cutscenes. I will be using the concept of on- and off-line engagement[19] to refer to these parts of the game. On-line is to be understood as “the state of ergodic participation that we would […] think of as ‘playing the game’” [20]. On the other hand, off-line “describes periods in which no registered input control is received from the player” [21]. When I refer to on-line segments in Uncharted 4, I mean parts where the player is granted control of the player-figure by the software. Conversely, off-line segments refer to parts in which the player is not in control of the player-figure.

 

Analysis

 

On-line engagement.

 

During on-line segments, the Nathan Drake player-figure functions mainly as an avatar, a game-systemic entity. This is especially the case during action-filled shootout sequences. Here, the player must fight to survive, not because they fear the character Drake will feel distressed if he dies, but because the player wants to overcome a challenge and progress to the next chapter. Drake becomes a vessel for the player’s engagement within the gameworld and has systemic characteristics that structure the player’s decision making. For example, if Drake gets shot too many times in a row, the game stops and returns Drake to an earlier part of the game. The player utilizes the actions afforded by the player-figure to overcome obstacles, i.e. find cover and shoot henchmen. It seems reasonable to believe that during shootouts the player identifies as Drake. This is further stressed by Drake’s utterances during such segments. If a grenade is thrown near Drake, he will frantically shout “No, no, no, no!”. In Vella’s terms, this outburst could be perceived as a CS originating from the character Nathan Drake[22]. However, I would argue that the outburst functions more as a signifier of the grenade having landed within a certain radius of the player-figure, who is implicitly warning the player to get away from it. While this point is arguable, it makes sense if one views Nathan Drake the avatar, as a virtual game object that has certain behavioural properties, which places him on a different level than the fictional[23]. The utterance does not characterize Drake as a character who dislikes grenades, but as a game-systemic entity that also functions as a dynamic information source to the player.

During on-line segments of exploration, the Drake player-figure manifests traits of a character through numerous instances of CSs. In Chapter 11, Drake must traverse a Madagascan street market. The player still controls Drake’s movement and must guide him towards a destination, but small verbal exchanges and constraints on player actions function as CSs, creating a mental image of who he is as a character. The player-figure fluidly changes between being perceived as an avatar and a character. When walking through a crowd, Drake automatically squeezes through crowds and occasionally mumbles “Excuse me”.

 

Figure 1. Drake traversing a Madagascan street market

obraz 1
Source: YouTube[24]

 

Here, a combination of dynamic mimetic elements[25], i.e. the context-based animation of the player-figure and voice, create an image of Drake as a character, not a game-systemic entity. While it could be argued that the cover and shooting animations experienced during shootouts also characterize Drake, the point made here is that the dynamic mimetic elements utilized in the street market are more overtly expressive about Drake, since they are unique to him. Drake’s companions, who occasionally join him in battle, are programmed to shoot and take cover using the same animations as Drake.

Further on, the player can choose to buy an apple from a vendor. If the player chooses to do so, she does not get a health bonus or any kind of boost to their avatar’s systemic attributes. Instead, this serves as another dynamic mimetic element where the player, through her actions, decides what type of character Drake is.

 

Figure 2. Drake buys an apple from a vendor

obraz 2
Source: YouTube

 

The most notable CSs stem from the lack of player actions possible in the market sequence, compared to the wealth of actions possible during shootouts. Besides walking and looking, the only other possible action is to “look closer”, which makes the game camera zoom in. This action is performed by pressing the button that normally makes Drake aim his weapon. Although the 3D model of the player-figure is visibly equipped with a gun and rope hook, they are no longer signifiers of possible player actions, but are part of the character’s costume[26], characterizing him as an experienced adventurer. This shows how the player-figure’s features, both semiotic and mechanical, can be appropriated to different contexts, thereby facilitating the seamless change back and forth between avatar and character.

 

Off-line engagement.

 

During off-line segments, the Drake player-figure functions only as a character. I would argue that the player, no longer having agency within the gameworld, takes on an external perspective on the events of the game. Although the word ‘cutscene’ may have problematic implicit meanings, I will summon it now to help properly explain what these off-line segments are. According to Klevjer, a cutscene is a “cinematic sequence that suspends regular gameplay in order to convey plot, characterization and spectacle”[27]. Because the Uncharted series is deeply inspired by action-adventure cinema, the cutscenes are indeed cinematic elements that form the most explicitly narrative parts of Uncharted 4. Here, the player is fed a stream of static mimetic CSs[28], as if they are watching a movie. Static mimetic elements are “statements regarding fixed (or relatively fixed) facts regarding a character” such as name and appearance[29]. Some might argue that the instances in cutscenes, where the player is asked to choose a response on Drake’s behalf, turns the player-figure into an avatar. I would argue that this is not the case since these choices, like the situation with the apple vendor, only serve to characterize Nathan Drake. What is particularly interesting when examining Drake as a character in off-line segments is how much emphasis is put on showing his face to the player. Because of the sophistication of the performance capture technology used, Drake’s expressiveness during cutscenes is very impressive. It thereby foregrounds him as a represented individual. As engagement changes from off-line to on-line, the view of Drake’s back signals the change from character to avatar. He is stripped of his salient characteristics and reconfigured into a vessel.

 

Figure 3. Drake player-figure off-line

obraz 3
Source: YouTube

 

Figure 4. Drake player-figure on-line

obraz 4
Source: YouTube

 

This concludes the analysis of the Nathan Drake player-figure. It has attempted to demonstrate how Drake can switch between being perceived as an avatar and a character by the player. The fluidity of this transformation process is important for this paper’s argument that the player-figure is an intermedial entity. By reconfiguring the same player-figure, players are confronted with a visually coherent player-figure that is imbued with the ability to cross media borders, instead of being split into several different representations.

 

  1. Intermediality

 

Theory

 

Intermediality is the study of all instances in which different media interact with each other, assuming a theoretical “in-between space” where these interactions take place[30]. In Elleström’s words, intermediality is something “that sometimes ‘happens’; an effect of unconventional ways of performing medial works”[31]. As such, it is important to define what intermediality means in the context of this paper[32].

The intermedial focus of this paper is the subcategory of media combinations[33]. This is to be understood as media objects that combine “at least two conventionally distinct media or medial forms of articulation”[34]. Of interest for this paper is the crossing of borders between qualified media, considered a key intermedial phenomenon[35];[36]. Because of Uncharted 4’s status as a piece of software, within which are encompassed several distinct media, I believe it is ripe for intermedial analysis because of the novel ways it seamlessly changes between those media. The word “media” has been thrown around quite a lot by now. Let me elucidate what the term means in the context of the coming analysis. Elleström divides the medium into basic media, qualified media, and technical media[37]. Basic media are media that are “mainly identified by their modal appearances” such as “still images”, “moving images” or “organized non-verbal sound”[38]. Qualified media are what we would normally call “art forms and other cultural media types” which are constituted by both historic contexts and communicative conventions, and which consist of basic media[39]. While the first two categories are abstractions that help us understand how media are formed, technical media are the physical objects or physical phenomena that “‘realize[…]’ and ‘display[…]’ basic and qualified media”[40].

These distinctions help me clarify my last statement: When I talk of the novel ways the Uncharted 4 software transitions between media, I am referring to transitions between qualified media. As will become clear when I begin my analysis, I am interested in the ways the software transitions from the qualified medium of games to the qualified medium of cinema.

To properly analyse these transitions, I will be utilizing Elleström’s analytical framework, based on his four modalities of media. The term “modality” is related to the term “mode”, which is a “way to be or do things”[41]. In Elleström’s analytical framework, which will be introduced presently, he uses the term “modality” to refer to the different ways media can manifest themselves. He describes these modalities as “the essential cornerstones of all media without which mediality cannot be comprehended […]”[42]

The first of the four modalities is the material modality, referring to “the latent corporeal interface of the medium”[43].

Second is the sensorial modality, which relates to the “physical and mental acts of perceiving the present interface of the medium through the sense faculties” – through sense-data, receptors, and sensation[44].

Third is the spatiotemporal modality. This modality covers “the structuring of the sensorial perception of sense-data of the material interface into experiences and conceptions of space and time”[45]. In other words, this modality refers to the way a person perceives and constructs the experience of space and time in the medium at hand.

Finally, the fourth modality, semiotic modality, relates to the “creation of meaning in the spatiotemporally conceived medium by the way of different sorts of thinking and sign interpretation”[46].

For my analysis of Uncharted 4, I will be focusing on the spatiotemporal modality since I believe an important shift happens in this modality when the game transitions between gameplay and cutscene. I will argue that this shift in modality marks a transition between games and cinema.

 

Analysis

 

Please note that in the following I will be writing numbers in parentheses, the decimals will refer to the images within Figure 5.

 

Setting the scene

 

In chapter 8, Drake and his brother are exploring a cave-system.

 

Figure 5. Transitions between on- and off-line segments

obraz 5
Source: YouTube

 

The player is in control of the player-figure, meaning its current status is an avatar (5.1). Occasional chat between the brothers deploys verbal CSs that characterize their relationship. The player steers through the cave-system and begins climbing a wall (5.2). As they press the jump button, which makes the player-figure jump up onto a small ledge, they lose control of the player-figure and the camera closes in on the brothers (5.3).

A cut, and the viewer is now witnessing a conversation between the antagonists, which the brothers are listening in on (5.4).

As their scene ends (5.5), it cuts back to the two eavesdropping brothers (5.6).

As they converse, the camera automatically pulls out (5.7) and control of the player-figure is returned to the player (5.8).

 

Time and space

 

It is the argument of this paper that a change in modality has occurred within Uncharted 4, thus signalling a transition between the media encompassed within. For this analysis, I will focus on the changes happening on the spatiotemporal level, since this modality most effectively indicates the crossing from the medium of games into the medium of cinema.

If we begin by looking at the temporal level, the change is obvious. We move from the partially fixed sequentiality of games to the fixed sequentiality of cinema[47]. I refrain myself from claiming that Uncharted 4 has non-fixed sequentiality, since the game’s linear nature does not leave much room for the player to improvise.

On the spatial level, it is not as easy to use Elleström’s concepts of spatiality to make relevant distinctions between the types of space the player encounters during on- and off-line segments. Instead, I will use the concepts of gameworld interface[48] and scenographic space[49] to make these distinctions.

During on-line engagement, the player controls Nathan and must navigate the cave without falling to their death. The world is presented to the player in a wide view, allowing her to survey the world through the player-figure. Also, the player can control the view she has of the gameworld. Small reliefs of stone communicate to the player that she can grab them. The space functions as a gameworld interface, a space that’s “designed to support and inspire certain gameplay activities” and which allows the player to “take gameplay-relevant actions within the gameworld”[50]. The space changes as soon as the player loses control of the player-figure and thus also the view they have of the gameworld, signalling a change to a different modality.

The nature of the space changes to that of a scenographic space, where the player, now a passive viewer, constructs the world through visual and auditory cues[51]. Unlike before, the player cannot control where they want to look, but are fed cues that help them construct the space in their minds. This is most explicitly the case with the room in which the antagonists converse since the player-figure will never set foot in that room. The room’s function is not to feed the player information about relevant gameplay actions, but to set up expectations for the unfolding narrative. From this perspective, it could be argued that a change has also taken place on the semiotic modality, since the player/viewer employs different types of “sign thinking and interpretation” depending on whether the player perceives the represented space as a gameworld interface or as a filmic, scenographic space[52]. What is important to note is that this perception of space is dependent on whether the player can control the perspective (i.e. the camera) or not. Keep in mind that the scenographic space is still technically constructed in the same way as the gameworld interface: inside a game engine. The fundamental difference is that the player during on-line segments can control the perspective and thus engage with the world in a different way than if they did not control it. Interactivity, it seems, also plays a big part in cueing the player/viewer to employ a specific type of sign interpretation.

Based on this analysis, I am arguing that a transition has taken place between two qualified media: games, and cinema. What is particularly interesting is the seamless nature of these transitions, which can be quite jarring when the player is engaged in the real-time control of the player-figure. This seamlessness rests on the design decision to present the player with information in an ecological, integrated manner in a way that does not draw players’ attention to the fact that they are playing a game[53].

Before I move on to discussing the implications of these blurred media borders, I will quickly summarize the results of my analysis.

By analysing the player-figure of Nathan Drake, I determined that he is mainly perceived as an avatar during on-line segments of gameplay, but that he was able to manifest traits of a character through different kinds of CSs. During off-line segments, he was perceived only as a character. This transformation from avatar to character is seamless because of the constant reappropriation of the same player-figure.

In my analysis of the player-figure’s media border crossings, I concluded that the modality of the software changed fundamentally on the spatiotemporal level, turning the heterocosm from a gameworld interface during on-line segments, to a scenographic, filmic space during off-line segments.

 

III. Discussions and Contributions

 

The Player-Figure as an Intermedial Entity

 

As has been pointed out in the analysis, Uncharted 4 jumps to-and-fro between different qualified media. It does so in an almost seamless way, both by reconfiguring the player-figure and the perspective on the space the figure inhabits. But does this seamlessness exclude it from being categorized as an intermedial phenomenon? Rajewsky highlights digital media’s ability to simulate earlier media forms and to erase perceptible media differences[54]. This is certainly problematic since the study of intermediality is based on the existence of perceptible borders, which can be crossed. With that said, this paper would like to present an idea of where this perceptible border might be found.

In ludo-narrative software, the perceptible border between media is grounded in the player-figure and its ability to be mapped onto several qualified media in a way that is perceived as being coherent. Nathan Drake as a player-figure can be either a game-systemic entity, i.e. an avatar, or a character. We as players perceive him as a unified whole and this is key to him being an intermedial entity. Another very perceptible way that the player-figure signals a crossing between media borders is by having the player relinquish control of it.

 

Multimodal and Intermedial Player-Figures

 

This does not mean that all player-figures are intermedial. Cloud, the protagonist from Final Fantasy VII (Square, 1997) could certainly be called a multimodal player-figure with the hybrid-identity of both an avatar and a character[55]. However, the player-figure of Cloud is built up of several different audio-visual representations. Avatar-Cloud is a small polygonal man during on-line segments of exploration and a slightly more realistically proportioned man during combat. The Character-Cloud found in off-line segments is a wholly different, third representation. This compartmentalization of several different player-figures makes the types of border crossings seen performed by the player-figure in Uncharted 4 impossible. This does not make the intrinsic intermediality of Nathan Drake in Uncharted 4 some technological goal that developers should strive for. Instead, the realization that a player-figure can consist of several representations opens new avenues of inquiry. What implications do these multiple representations have aesthetically, ontologically, functionally? The recent World of Final Fantasy (Square Enix, 2016) acknowledges the multiple representations of its protagonists and incorporates their shape-shifting abilities as a part of gameplay. What does this self-reflexive design practice tell us about the ontology of the player-figure? This brings up another point. While Vella’s study of the player-figure is very detailed, many of his analyses are based on games developed in western countries. Except for a footnote mention of Final Fantasy VIII (Square, 1999), all the role-playing games mentioned in his dissertation are western. It would be interesting to analyse how Japanese role-playing games utilize multiple representations to create a coherent player-figure. As Fuchs points out in his analysis of Alan Wake, the co-presence of several representations of the same character can have an aesthetic function, e.g. to create discomfort[56].

In summary, Nathan Drake in Uncharted 4 is intermedial because he is audiovisually consistent across media, in a way that has been hard to achieve until now for technological reasons. This consistency is instrumental for the player perceiving the player-figure as both an avatar and a character. Even in the previous game, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (Naughty Dog, 2011), changes from off- to on-line engagement are marked with a second of black screen. This second of black is a way of compartmentalizing the player-figure into different modal strata. The player-figure is multimodal in this instance but not intermedial, since the figure itself is not crossing any media borders.

The observation that the Nathan Drake player-figure in Uncharted 4 is an intermedial entity brings me to my next point.

Discussing Spatiality in Digital Games

 

If we accept the argument that Nathan Drake in Uncharted 4 is an intermedial player-figure, we must also accept how this problematizes the ways digital game worlds are conceptualized. As was argued in the analysis – in tandem with the player-figure’s transformation from avatar to character and the player’s loss of control of it – the spatiotemporal modality of Uncharted 4 changes. Instead of being a gameworld interface, it transforms into a filmic, scenographic space. The implication of this is that we can see the world of the ludo-narrative software as an intermedial landscape that can be both a gameworld and a traditional filmic space. It is never just a gameworld or a scene, it is something in-between and can switch between these. To echo Aarseth[57], it would be metonymic to simply call them gameworlds since the world in Uncharted 4 is used as much more than an obstacle course for players to conquer. While the concept of intermedial landscapes is used by Fuchs in his analysis of Alan Wake’s uncanny, gothic world, it is used in this paper to call attention to a fundamental characteristic of the worlds players are confronted with when they play modern digital games.

This paper suggests that the worlds players encounter in ludo-narrative software should be conceptualized as intermedial landscapes which the player traverses via a player-figure that is imbued with the ability to cross media borders. It seems salient at this juncture to point out that this view builds on the fundamental observation that videogames are not simulations, but virtual worlds that are ontologically distinct from the physical world[58]. Uncharted 4 is not a simulation of the physical world but is its own virtual realm in which these border crossings are a very real phenomenon.

Finally, future research endeavours utilizing the intermedial perspective will be outlined.

 

  1. Future Research

 

Towards a Conceptualization of the Digital Game Medium

 

The intermedial approach could potentially be useful in the investigation of understanding what digital games are as a medium, beyond simply calling them a “virtual hypermedium”[59]. What is the medium of games? What borders surround it and how do we identify these? Wolf states that media borders are created by conventions[60]. Elleström’s concepts of the two qualifying aspects of media could be useful for investigating these conventions[61]. The contextual qualifying aspect relates to the use of a medium in specific historical, cultural, and social circumstances[62]. By performing analyses of the discourses, practices and conventions surrounding the videogame medium, we gain insights into its evolution, but more importantly we may be able to discourage the use of normative views and colloquialisms[63]. The second aspect, the operational qualifying aspect, relates to the aesthetic and communicative conventions of a medium[64]. Much work has been done in this field, with researchers from different disciplines attempting to describe and explain how videogames as a medium communicate and foster aesthetic experiences.

In this academic context, the intermedial analysis of individual games that could be categorized as unconventional medial works would be particularly interesting. To use this paper as an example, by being aware of communicative conventions from several qualified media, an argument has been formulated that relates to the ontology of ludo-narrative software and the modern player-figure. Wolf writes that media function “as cognitive frames for authors as well as recipients and are therefore […] part of the message itself”[65]. This suggests that the individual media present in the media constellations we normally call “videogames” have a great impact on the experience that emerges when interacting with the media object. As a future research endeavour, it could be interesting to analyse contemporary experimental games that combine media in novel and surprising ways. Examples of this could be Cibele (Star Maid Games, 2015), Her Story (Barlow, 2015) or Uriel’s Chasm (Barry, 2014). All of these games utilize real video footage captured in the physical world, but they utilize this footage in a different way than they were used in the 90’s, when the future of games was envisioned as being a combination of action cinema and shooting games (see Sewer Shark (Digital Pictures, 1992)). Kattenbelt writes about intermedial studies being a way to investigate “those co-relations between different media that result in a redefinition of the media that are influencing each other […]”[66]. This seems like an interesting avenue of research and one which this paper hopes to contribute to. How is the inclusion of the basic medium of ‘moving images’ reshaped by being put in different types of ludo-narrative software? In Sewer Shark it serves as part of the gameworld, with video footage being overlaid on a game interface and sprites of enemies. In Her Story, the video clips of a woman being interrogated are framed more like collectible objects, with the player tasked to unearth as many clips as possible to solve a murder mystery. What could an analysis of this change in convention potentially tell us about the medium of videogames? What does it tell us about how the borders surrounding the ludic medium have been reshaped in the last 20 years? What Kattenbelt’s quote also suggests is that the search for a clearly definable digital game medium is futile. The field of game studies has struggled with defining games since its conception. I certainly do not think that an adequate, stable definition can be found, but a history of game media conventions would have academic and historic value. For investigations like these, Elleström’s analytical framework of the four modalities would be a powerful tool for thinking about these (un)conventional media constellations with greater granularity. As Schut points out, every time a medium is presented in a digital game, it is no longer the exact same medium as before, since it is put in a new context.[67]

Wolf writes that the study of intermediality, “if carried out wisely”, will strengthen the core of the field of study[68]. While it is not entirely clear what Wolf means by “wisely”, perhaps Elleström’s advice to study all kinds of media “with a high level of awareness of the modalities of media and the crucial modal differences and similarities of media” is an answer[69].

The more we know about videogames as a medium, the closer we get to answering the question of what games are as a phenomenon, and this would be an important milestone[70].

 

 

References

Aarseth Espen, “A Narrative Theory of games”, in Proceedings of the international conference on the foundations of digital games, (2012), pp. 129-133

Aarseth Espen, “Ontology”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014), pp. 484-492

Beil Benjamin & Schmidt Hans Christian, “The World of The Walking Dead – Transmediality and Transmedial Intermediality”, Acta Univ. Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies 10, (2015), pp. 73-88.

Bolter Jay D.  & Grusin Richard, Remediation Understanding New Media, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press) (1999)

Bordwell David, Narration in the Fiction Film, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge) (2013[1985])

Burn Andrew & Schott Gareth, “Heavy hero or digital dummy? Multimodal player–avatar relations in Final Fantasy 7”, Visual Communication, 3(2) (2004), pp. 213-233.

Elleström Lars, “The modalities of media: A model for understanding intermedial relations”, in Media borders, multimodality and intermediality, ed. Lars Elleström (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp. 11-51.

Fuchs Michael, “A Different Kind of Monster: Uncanny Media and Alan Wake’s Textual Monstrosity”, in Contemporary Research on Intertextuality in Video Games, ed. C. Duret & CM. Pons, (Hershey, PA: IGI Global) (2016), pp. 39-54

Hennig Martin, “Why Some Worlds Fail. Observations on the Relationship Between Intertextuality, Intermediality, and Transmediality in the Resident Evil and Silent Hill Universes”, IMAGE 21, (2015), pp. 17-33.

Jørgensen Kristine, Gameworld Interfaces, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press) (2013)

Karhulahti Veli-Matti, “Suspending virtual disbelief: a perspective on narrative coherence”, in International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling, ed. D. Oyarzun, F. Peinado, R.M. Young, A. Elizalde, G. Mendez (Berlin: Springer, 2012)

Karhulahti Veli-Matti, “Do Videogames Simulate? Virtuality and imitation in the philosophy of simulation”, Simulation & Gaming 46:6 (2015), p. 845

Kattenbelt Chiel, “Intermediality in theatre and performance: Definitions, perceptions and medial relationships”, Cultura, lenguaje y representación: revista de estudios culturales de la universitat Jaume, 6 (2008), pp. 19-29

Klevjer Rune, “Enter the avatar: The phenomenology of prosthetic telepresence in computer games”, in The philosophy of computer games, ed. JR Sageng, H. Fossheim & T.M. Larsen (Dodrecht: Springer, 2012), pp. 1-24.

Klevjer Rune, “Cut-scenes”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014), pp. 301-309.

Newman James, “The myth of the ergodic videogame”, Game studies, 2(1) (2002),

Rajewsky Irina, “Intermediality, intertextuality and remediation”, Intermédialités: Histoire et théorie des arts, des lettres et des techniques Intermediality:/History and Theory of the Arts, Literature and Technologies 6 (2005), pp. 43-64.

Schut Kevin, “Media Ecology”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014), pp. 324-330.

Vella Daniel, The Ludic Subject and the Ludic Self: Analyzing the ‘I-in-the-Gameworld’. (IT-University of Copenhagen, 2015)

http://www.gamestudies.org/0102/newman/, accessed November 13th 2016.

Wolf Werner, The musicalization of fiction: A study in the theory and history of intermediality, (Amsterdam: Rodopi) (1999)

Wolf Werner, “The relevance of ‘mediality’ and ‘intermediality’ to academic studies of English Literature”, in Mediality/Intermediality (Swiss Papers in English Language and Literature 21), ed. A. Fischer, M. Heusser and A.H. Juncker (Tübingen: Günter Narr Verlag, 2008), pp. 15-43.

 

Games:
Cibele (2015, Star Maid Games)

Final Fantasy VII (1997, Square)

Final Fantasy VIII (1998, Square)

Her Story (2015, Sam Barlow)

Sewer Shark (1992, Digital Pictures)

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (2011, Naughty Dog)

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016, Naughty Dog)

Uriel’s Chasm (2014, Dylan Barry)

World of Final Fantasy (2016, Square Enix)

 

 

 

 

[1]  Espen Aarseth, “A Narrative Theory of games”, in Proceedings of the international conference on the foundations of digital games, (2012), p. 130.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jay David Bolter & Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA:MIT Press) (1999)

[4] Martin Hennig, “Why Some Worlds Fail. Observations on the Relationship Between Intertextuality, Intermediality, and Transmediality in the Resident Evil and Silent Hill Universes”, IMAGE 21, (2015), p. 17.

[5] Benjamin Beil & Hans Christian Schmidt, “The World of The Walking Dead – Transmediality and Transmedial Intermediality”, Acta Univ. Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies 10, (2015).

[6] Martin Hennig.

[7]  Michael Fuchs, “A Different Kind of Monster: Uncanny Media and Alan Wake’s Textual Monstrosity”, in Contemporary Research on Intertextuality in Video Games, ed. C. Duret & CM. Pons, (Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 2016)

[8] Rune Klevjer, “Enter the avatar: The phenomenology of prosthetic telepresence in computer games”, in The philosophy of computer games, ed. JR Sageng, H. Fossheim & T.M. Larsen (Dodrecht: Springer, 2012), p. 14.

[9] Ibid., p. 4.

[10] Ibid., p. 2

[11] Daniel Vella, The Ludic Subject and the Ludic Self: Analyzing the ‘I-in-the-Gameworld’. (IT-University of Copenhagen, 2015), p. 216.

[12] Ibid., p. 217.

[13] Ibid., p. 219.

[14] Ibid., p. 371.

[15] Ibid., p. 374.

[16] Ibid., p. 227.

[17] Ibid., p. 364.

[18] Ibid, p. 364.

[19] James Newman, “The myth of the ergodic videogame”, Game studies, 2(1) (2002), http://www.gamestudies.org/0102/newman/, accessed November 13th, 2016.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Daniel Vella, p.393.

[23] V.M. Karhulahti, “Suspending virtual disbelief: a perspective on narrative coherence”, in International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling, ed. D. Oyarzun, F. Peinado, R.M. Young, A. Elizalde, G. Mendez (Berlin: Springer, 2012)

[24]All Figure sources: Youtube (2016). Uncharted 4 Gameplay Walkthrough Part 1 FULL GAME 1080p No Commentary (Chapter 1-23). RabidRetrospectGames. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxaw6CqVMss

[25] Daniel Vella, p. 393.

[26] Ibid., p. 379

[27] Rune Klevjer, “Cut-scenes”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014), p. 301.

[28] Daniel Vella, p. 376

[29] Ibid.

[30] Irina Rajewsky, “Intermediality, intertextuality and remediation”, Intermédialités: Histoire et théorie des arts, des lettres et des techniques Intermediality:/History and Theory of the Arts, Literature and Technologies 6 (2005), p. 46.

[31] Lars Elleström, “The modalities of media: A model for understanding intermedial relations”, in Media borders, multimodality and intermediality, ed. Lars Elleström (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 28.

[32] Irina Rajewsky, p. 45.

[33] Ibid., pp. 51-52

[34] Ibid.

[35] Irina Rajewsky, p. 46.

[36] Lars Elleström.

[37] Ibid, p. 34.

[38] Ibid., p. 27.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., p. 30.

[41] Ibid., p. 14.

[42] Ibid., p. 15.

[43] Ibid., p. 17

[44] Ibid., pp. 17-18.

[45] Ibid., p. 18.

[46] Ibid., p. 22.

[47] Lars Elleström, p. 19.

[48] Kristine Jørgensen, Gameworld Interfaces, (Cambdrige, MA: MIT Press) (2013)

[49] David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge) (2013[1985])

[50] Kristine Jørgensen, pp. 2-3.

[51] David Bordwell, p. 113.

[52] Lars Elleström, p. 22.

[53] Kristine Jørgensen, p. 147.

[54] Irina Rajewsky, p. 62.

[55] Andrew Burn & Gareth Schott, “Heavy hero or digital dummy? Multimodal player–avatar relations in Final Fantasy 7”, Visual Communication, 3(2) (2004).

[56] Michael Fuchs, p. 47

[57] Espen Aarseth, pp. 129-133.

[58] Veli-Matti Karhulahti, “Do Videogames Simulate? Virtuality and imitation in the philosophy of simulation”, Simulation & Gaming 46:6 (2015), p. 845

[59] Chiel Kattenbelt, “Intermediality in theatre and performance: Definitions, perceptions and medial relationships”, Cultura, lenguaje y representación: revista de estudios culturales de la universitat Jaume, 6 (2008), p. 23

[60] Werner Wolf, The musicalization of fiction: A study in the theory and history of intermediality, (Amsterdam: Rodopi) (1999), p. 37, in Lars Elleström, p. 28.

[61] Lars Elleström, p. 24

[62] Ibid., pp. 24-25

[63] Ibid., p. 25.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Werner Wolf, “The relevance of ‘mediality’ and ‘intermediality’ to academic studies of English Literature”, in Mediality/Intermediality (Swiss Papers in English Language and Literature 21), ed. A. Fischer, M. Heusser and A.H. Juncker (Tübingen: Günter Narr Verlag, 2008), p. 23

[66] Chiel Kattenbelt, p. 25

[67] Kevin Schut, “Media Ecology”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014), p. 329.

[68] Werner Wolf, p. 21.

[69] Lars Elleström, p. 38.

[70] Espen Aarseth, “Ontology”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014).

Pokémemory: Time-images, Transmedia, and Memory

Jayme D. Mallindine

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 122-141.

Jayme D. Mallindine

University of Texas

 

 

 

Pokémemory: Time-images, Transmedia, and Memory

 

Abstract

The 2016 launch of Pokémon Go, Pokémon Sun, and Pokémon Moon – video games that shattered sales records and expectations – show that the Pokémon brand continues to capture the hearts (and wallets) of people all across the world. Sidestepping questions of whether Pokémon’s influence is the direct result of conscious player choice, corporate control, or political power plays, this paper investigates the inflammatory lines between power and play. This paper argues that Pokémon products, as a branded transmedia franchise, have the ability to spark moments of nostalgic recall for consumers through the use of memory mechanics called “gestures” that link Pokémon products both to one another and to a player’s embodied history of play. Drawing from Laura Marks’ work on “radioactive memory fossils” and Deleuze’s “time-images”, this essay investigates a few Pokémon gestures that operate both intra-platform (within the same type of platform, such as between the animated film and the animated series) and inter-platform (between different types of digital media platforms, such as between the animated series and the video game). By investigating these gestures, we expose ways in which the Pokémon brand can inspire the recollection of memories in ways the player and producer can influence but not entirely control. Pokémon’s presence as a branded transmedia experience embedded in individual biographies of players opens avenues of resistance to traditional lines of influence in the media industry by reframing power not just as the ability to control, but also as the ability to surprise.

 

Key Words: memory, transmedia, Pokémon, branding, time-images

 

Introduction

 

In the late 1990’s, there was a sudden and seemingly never-ending influx of strangely cute monsters making their way into the United States. The children were in love. The adults? A little confused. The monsters were Pokémon[1] and they were the most recent pop culture craze from Japan. Their almost over-night popularity with youth in the United States was so surprising that the phrase “pokémania” was coined to describe what appeared to be an irrational obsession for these pocket-sized toys.

Twenty years later, Pokémon remains a transmedia heavyweight. In 2016, Pokémon proved, with the release of Pokémon Go[2], that Pokémon as a brand was still powerful enough to break the internet. An article in Rolling Stone Magazine reported that Pokémon Go, an augmented-reality game that utilized Pokémon imagery, developed by Niantic and released to iOS and Android, experienced such unexpected high demand that the developer’s overloaded servers crashed within two days of the game’s initial release.[3] Pokémon’s continued popularity is not limited to smartphones either. The 2016 hand-held console video games, Pokémon Sun[4] and Pokémon Moon[5], became Nintendo’s fastest-selling titles ever in the Americas by selling 3.7 million copies across the American regions within the first few weeks of sale. [6]

The popularity of this twenty-year-old brand has sparked conversations about why these toys garner such intense affection and what that means for players and society. Some viewed Pokémon’s success in terms of global politics, with the brand’s popularity seen as evidence of Japan’s burgeoning ability to counteract the hegemonic media industry of the United States.[7] Others focused on smaller-scale and individual responses and uses of Pokémon products.[8] Researchers and journalists wanted to understand how and why Pokémon had burrowed its way into the youthful hearts of U.S. children and who ultimately was the one responsible for its popularity. Was the Pokémon takeover planned from the top down as the result of corporate ingenuity, or did Pokémon gain its influence from the bottom up due to player autonomy?

This essay posits that Pokémon itself, outside of purely corporate or consumer control, can move meaning and value through memory. Looking at the various ways in which Pokémon products create their own affective and nostalgic value, I argue that Pokémon products can spark involuntary moments of recall for consumers using mnemonic “gestures” that link Pokémon products both to one another and to embodied histories of play encapsulated within the memory of the consumer. This makes the vested popular interest in Pokémon lie somewhere within an assemblage vast enough to include a multitude of various components: corporate goals, political power struggles, consumer agency, as well as meaningful memories not always controlled by either consumer or creator.

Noticing the ways Pokémon can move meaning independently of conscious thought is not to say that power inequalities, whether between producer and consumer or between nation-states, are non-existent or unimportant. It instead provides an increased awareness of tools that open the potential for media to swerve within the configured lines that typically shape the movement and flow of entertainment and information. This swerving is based on Amit Rai’s conceptualization of clinamedia, “the intensive process of becoming” that he believes is the new order of media assemblage. The ability for media to swerve like “the clinamen of Lucretius”,[9] deviating from the straight lines of cause and effect dictated by outside forces, opens up the possibility for a type of political tweaking, offering additional methods of resisting the enforced methods of control. Gestures, when seen as a type of swerve, are not ways to avoid acknowledging power differences, but instead are sources of hope that hegemonies and power structures do not always have the final say on meaning. There are ways to move outside of power imbalances, and the playful gestures found in toy objects are just one of many.

 

Gestures and Memory Mechanics

 

Pokémon’s current success in part deals with the brand’s existence as a nostalgic entity. Nostalgia, a “yearning for something that tends to have been within living memory rather than distant historical memory”, is a key component in the construction and marketing of video games today.[10] As video games, including the Pokémon franchise, age as a medium, nostalgia and memory have made appearances in the research behind why certain games become cultural and financial hotbeds of activity. Nintendo is especially known for this, with academic volumes on gaming and nostalgia, such as Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, referencing the success of Nintendo’s franchises as proof that memory and video games are significantly intertwined.[11]  But how are people encouraged to remember previous Pokémon experiences, and who controls those memorable moments?

In Laura Marks’ The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, memory is described as something that is stored bodily, as well as something that is not always called upon consciously. Marks identifies that media can be a hotbed of triggers that uproot a previous flow of experience (i.e. a memory) involuntarily on the part of the rememberer/viewer, making memory a minefield of potentiality that opens up a person to multiple flows of time simultaneously.[12] Images or objects, which she terms radioactive memory fossils, inspire this jump to the past and disrupt the time and coherence of the present plane. This launches the viewer outward into other planes of both time and experience,[13] revealing that “the past [the image] represents is not over”[14] and that it continues to live on and influence the present moment, with the present moment also reaching backwards to inexplicably influence our past experience.

Marks’ writing works in part from Deleuze’s theory of “time-image”. Time-images, as compared to movement-images, do not follow the chronological order and representation of narrative actions and reactions. While past, present, and future are all clearly differentiated from each other in movement-images, time-images flatten that temporal plane, making past, future, and present indistinguishable.[15] Pokémon achieves a similar effect through use of “gestures” which, like Deleuzian style time-images, are movements, actions, or images that disrupt the development of linear narrative by pointing towards other memories and media products within the transmedia franchise. This creates a wider system of moments that extend beyond the specific medium and moment at hand. These gestures are not “gestures” in the sense of a physical movement by an actor within the story, but rather a “pointing towards” another aspect of Pokémon through the mirroring of a familiar image, phrase, character, game mechanic, or environment. The presence of a gesture involves movement from the present moment to a previous one and has the feel of a verb – a moment that moves you – versus a noun, a moment one has.

As we learn from Marks, memories are not always purposeful, and these gestures towards the remembered past do not necessarily imply voluntary action on the part of the viewer. Rather than being a recollection in the form of purposeful nostalgia, the gestures can point to the past regardless of whether the player intended to imagine it or not. The viewer cannot choose to remember or not remember and is instead moved to memory by the gesture itself. It is an excavation of the past not by the methodical digging of a shovel-wielding archaeologist, but by an unexpected and explosive tripwire.

These types of gestures disrupt the place and time of the present experience when they surface. When a gesture moves you while you are playing the newest Pokémon game, you are pushed into a moment where your memory of playing Pokémon previously exists simultaneously with your current experience of playing, all in the very same moment. Due to the player’s embodied, tactile memory of having interacted with other Pokémon products, these gestures do not simply disrupt via the rational plane, but also via the affective one. Playing is an action, a very bodily one, and memories of play are also memories of movement and body.

The word gesture also in part draws from Bergson’s discussions on the explosive nature of repetitive, unconscious, and “disruptive comic gestures”, which he says contrast with intentional or conscious actions.[16] In the case of Pokémon, these gestures disrupt the narrative using mimic-able images, actions, game mechanics, and phrases that are associated with other temporalities, like Marks’ radioactive memory fossils. They both “condense time within themselves”[17] and expand time outwards upon the viewing or “excavation”. Using the word “gesture” instead of “fossil” is appropriate for a transmedia franchise that originates with a game, a media form that more obviously relies on physical movements of the player for a story to unfold. Using the word gesture more easily brings to mind movement, which helps us to remember the interactive (and therefore action-oriented) nature of games. This is not to say gestures are more powerful than other types of references, like music or visual imagery, just that gestures are well-suited to transmedia franchises that involve games. All forms of transmedia storytelling use a variety of different narrative-making techniques, but the narrative found in games is intertwined with game mechanics – system-based feedback mechanisms that affect how a narrative is experienced. Using action-based ideas versus noun-based ideas helps not only pay homage to what is unique about video games, but also expands our conception of transmedia memory-making beyond what an audience member remembers seeing, but also what an audience member remembers doing.

 

Brands and Memory-Making

 

Transmedia, in addition to being multiple kinds of interrelated stories based on the same fictional universe produced on multiple types of media platforms, is also a type of brand. When someone says a media product is part of a transmedia franchise, like Star Wars, the label brings with it certain expectations about what an experience with that product will be like based on previous experiences with products made under that same umbrella. Branding relies heavily on affect and past experiences, and corporations have been harnessing the power of memory to create effective branding for quite a while. In Robert J. Foster’s book, Coca-Globalization: Following Soft Drinks from New York to New Guinea,[18] Foster studies how soft drink brands such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi become more than mere commodities as they spread globally from place to place. For Foster, the qualifying of the meaning and value of Coca-Cola lies beyond production or simple commodity consumption, but in the affective work that consumers do through their association of past experiences and feelings with the Coca-Cola brand.

This affective significance comes as a result of Coca-Cola embedding itself into the everyday lives of consumers to such a degree that it becomes part of people’s individual biographies, “a prop for the particular narratives through which individual consumers actively produce their own pasts”.[19] Coca-Cola’s value and meaning is essentially produced by creating a time machine, a type of time travel only possible to consumers with previous, embodied connections with the Coca-Cola brand in physically salient ways. An example being the bodily experience of drinking a Coca-Cola during a particularly memorable summer spent at summer camp. When you see an ad for Coca-Cola, you not only rationally recognize and read the message, but also remember the emotional and physical feelings of drinking from that cold glass bottle on a warm pier. The value of a brand such as Coca-Cola comes from two interlinked sources: one from the actual consumption of a commodity marked by brand image, and the other of the memory of that consumption upon viewing the brand image later. Each product must be able to stand alone as a complete experience, but also gain in value, depth, and meaning when it becomes a node in the network of memories and experiences that make up a consumer’s experience with that brand.

Framing Pokémon as a brand like Coca-Cola makes for easy connections. Brands are created when consumers (or players, in this case) form emotional relationships with the franchise through a brand’s ability to connect products to remembered individual biographies. While brands like Coca-Cola do this through advertisements in relationship to a single experience – that of drinking Coca-Cola – Pokémon is a brand that stimulates similar time-traveling tendencies not for one product, but for a large collection of media products. Each encounter with a Pokémon product can connect various aspects of the consumers’ individual biography and identity, linking together different times and experiences of the player’s life into the continually expanding Pokémon universe.

Colin B. Harvey in Fantastic Transmedia: Narrative, Play and Memory Across Science Fiction and Fantasy Storyworlds, identifies memory and nostalgia as key mechanisms through which transmedia products are created and spread.[20] For Harvey, “the role of memory can be understood as central to transmedia storytelling, in which the invocation of ideas, characters, plot points or audio-visual imagery between elements of a franchise are central to that project’s success.” [21] This makes sense. It would be difficult to link different forms of media together (linking stories together being the basis of transmedia storytelling all together) if an audience member could not remember any of the previous stories.

When discussing the significance of memory when it comes to creating canon, Harvey examines “the multiple ways in which creators, fans and other commentators seek to control and negotiate the tensions between subjective and collective remembering of a storyworld’s diegesis” [my emphasis].[22] The emphasis on control and negotiation implies that memory is something that can be controlled through agency of either consumer or creator. This is seen again in the final chapter, where Harvey explains that,

the degree of control exercised by the IP holder in each instance in relation to how memory is controlled directly affects the particular narrative being told and the wider storyworld. Equally the lack of control experienced by those outside of such legal arrangements determines how memories can be articulated, and the extent to which they can be subverted.[23]

Control of memory, collective memory especially, is important when it comes to transmedia storytelling. While memory can be affected, encouraged, and subverted by both authorial intent and consumer choice, there are also additional ways to subvert power that are not as tied into conceptions of control. Memory, as Harvey says, can be “an unruly beast”[24], and memory’s ability to continually surprise us provides an alternative way to think about the way media moves us.

 

Producers, Players, and Play Objects

 

From the beginning, concerns about power, both why Pokémon held such a powerful position in the imaginations of players, as well as who controlled that power, were at the forefront of conversations surrounding these pocket-sized monsters. Alternatively called “Cool Japan” or “Japan’s Gross National Cool”,[25] the success of Japanese media products like Tamagotchi, Hello Kitty, and Pokémon in markets outside of Japan, especially the United States, could be interchangeably seen as either a symbol or a symptom of Japan’s rise in “soft power”. Japan was viewed as a blossoming media powerhouse, and more eyes on Japanese media meant Japan was increasingly able to affect culture, values, and politics through the appeal and attraction of their nation and their nation’s media products.[26]

This assessment of Japan’s growing persuasive capacities in globalized media networks was problematized by Iwabuchi Koichi, whose analyses of the extensive localization practices of Pokémon showed that all visual cues that marked Japanese media as being a specifically “Japanese product” were effectively removed. These localization processes revolve around the intention of making these products culturally neutral, something Iwabuchi terms “culturally odorless”.[27] In that case, it means the popularity of products like Pokémon cannot easily be interpreted as consumers appreciating or yearning for anything that, in Iwabuchi’s language, is “distinctively Japanese”. For Iwabuchi, the success of Pokémon stems not from Japan’s rise as a cultural superpower, but rather from the successful removal of all specifically Japanese references so that the world of Pokémon is familiar and comfortable for American audiences.

One of the primary limitations to research like Iwabuchi’s and McGray’s is that, as macro-level and global political commentaries, they do not consider how individual players interact with and emotionally relate to Pokémon products. It is hard to tell what consumers of media products think without researching their actual opinions, and the media itself can tell a narrative or story that moves the meaning beyond just international power struggles. Both Iwabuchi and McGray reduce Pokémon and its consumers to symbolic static straw men for clashing sovereign powers in a way that turns the individuals engaged with the media, as well as the media itself, into somewhat passive mirrors of larger, external political vying for international power. That is a meaningful conversation to be had, to be sure, but not the only one.

Anne Allison in her book Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination offers up a different reading of Pokémon. By interviewing young Pokémon fans and examining the crossover media traffic between Japan and the United States, Allison argues that Japanese entertainment goods such as Pokémon are not static objects, but instead examples of the interlocking relationships between things like Japan and the US, or fantasy and reality, effectively becoming mutable assemblages that attract youths through their ability to move, shift, and transform.[28]  While children admit to the importance of these products coming from Japan in terms of authenticity, Allison argues that the popularity of international Japanese media goods instead derives from a “Japan” that operates as a brand signifier for a certain type of fantasy-ware, rather than a marker of specific geographic or national origin.[29] In some ways, this type of scholarship fills in the gaps left over from a heavy emphasis on structural powers or national intentions. Rather than players being totally under the influence of sovereign agencies, the individual and multifaceted ways in which children are actively utilizing these toy objects in day-to-day life shows how macro processes and symbolism are not the only ones in control of the media and its meaning.

Other types of Pokémon scholarship have also focused more heavily on the relationships players and fans have formed with Pokémon, flipping the focus from macro to micro to examine the ways children actively interact with and use Pokémon products on an individual or demographically narrow level. The topics covered are highly varied, from being impressed by the information and data gathering of young players,[30] to documenting how French children purposefully integrate Pokémon cards into more traditional French card games,[31] to demonstrating how children purposefully use Pokémon to construct new identities for themselves.[32] Rather than practices that are entirely reflective of larger social or cultural narratives, this type of research reinforces the agency of young players in their creative play.

In the research mentioned, Pokémon products become inert tools in either the international hands of nations and corporations, or the somewhat smaller hands of children. I seek instead to complicate this hierarchical relationship, placing Pokémon alongside both the player and producer in terms influence and power, rather than strictly below or above. The value players imbue the Pokémon brand with is not entirely a result of top-down decision-making, with The Pokémon Company solely managing the brand and its meaning, nor is it entirely a product of consumers dictating their own emotions and use of Pokémon products. The answer is between all these things, with the producer, the player, and the actual play product itself interacting on a playing field that is not entirely predetermined, hierarchical, or even adversarial.

 

The Method Behind the Memories

 

To catalogue all the interconnections within the vast and ever-expanding universe of Pokémon would be a monumental endeavour and beyond the scope and limitations of this essay. Instead this article provides a digestible snapshot of how gestures can be located and understood using only specific parts of the Pokémon franchise. I avoided looking at narrative similarities between media products, which lean towards being “movement-images” that utilize rationality versus emotion and affect as the primary driving force. I concentrated instead on the memories that were playful or action-oriented, elements of the world geared towards memories of doing or playing. These gestures are slight, large enough to jar something loose in the memory banks of someone who has played or experienced other Pokémon products, but small enough to not disrupt the story or seem out of place to someone who did not understand the reference.

I started with two specific iterations of the Pokémon franchise: the 1999 cinematic release, Pokémon: The First Movie,[33] and the 2013 video game release, Pokémon X. The gestures found in these two iterations flatten time both intra-platform and inter-platform. Intra-platform gestures point across new or older versions of the same type of product. (i.e. the newest version of a game pointing towards older versions of the game). Inter-platform gestures point across different types of platforms or formats (i.e. an animated television episode pointing towards a video game). This sort of snapshot analysis shows how these gestures are not limited to a specific type or era of Pokémon media, and how gestures can tie together a transmedia brand across multiple products and platforms. The presence of memory gestures across multiple renditions of the franchise, and even across different decades, make this aspect of the media a part of Pokémon’s lasting transmedia brand and emotional legacy.

 

Intra-Platform Gestures

 

“Who’s That Pokémon?” is a question-and-answer segment featured in numerous episodes of the Pokémon animated television series.[34] During each episode, before a commercial break, the silhouette of a Pokémon is shown with the voice of the narrator asking the audience to guess the name of the Pokémon being shown. To ask the question, the narrator always uses the same phrase: “Who’s that Pokémon?” After the commercial break, a human character from the show shouts the name of the Pokémon as the fully detailed and non-silhouetted image of the Pokémon appears. For instance, in figure 1, the answer is “Pikachu”, the main Pokémon throughout the series. In addition to being a playful game to pass commercial time, “Who’s that Pokémon?” is also an intra-media memory gesture, a moment pointed towards by Pokémon’s first full-length film.

Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back (Gekijōban Poketto Monsutā: Myūtsū no Gyakushū)[35] was released in 1998 in Japan before making its way to the United States in 1999. As reported by Anne Allison in her book Millenial Monsters, the movie earned opening day profits that at the time exceeded all other films in American film history except for Star Wars. [36] The film was based primarily on the characters from the syndicated animated television series: Ash, Misty, and Brock (as they are called in the American release). In the film, our human protagonists, plus Pikachu, face Mewtwo, a bioengineered Pokémon made from the cloned DNA of Mew, the legendary Pokémon, and the super-Pokémon clones MewTwo has created. Like any good iteration in a transmedia franchise, it is a stand-alone film, and it is possible to find enjoyment watching it without having played any of the Pokémon video games or having watched any episodes of the animated television series. While previous knowledge and experience with a Pokémon product is unnecessary to understand what is happening, there were special, memory-laden gestures that offered additional depth and meaning for viewers who did have familiarity with other Pokémon products.

During Pokémon: The First Movie, the “Who’s that Pokémon?” gesture is referenced during a scene in which two members of Team Rocket, Jessie, and James (a pair of “villains” that often act as comic relief rather than a serious threat), are trapped in the underground laboratory of MewTwo. In the giant stadium above, MewTwo captures the Pokémon of the various trainers he has lured to his island (including Ash, Misty, and Brock) and sends the captured Pokémon down to his lab to be cloned. The cloning machine, while the captured Pokémon go through an assortment of tubes, displays on an overhead screen the silhouette of the Pokémon being cloned. At one point, when James sees a Pokémon’s silhouette on the screen, he mutters aloud “Who’s that Pokémon?” (see fig. 2). While this scene is part of a larger narrative arc revealing how MewTwo is creating his team of super-powered Pokémon, the moment when James asks quizzically about what is being shown on screen, and in fact even the existence of the screen itself, are largely unimportant for continuing the action of the story. But for viewers with previous experience of the animated Pokémon series, this gesture could potentially point towards memories of playing this specific guessing game while watching the animated television series on a couch in their living rooms, therefore recalling a past moment and layering it on top of the present to create an experience that extends backwards through time.

 

obraz 1 obraz 2

Fig. 1 (left) and Fig. 2 (right). A side-by-side comparison of a screenshot of the “Who’s that Pokémon?” segment from the first Pokémon episode, “Pokémon, I Choose You!”, in the United States (Fig. 1) versus a screenshot from Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back (Fig. 2).

 

The Pokémon video games also make use of intra-media gestures. Pokémon X, one of two of the first sixth generation games published in 2013, includes instances of gestures that take players out of the present moment by bursting backwards into older video games. For instance, at one Pokémon Center, a type of building that provides healing services within all of the games (its continued existence a type of gesture in and of itself), a non-playable character you speak with makes mention of the changes that have happened to Pokémon Centers within the last ten years (see fig. 3). One change the non-playable character notices is that of building aesthetics.

The Pokémon Centers, while common staples found in most of the main-franchise role-playing games, have gone through several changes in terms of their appearance as the games have developed over the years. The mention of there at one point being two stories is temporally important, as the two-story Pokémon Centers in old games (most notably the original 1998 video games Pokémon Red[37] and Pokémon Blue[38]) were due to technological specifications of the Game Boy console. The “Pokémon Cable Club”, as the character mentions, used to be housed on the second floor of the Pokémon Center in Pokémon Red and Blue. It is where players went to trade Pokémon with friends via physical, real-world cables connecting one Game Boy console to another before wireless transfer was made technologically possible.

For players of the original video game, stumbling across this innocuous comment in Pokémon X [39] could push the player back in time to a moment where you sat two feet away from your friend, impatiently watching a grey blob travel along tubes on your black-and-white pixilated screen as you waited for a trade to complete. It could also work in reverse. If you first encountered Pokémon X, encountering the second story in Pokémon Red or Pokémon Blue could cause you to “remember the future” of the franchise, adding meaning to the in-game architecture through your previous experiences of future renditions of the Pokémon Center.

 

obraz 3aobraz 3b

Fig. 3. Screenshots of a conversation with a non-playable character in Pokémon X while at a Pokémon Center.

 

The Pokémon themselves are their own intra-media gestures. As time goes on, the Pokémon franchise adds new Pokémon that are available for capture and training in addition to the ones that already exist. Generally, Nintendo only adds more Pokémon to the Pokémon universe, and never takes any away. Even if all the Pokémon are not available for capture within the same game, a player’s digital Pokédex (like an encyclopaedia or a field guide) holds information about every single Pokémon ever created. While the first games, Pokémon Red and Blue, started with a total of 151 Pokémon, the official online Pokédex compiled by The Pokémon Company on Pokemon.com lists a total of 801 different Pokémon as of 2017.[40]

Since the available Pokémon changes from game to game, recent developments have made it possible to transfer Pokémon from older games to newer games, so players can more fully complete their Pokédex. That means Pokémon from different generations can still be played with inside the game no matter what game you are currently playing. This has some interesting affective possibilities. If, as a player, you choose to move some of your old Pokémon to your new system, that means when you battle it is not just any Venosaur you’re playing with, it’s the same one you’ve owned and trained since 2004, the Venosaur that has seen you through different birthdays, bad romances, and good years. Pokémon you previously formed a relationship with are now available in your present moment, blurring the temporal lines between the battle you are having now and the battle you had ten years ago when you first levelled up the Pokémon on your screen.

 

Inter-Platform Gestures

 

The tendency to throw in moments that bring to mind other renditions of the Pokémon franchise is not limited to referencing products within the same type of platform. Pokémon: The First Movie, in addition to gesturing towards the animated series, also pointed the viewer towards the original video game, Pokémon Red. Upon revealing his powerful Pokémon clones before the final battle, MewTwo describes the very impressive battle trio standing in the frontlines as the “ultimate evolutions of the three Pokémon any trainer can get upon starting their journey”.[41] The Pokémon he is talking about are Charizard, Venosaur, and Blastoise, the final evolutions of Charmander, Bulbasaur, and Squirtle. This might mean nothing to the average viewer, but players of the Pokémon Red or Pokémon Blue video games would know that Charmander, Bulbasaur, and Squirtle are the first three starter Pokémon you must choose from at the beginning of the first Pokémon games. Hearing MewTwo’s speech brings the viewer back to the first time they ever turned on their Game Boy, reminding them of how difficult it was to choose which cute and cuddly battle monster would be their comrade for the remainder of the game.

Pokémon: The First Movie gestures towards more than just one video game. Pokémon Yellow[42] was released in 1999 as an almost a direct copy of Pokémon Red and Blue with only two big changes: Pikachu is the only available Pokémon to start with (rather than the typical trio of Charmander, Squirtle, and Bulbasaur), and Pikachu follows the player around on the screen rather than being carried in a Pokéball. This is directly gestured towards by the relationship between Ash and Pikachu in the film. It is quickly revealed to the audience that Pikachu is different than other Pokémon, namely because Pikachu refuses to go inside his Pokéball, which is where most Pokémon spend most of their time, even when critically injured. Watching that episode can instantly suggest the memory of navigating the game-world in Pokémon Yellow, with that tiny pixilated Pikachu you were forced to choose following happily along behind you.

Game mechanics are their own sort of gestures, with most Pokémon games utilizing some variation of in-battle moves relating to attack, defence, switching to another Pokémon, using an item from your in-game inventory/bag, or running away (if you are battling a wild Pokémon). While these game mechanics have stayed similar from game to game, changing little between iterations, they also re-appear across different platforms. “Thundershock” is a move used by Pikachu in Pokémon X, but is also seen in the first episode of the animated series.[43] It is also available as an attack move on some of the Pikachu playing cards from the Pokémon Trading Card Game (see fig. 4).[44]

 

obraz 4

Fig. 4. A Pikachu card found in Pokémon Trading Card Game, listing “Thunder Shock”, a move seen in both the anime, film, and in video games.

 

Game mechanics like this are unique to transmedia franchises that incorporate or are based out of games. Game mechanics and actions, rather than providing additional narrative depth or filling gaps in a story-line, combine media threads together through memories of repetitive action to create bonds between different kinds of media.

 

Who is Choosing Who? Purpose vs. Potential of Implanted Gestures

 

While these examples are just a few among many, they expose the multiplicity of ways that Pokémon could potentially inspire memories on the part of the player. The key point here is that of potential. While it is likely the creators purposefully implant some of these gestures throughout the franchise, the order in which the gestures are experienced and the effect they will have (if at all) is not entirely predictable. If your memories of a certain game are entrenched with memories of hiding in your room while soon-to-divorce parents are downstairs screaming, a game unintentionally causing you to go back in time to that moment might be met with frustration and sadness rather than joy and happiness.

Additionally, like all transmedia franchises, not everything will inspire moments of memory, in part because there is no specific chronological order in which to encounter the Pokémon franchise. Creators have little control over the order in which the franchise is experienced. A player can start anywhere, either the card game, anime, a video game, or movie, and still be able to participate in the main narrative arc of each Pokémon variant. Tajiri (the creator) says this himself in an interview with Time Magazine:

TIME: Do you think the TV show now dictates how people play the game?

Tajiri: At first, I was a little concerned. It depends on how people are

introduced to Pokémon. If they start with the TV show, or with the cards, or

the video game, they approach it differently each time.[45]

Some people start with the newest video game and work their way backwards to the classics, while others have purchased every video game since 1998. Some start in the middle. Some skip a game. Some people participate in all levels of the Pokémon franchise, from the card game to the anime, and still others participate maybe in only one or two types of the Pokémon media medley. Unlike a series, in which starting at the wrong point would cause confusion, the Pokémon franchise has many entry points that are constantly expanding outwards. The gestures work regardless of what order they move you, mainly because they have nothing to do with chronological time or narrative sequence. Each entry, each memory, each action, is just another addition to the individual biography, the individual Pokédex, of the player’s life which can be collected in any order.

These Pokémon products can exist separately even while being enmeshed in networks that bind them together across various stories, times, and method of engagement. The ability to pick up and engage with the Pokémon franchise at any point, even though these games are laden with references to other parts of the franchise, is possible because these types of gestures are not essential for narrative action. In fact, as a game, the glue that holds much of this transmedia franchise together is not even the narrative arc, but rather types of actions a player or audience member has performed when interacting with this world sometime in the past. These gestures draw the consumer in through the engagement of their individual, and very active, biographies, busting the present moment open to the possibility of pollution by other times and other experiences throughout the player’s life.

The possible effects of these radioactive memory gestures embedded within Pokémon products not only hold parts of the branding of this transmedia franchise together, but also provide a way to move meaning in ways not entirely calculable by producer or the player. Catching these movements of memory, or at the very least the moments in which these movements are possible, helps us better understand the ebbs and flows of media and its meaning as it crosses national borders, media platforms, and individual relationships. Catching just the power of the state or the power of individual intent is not enough. Put in the language of the Pokémon universe itself, we “Gotta Catch ‘Em All”.

 

References

Allison Anne, Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination, (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press) (2006).

Bergson Henri, Laughter. An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, (Los Angeles: Green Integer Books) (1999).

Brougere Gilles, “How Much Is a Pokémon Worth? Pokémon in France”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2008).

Deleuze Giles, Cinema 1. The movement-image, (London: The Athlone Press) (1986).

Foster Robert J., Coca-Globalization: Following Soft Drinks from New York to New Guinea, (New York, New York: Palgrave MacMillan) (2008).

Frank Allegra, “Pokémon Sun and Moon set big new sales record for Nintendo”, Polygon http://www.polygon.com/2016/11/30/13797626/pokemon-sun-and-moon-sales-record, date accessed 14 January 2017 (2016).

Harvey Colin B., Fantastic Transmedia: Narrative, Play and Memory Across Science Fiction and Fantasy Storyworlds, (King’s College London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan) (2015).

Iwabuchi Koichi, “How “Japanese” Is Pokemon?”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2008).

John Davison, “How Pokemania Broke ‘Pokemon Go’”, Rolling Stone Magazine http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/pokemon-go-how-pokemania-broke-mobile-gaming-app-20160712, date accessed 14 January 2017 (2016).

Taylor Laurie N., Whalen Zach, “Playing the Past: An Introduction”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press) (2008).

Lien Tracey, “How successful is Pokémon? Take a look at the numbers!”, Polygon http://www.polygon.com/pokemon/2014/8/18/6030089/Pokemon-sales-numbers, date accessed 27 November 2014 (2014).

Marks Laura U., The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2000).

McGray Douglas, “Japan’s Gross National Cool”, Foreign Policy http://foreignpolicy.com/2009/11/11/japans-gross-national-cool/, date accessed 27 November 2014 (2002).

Nye Joseph, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, (New York: Basic Books) (1990).

Pokémon Blue (1998, The Pokémon Company, Gameboy).

Pokémon Go (2016, Niantic, iOS and Android).

“Episode 1: Pokémon, I Choose You!”, Pokémon [animated TV program] Cartoon Network, 8 September 1998.

Pokémon Moon (2016, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

Pokémon Red (1998, The Pokémon Company, Gameboy).

Pokémon Sun (2016, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

Pokémon X (2013, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

Pokémon Yellow: Special Pikachu Edition (1999, The Pokemon Company, Gameboy).

Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back! (1999, Yuyama Kunihiki).

Rai Amit S., Untimely Bollywood: Globalization and India’s New Media Assemblage, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2009).

Reading Anna, Harvey Colin, “Remembrance of Things Fast: Conceptualizing Nostalgia Play in the Battlestar Galactica Video Game”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press) (2008).

Sefton-Greene Julian, “Initiation Rites: A Small Boy in a Poke-World”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2008).

Tobin Joseph (ed) Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2004).

Willet Rebekah, “The Multiple Identities of Pokémon Fans”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2008).

“All Pokémon Video Games”, The Pokémon Company http://www.pokemon.com/us/pokemon-video-games/all-pokemon-games/, date accessed 14 January 2017.

Pokémon Trading Card Game (2014, The Pokémon Company, XY-Furious Fists expansion, “Pikachu”).

“Pokédex”, The Pokemon Company https://www.pokemon.com/us/pokedex/, date accessed 14 January 2017.

“The Ultimate Game Freak”, Time Magazine http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2040095,00.html, date accessed 30 November 2014 (1999).

 

 

[1] Because the single word “Pokémon” is used to describe and name a cornucopia of media objects and things, I utilized a specific key to help readers recognize references more easily. Throughout this paper I use the term “Pokémon” to discuss the creatures, or objects of capture, that inherit the Pokémon universe; I use the italicized “Pokémon” to discuss specific products (i.e. cartoons, movies, card games, video games, etc.); and I use the underlined “Pokémon” to discuss both the franchise and brand itself, as well as the universe in which Pokémon and Pokémon discussions are situated in or centred around.

[2] Pokémon Go on iOS and Android (2016, Niantic).

[3] John Davison, “How Pokemania Broke ‘Pokemon Go’”, Rolling Stone Magazine http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/pokemon-go-how-pokemania-broke-mobile-gaming-app-20160712, date accessed 14 January 2017 (2016).

[4] Pokémon Sun (2016, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

[5] Pokémon Moon (2016, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

[6] Allegra Frank, “Pokémon Sun and Moon set big new sales record for Nintendo”, Polygon http://www.polygon.com/2016/11/30/13797626/pokemon-sun-and-moon-sales-record, date accessed 14 January 2017 (2016).

[7] Douglas McGray, “Japan’s Gross National Cool”, Foreign Policy http://foreignpolicy.com/2009/11/11/japans-gross-national-cool/, date accessed 27 November 2014 (2002).

[8] Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2004).

[9] Amit S. Rai, Untimely Bollywood: Globalization and India’s New Media Assemblage, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2009), p. 218-219.

[10] Anna Reading and Colin Harvey, “Remembrance of Things Fast: Conceptualizing Nostalgia-Play in the Battlestar Galactica Video Game”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2008), p. 164-179.

[11] Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen, “Playing the Past: An Introduction”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2008), p. 1.

[12] Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2000), p. 65.

[13] Laura U. Marks, pp. 77.

[14] Laura U. Marks, pp. 81.

[15] Giles Deleuze, Cinema 1. The movement-image, (London: The Athlone Press) (1986).

[16] Henri Bergson, Laughter. An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, (Los Angeles: Green Integer Books) (1999), p. 130.

[17] Laura U. Marks, pp. 77.

[18] Robert J. Foster, Coca-Globalization: Following Soft Drinks from New York to New

Guinea, (New York, New York: Palgrave MacMillan) (2008).

[19] Robert J. Foster, pp. 85.

[20] Colin B. Harvey, Fantastic Transmedia: Narrative, Play and Memory Across Science Fiction and Fantasy Storyworlds, (King’s College London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan) (2015).

[21] Colin B. Harvey, pp. 34.

[22] Colin B. Harvey, pp. 92.

[23] Colin B. Harvey, pp. 200.

[24] Colin B. Harvey, pp. 183.

[25] Douglas McGray.

[26] Joseph Nye, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, (New York: Basic Books) (1990).

[27] Koichi Iwabuchi, “How “Japanese” Is Pokemon?”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 53-79.

[28] Anne Allison, Millenial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination, (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press) (2006), p. 34.

[29] Anne Allison, pp. 277.

[30] Julian Sefton-Greene, “Initiation Rites: A Small Boy in a Poke-World”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 141-164.

[31] Gilles Brougere, “How Much Is a Pokémon Worth? Pokémon in France”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 187-209.

[32] Rebekah Willet, “The Multiple Identities of Pokémon Fans”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 226-240.

[33] Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back! (1999, Yuyama Kunihiki).

[34] “Episode 1: Pokémon, I Choose You!”, Pokémon [animated TV program] Cartoon Network, 8 September 1998.

[35] Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back!

[36] Anne Allison, pp. 237.

[37] Pokémon Red (1998, The Pokémon Company, Gameboy).

[38] Pokémon Blue (1998, The Pokémon Company, Gameboy).

[39] Pokémon X (2013, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

[40] The Pokémon Company, https://www.pokemon.com/us/pokedex/, date accessed 14 January 2017.

[41] Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back!

[42] Pokémon Yellow: Special Pikachu Edition on Game Boy (1999, The Pokemon Company).

[43] “Episode 1: Pokémon, I Choose You!”.

[44] Pokémon Trading Card Game (2014, The Pokémon Company, XY-Furious Fists expansion, “Pikachu”).

[45] “The Ultimate Game Freak”, Time Magazine http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2040095,00.html, date accessed 30 November 2014 (1999).

 

 

 

 

 

Creation Myths, Community, and Collectanea: A Folk Group Case Study, or “Welcome to Dota, You Suck”

Ciara Smith

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 142-161.

 

Ciara Smith

Auburn University

 

 

Creation Myths, Community, and Collectanea:

A Folk Group Case Study, or “Welcome to Dota, You Suck”[1]

 

Abstract

This paper posits folklore studies as an appropriate lens through which to examine a specific gaming community. Game studies, itself an emerging but recognized field of study, offers an alternative possibility. In practice, folklore seems to be more appropriate. Ludology, the study of gameplay, lacks methodologies and metrics specific to the field by which to study communities, their practice, and the process of coherent group creation. Other gaming studies research focusing on gaming communities invariably employs techniques and terminology of other disciplines in order to contribute to the growing compendium of gaming studies that have been conducted. The following paper might be seen to contribute to practices by which folklore studies provide similarly lendable terms and methods; it also clearly represents the expansion of folklore studies into the realm of the digital world. Accordingly, three aspects of folk group study are examined: community beliefs, community creation practices, and communally significant material culture. In each, there is a necessary process of adjustment from the physical to the digital iterations of these traditionally examined aspects. These aspects represent only a few of the myriad possibilities of digital versions of folkloric methodologies.

Key words: gaming studies, digital folklore, gaming communities, MMOs, MOBAs

 

Introduction

In 2007, webcomic artist Randall Munroe posted a comic called “Online Communities” which features some of the most popular websites, social media systems, virtual communication tools and online gaming communities reimagined as a geographical map, complete with the Gulf of YouTube, the Mountains of Web 1.0, and the Blogipelago.[2] By 2010, this map was obsolete and he produced “Online Communities 2”. After an interval of only three years, the area devoted to MySpace had shrunk considerably and is now located near the “Wasteland of Abandoned Social Networks”; Facebook sprawls Sino-Russia-like across the top of the map and YouTube has become its own land mass with smaller areas like the Britney mountains and the already-abandoned Rick-Rolling Hills. “Communities rise and fall”, Munroe writes, “and total membership numbers are no longer a good measure of a community’s current size and health. [‘Online Communities 2’] uses size to represent total social activity in a community – that is, how much talking, playing, sharing, or other socializing happens there”.[3]

Society is already happening online, and although geographic location is still an important factor in a person’s life, online activity (and “where” this activity happens) is becoming just as important. While the art community expands to include the digital arts and humanity scholars examine the “written” word that is now being transmitted and consumed virtually, those who study the artists, the writers, and their societies must learn to incorporate the reality of online identity. Alan Dundes, claimed that:

The term ‘folk’ can refer to any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor. It doesn’t matter what that factor is – it could be a common occupation, language, or religion – but what is important is that a group formed for whatever reason will have some traditions which it calls its own.[4]

In their chapter on folk groups in Living Folklore, an introduction to folklore study, Martha C. Sims and Martine Stephens qualified this definition. Citing Dunde’s and the definitions of a number of other folklorists in regard to folk groups, Sims and Stephens eventually arrive at what they consider the centrally important ideal of group: that the group is “doing folklore”. “Basically, if a group has folklore, it’s a folk group”.[5]  Such a definition is clearly applicable to online societies which produce or revolve around a number of recognized forms of folklore. Even before such an in-depth exploration as is attempted below, personal experience renders undeniable the claim that online communities produce such items as jokes and art – two forms that are mentioned in Dundes’ non-exhaustive list referenced by Sims and Stephens.[6]

The possibilities of a folkloric study of an online gaming community are potentially endless. Such a community’s status as a lore-producing group seems clear, but despite the current rise in participation in virtual folk groups there has not been so drastic a rise in corresponding study of such groups. Digital folklorist Trevor J. Blank has identified one of the potential reasons for this slight:

On the surface, it may appear that the identification of “folkness” via a technological medium (such as the internet) is presumptuous, or worse, inherently “non-folk”, since it requires some technical prowess with computer-mediated communication in order to be engaged. However, there is an inborn “folk” presence in cyberspace by virtue of the fact that people are behind nearly every symbolic interaction that takes place online and through new media technology.[7]

Technology, Blank claims, is merely a conduit through which folkness is expressed.[8] As stated in the Randall Munroe quote above, online communities are in a constant state of rise and fall. Even as communities are abandoned, the nature of the Internet itself means that an archive of these communities is already being created.

One of the longest lived online communities is that of World of Warcraft. WoW, as it is generally known, is one of the most exoterically recognizable of online gaming communities, yet its community is incredibly esoteric.[9] WoW is an MMO (or MMORPG), a massive multiplayer online game where players from all over the world can interact with others and make friends. Such a game is inherently social in nature, mimicking real life societies in terms of race, class, and faction divisions (somewhat comparable to national divides). Players themselves recognize the social aspects of the game:

When I started, WoW was more of a social experience than gaming. I spent the bulk of my time chatting with people, and that was the reason I logged on everyday…

And theres [sic] more to it than levelling. You can do professions, gather pets, earning money, exploring, immersion, roleplay… And most important of all; friendship! Youll [sic] undoubtely [sic] meet some people. Ive [sic] played WoW for many years and I have friends all over the globe.[10]

This is a member of the WoW community’s response to someone who was trying to play the game without any real motivation, “just because”. These ideas of social interaction online are not restricted to MMOs, WoW, or even to the game communities to which this article will eventually turn its attention: DotA and DotA 2. However, such online communities as these are clearly defined, esoteric, and somewhat homogenous in ways that, for example, social media sites (Facebook, Pinterest, etc.[11]) are not.

While this paper is primarily occupied with the attempt to speak of a gaming community as a folk group, an obvious question remains: If folklore is a discipline ill-suited to the task of examining this group, what discipline would be more appropriate? The field of gaming studies is particularly apropos, but similar studies on gaming communities by scholars of games and gaming communities have been largely conducted by sociologists with an interest in gaming. While folklore studies must change and adapt to online life and the new facet such phenomena bring to a study of communities, gaming studies continues to develop as a field that is inherently interdisciplinary.

In general, ludology, the emergent term for the study of play, seems far more suited to the aspects of play than the communities themselves. According to Gonzalo Frasca, “A ludologist is somebody who wants to have a better understanding of games”.[12] Notably, Frasca used this description when trying to differentiate ludology from narratology, implying that these two fields are similar and neither of them seem concerned specifically with the study of the players and their communities. While games such as WoW allow players to create personas and interact in their community during gameplay, DotA and DotA 2 games are often very short. DotA players spend almost as much time out of game taking part in their community as in the game. This does not mean, however, that the gaming aspect does not matter to DotA players. Nor does it mean that this external component of community is exclusive to these communities. In his work on identity expressions in the gaming subculture, J. Patrick Williams has noted the way that items, understanding, and gaming history including success statistics all play a part in the identity of players of collectible card games such as Magic: The Gathering. He notes for these games what might be applied to the community-identity aspect of most if not all games: “Multiple, overlapping processes are involved in the construction of ‘authentic’ identities”.[13] Such a statement highlights both the social complexity of these groups and the way in which the construction of such identity is not limited to in-game activity. Ludology’s focus on gameplay seems, therefore, to fall short of a comprehensive study on the DotA communities. Recent developments in gaming studies posit the game as a tri-part artefact of technology, individual activity, and social pastime. It is this final aspect with which this researcher is most concerned and which would be broadened by the use of folklore studies as a research apparatus.

Where relevant, the following examination of the DotA and DotA 2 communities has attempted to refer to gaming study articles and works that examine related aspects in other games and their communities. In general, even when the authors of these works primarily deal with digital studies, games, etc. they are dependent on these other disciplines for methodology and terminology. Furthermore, the myriad ways in which this case study examines aspects that are often divergent or oppositional between the DotA communities and similar ones in other studies conducted by scholars of games speak of the breadth and range necessary for broader attention to community studies in the still emerging discipline of game studies. The idea of a single discipline of gaming studies assumes qualities that are unique to games. However, the current status of gaming studies as an inherently interdisciplinary field both recognizes the unique qualities of games and allows them to be seen as a newer subsection of humanities and liberal arts studies, neither so different as to be unrelated nor so similar as to be subsumed by earlier works.

Below, the DotA communities will be examined through a folkloric lens, but like folk groups situated in the “real” world, the DotA communities are comprised of members who in turn populate myriad other groups. The influence of other folk groups is omnipresent: many gamers are a part of the WoW community or choose to participate in DotA alongside real life friends with whom they form a different sort of community. Although this digital folklore exploration is far from a one-to-one comparison between online and “real life” folk groups, I’ve chosen to focus on creation stories and beliefs, community making, and “collectanea” within these online communities.

Although mediated by technology, such folkloric forms are recognizable as variations on their non-digital analogues. I’ve therefore conducted this research primarily through examination of various websites where players interact with each other. Some of these websites are forums and literal discussions while others are websites such as Wikipedia and DotA and DotA2 Wikipages. Such sites are often viewed as neither legitimate nor credible but are particularly useful here as they represent archives created by and for members of these communities. Also, email interviews have been conducted with a few members of the DotA 2 community. These members, while hardly representative of a large and thriving community, do allow for more personalized feedback than can be drawn from simply observing community activities.

 

Creation Myths: Dota Beginnings, IceFrog, and Game Deities

 

According to Sims and Stephens, belief is an important aspect in folk groups, indeed it is one of the ways that “cultural information is most often communicated within groups”.[14] For many folk groups, “the question of belief is often most apparent in studying religious elements.[15] Some games include an in-game religion that players become pseudo practitioners of during gameplay. In her book-length study on an MMO called Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, Celia Pearce elaborates on some of the ways in which players of this game participate in a specific religion.[16] While DotA and DotA 2 players do not participate in religious activities per se, they have long exhibited an interesting set of creation myths regarding the existence of the games. These creation myths, in conjunction with famous figures within the community, regularly lead to community members expressing their beliefs about the game in terms and phrases that mirror religious participation.

As the 2 in “DotA 2” implies, DotA 2 is the more recent of two games. DotA[17], while strongly related to WoW, is not an MMO, but a MOBA, a multiplayer online battle arena game in which teams compete for a specific goal or specific amount of time on a game map that is much more restricted in size than the world map of an MMO[18]. DotA is an acronym for Defense of the Ancients, a reference to the goal of the game. Two opposing teams of 5 players defend their “Ancient”, which isn’t specifically defined. An explanation can be extrapolated from in-game contexts and definitions of the word, such that it becomes a combination temple/tower/deity. Regardless of how the term is understood, these opposing Ancients figure in the game as attackable structures in opposite corners of the game map with a limited amount of “life”. Teams must attack and destroy several tiers of towers and eventually the Ancient of the opposing team while protecting their own towers and Ancient. The team whose Ancient falls first, loses the game.

DotA began as a kind of sub-game in Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, [19] which included a world builder, where players could create custom scenarios. “These custom scenarios can be simple terrain changes, which play like normal Warcraft games, or they can be entirely new game scenarios with custom objectives, units, items, and events, like Defense of the Ancients”.[20] Because gameplay was located within the Warcraft game, original players were part of the Warcraft community. However, in 2013, the standalone sequel DotA 2 was released as a free-to-play MOBA by Valve Corporation, allowing gameplay for experienced DotA players as well as newcomers unfamiliar with Warcraft. Hero names, images, and other in-game terms were changed, but DotA 2 is easily recognizable as a “sequel to DotA”.[21]

The DotA mod for Warcraft was originally created by an anonymous player named Eul in 2003, who soon disappeared from the scene, allowing for a series of other notable “modders” to step in and curate gameplay, heroes, and the map, including Guinsoo, Neichus, and IceFrog.[22] Players were invited by IceFrog to comment on what changes they wanted made in the game, and IceFrog listened to these requests, reportedly changing a hero’s abilities less than two weeks after a newer version had been released because the community claimed that the hero was too powerful.[23] In 2009, it was announced that IceFrog would be working at Valve Corporation to develop a new game.[24] While community involvement in the creation of DotA 2 wasn’t as public as it had been in DotA, it was created by the same people who were controlling DotA.

Although anonymity isn’t a requirement of the DotA and DotA 2 communities, it does seem to be a mark of the creators to remain anonymous[25]. This did not stop community members from speculating about IceFrog’s identity. A defamatory blog post by an alleged Valve employee identified IceFrog as Abdul Ismail was published in 2010 during the development of DotA 2.[26] Although Valve Corporation denied these rumours, a man named Ismail does appear to be a Valve employee, as his name appears in the credits of several Valve projects including their DotA 2 documentary Free to Play. DotA players’ devotion to IceFrog is apparent in the comments section of this blog post. Despite the claims that IceFrog/Ismail had previously worked for a rival game company, comments largely amounted to: “I don’t care as long as DotA 2 is good”. Meanwhile, commenters that leaned towards condemning IceFrog/Ismail professed a dislike for DotA players in general,[27] demonstrating a clear break between DotA community members’ adoration and the cynicism of non-members.

Another theory behind IceFrog’s identity explored by those in the community includes the possibility of IceFrog’s being Bruno Carlucci, a statistician, programmer, and DotA player and game commenter. Bruno’s publicly available timeline doesn’t match up very well with IceFrog’s apparent one. IceFrog was announced to have been working with Valve from 2009, while Bruno announced in May 2014 that he’d “recently accepted a job at Valve as a Software Engineer”.[28]  Nevertheless, rumours that Bruno is IceFrog persist. Forums discussing the possibility cite age, astrological sign, tweeted pictures, and even an apparently shared love of mangoes as evidence for this. There are also several interviews in which co-workers of Bruno appear to ask him directly why he refused to make certain changes in DotA, implying that he indeed was the IceFrog controlling and editing the game according to player suggestions.

I’ve been referring to this quest to determine the identity of DotA and DotA 2 developers as a creation myth because the mystery surrounding the game’s creation and players’ interest therein mirrors the creation story questions posed by other societies. Most of the conversation and evidence surrounding these ideas are provided by community members who are active curators of official DotA history in avenues such as Wikipedia pages on DotA content and self-written DotA histories, such as that published on Facebook by professional DotA player Bu Yanjun “YaphetS”, from China.[29]

However, there are other strains of what will be termed “worship” and “belief systems” in the DotA communities. The aforementioned YaphetS is one of the players who has occasionally had “god” attached to the end of his name because of his “godlike” skill level. These DotA gods are described by a strange mixture of fan speculation and “official” information, often with mythic claims like “labeled by the Chinese”.[30] In addition to the worship that seems to be inherent in labelling someone a god, players have been known to share items with other players they believe to be DotA gods or professional players.[31] There is also talk of fraternization between the DotA gods and IceFrog. YaphetS’s hero of choice in gameplay was Shadow Fiend, whose alternate name on DotA was “YaphetS”. This name was reputedly given “by IceFrog himself”, in tribute to this player.[32]

Furthermore, DotA and DotA 2 players often “believe in the RNG gods and either their favour or disfavour”.[33] RNG stands for Random Number Generator (or, occasionally, RNG is Random Number Gods). As a game that relies on strategy and skill, there is still a certain amount of random “luck” involved in DotA. A number of heroes possess skills that randomly deal more damage than at other times, while a number of items will similarly randomly deal damage or randomly block attacks. The “disfavour” of the RNG gods is demonstrated by a random number that works in a player’s disfavour.

Interestingly, rhetoric surrounding IceFrog, the DotA gods, and the RNG gods, while usually clearly parodic, is often religious in nature, revealing if nothing else a tendency by DotA community members to explain DotA conventions in terms of belief. Players have created and posted parodies of the Lord’s Prayer as prayers to IceFrog and to the RNG[34]. In one forum, a community member posed the question “Is IceFrog a god?” and responses to the post intentionally understood the question to be about IceFrog’s divinity rather than his playing ability. Responses include such assertions as “Eul is the Creator and IceFrog is the Savior”, and “IceFrog is a merciful god”.[35] The rhetoric surrounding the aforementioned DotA gods, meanwhile, seems mythic in nature as community members attempt to pass on the correct lore to new(er) players. “These titles were given during the DotA1 times”, one community member says, explaining the DotA gods to a self-professed new player asking about them on a forum.[36] These stories don’t always agree, and players are quick to defend their views using the same language. “Vigoss is the first god; they called him V-god because it sounded like Vigoss, and this is when he redefined how Dota was played. At least this is the legend I’ve heard…”[37]

Game designer Aaron Oldenburg has demonstrated the potential for virtual games to “simulate religious faith” through procedural and emotional response-provoking elements. His exploration, however, limits itself to first person games. Not being a folklorist, Oldenburg’s interests do not extend to a gaming community’s creation of such faith. However, Oldenburg’s assertion that “religion and games often seem separate from the everyday world, as believers and players (by no means mutually exclusive categories) choose to follow agreed upon sets of rules and narratives that distinguish them from non-believers and non-players” has a certain poignancy when applied to the DotA communities”.[38] Religion and gaming become inextricably linked as markers of community participation.

 

Community: Self-Regulation and Groups within Groups

 

An important aspect of community participation is ritual, which includes not only religious and coming-of-age rituals, but also initiation rituals. “Initiations involve activities that an individual initiate or group of initiates perform to prove their worthiness or to bond them to each other and/or to the group”.[39] Gaming communities have their own sets of rituals, including initiations. Through playing the game in his research of Magic: The Gathering, Williams discovered that before a player is able to play, he or she must construct a deck of cards, usually by buying a number of packs of cards from which players choose a combination to create a deck, which may or may not be strong depending on players’ skills and available cards. Although ready-to-play decks are available for purchase, Williams notes that players typically do not buy these decks,[40]  indicating that the process of creating a deck – which demonstrates investment and understanding – is a sort of ritual for these players. Initiation and ritual in the DotA communities include such aspects as the structured act of downloading the game and completing the tutorial as well as the less rigidly defined period of time in which new players go from being hazed by experienced players to joining in the hazing of “newbs”.

DotA is a game created and regulated by the gamers who play it. Despite the way updates and changes were made to the game by apparent individuals like Eul or IceFrog, the changes were suggested by the community at large:

“Eul, Guinsoo or IceFrog alone did not make the map. The DOTA community…makes the map”, one player said. Loadscreen art is drawn by fans. Some bugs are found and some items and heroes are made, erased, and changed almost entirely because of community outreach.[41]

Community members are aware of their own power in this game-creation, and they extend this regulation to the moderation of the community itself.

With the release of DotA 2 as a free-to-play MOBA in 2013[42], entrance into the DotA community became much less restricted for new players. Before this, it had technically been restricted only by purchase of the Warcraft III game. However, WCIII was notably the third game in a series of games with an already-tight community. DotA 2’s easy availability removed the lingering traces of esotericism in terms of familiarity with the Warcraft games. However, the DotA and DotA 2 communities are self-regulating. Although the common stereotype of gamers such as these includes social awkwardness or inability to express themselves, these community members are incredibly prolific on forums, blogs, and YouTube. While access to the community is never officially denied, ignorance, lack of skill, or inability to learn from past mistakes is vehemently ridiculed and derided by the community. That DotA has a “steep learning curve” was attested to by three of the community members interviewed, all of whom confess to playing as many as six hours a week.[43]

Because of the large number of heroes (each with their own set of abilities) that players can choose from, and the even wider selection of items that change the in-game situations, DotA and DotA 2 gameplay necessitates the ability to strategize; this requires a commitment to practicing as well as the inherent ability to mentally organize, calculate, and remember the items and heroes. Many players learn by watching public matches, watching YouTube videos, or reading Purge’s guide to DotA, subtitled “Welcome to Dota, You Suck”. Purge is a professional commentator and sometimes professional player.[44] The guide was originally written for DotA in 2011, before the public release of DotA 2 and it was updated for DotA 2 in 2012 and again this year. Purge’s most recent version changes his opening line from “Welcome to DotA, you suck” to “Welcome to DotA, you su… well actually you guys have gotten a lot better”.[45] This guide represents the starting point to even the minimal level of skill in DotA for many players. A number of blogs suggest this as a starting point, and this researcher has been personally told that reading this Guide is the best way to learn to play.

However, until the recent updates which thank players for “taking a chance on this game” that “takes a long time to refine your skills and learn”, the guide read almost as a discouragement from entering the community.

You suck, and you are going to be constantly reminded of this fact for about 6-9 months (if you learn). If you read this guide and use your brain and be actively aware of how bad you suck, you can easily shave 3-6 months off of your complete noob status… You are going to feed. You are going to ruin games, and someone is going to be happy to tell you why.… You are going to have to have thick skin to play DotA.[46]

Learning by playing can be similarly discouraging. In public matches, opposing teams will openly mock the losing team. Furthermore, many players talk about and practice “rage quitting”, in which a particularly good opposing team or, more often, a particularly unskilled set of allies will lead to a player getting angry and leaving in the middle of a game. Interestingly, the community seems to regard these ostensibly destructive relationships as constructive criticism. DotA forums hold regular discussions on rage quitting, in which members show a mild amount of embarrassment after rage quitting while other players often console them with similar stories. Players sometimes describe these actions as necessary: “Someone on my team picked Necrophos, bought a ward and went to our ancient jungle camp. I knew what had to be done”.[47] Such phrasing in these responses and even in the titles and original posts (“everyone has done it at least once in their gaming lifetime”) posits these actions as intrinsic parts of playing DotA.[48]

Such a hard-to-enter community, however, doesn’t actually seem to discourage players. Instead, the high standards set by the community seem devoted to regulating the skill and care that goes into playing. Half-hearted community members are culled out, but even poor players who are committed to playing will be allowed to remain in the community.

Professional DotA players belong to teams, but regular public matches often loosely consist of teams as well[49]. The five players interviewed all know each other in real life and sometimes, but not always, play together as a full team[50]. One of them says that he began to play because “it had been getting a lot of press at the time due to The International 3 tournament going on” in 2013.[51] The others all profess that they began playing because their friends were playing. With the exception of one of them, however, they all claim to play even with only one or two of their friends and often with “randoms”, players they don’t know.

These interviewees met in college, and DotA seems to have presented an opportunity for the friends to “stay connected”, though many of them have moved to distant states. Even when only three or four of them play, they regularly use a different program than the one provided by the DotA 2 game to audibly chat with each other. In addition to offering a hands-free chat mechanism, this separate program allows these friends to talk to each other without having to talk to any “randoms” that might be playing as their teammate. These friends usually opt instead to include the random teammates in strategies via typed messages.

Although members of the DotA communities at large, the interviewed players maintain a community within a community. They are each active within the community to varying degrees, often keeping up with the professional DotA circuit, online forums, and occasional public matches without their friends. However, they seem to largely view the DotA 2 community to which they belong as a virtual conduit that allows them to continue the community they established prior to playing together. “We have a private chat server, and a lot of times we talk about our lives, our jobs, and things that have nothing to do with Dota around the game or while we play”.[52]  Even when the players are physically together for visits, their conversations and activities are largely DotA-related. Sometimes, this group will play together while all in the same room, foregoing the virtual chat system to plot strategies and discuss the game aloud. Digital community for them has become a stand-in for a physical community, but apparently is no less realistic.

 

Collectanea: Digital Collectibles and Player Creations

 

Sims and Stephens have identified material culture as an important genre in folklore studies. For traditional studies, this material culture looks at permanent and ephemeral objects such as architecture or food, respectively. “Permanent or not, material culture has in common that it is tangible – can be touched, seen, eaten, or lived in”.[53] The study of a folk group’s material culture includes not only items produced by/within that community, but also items used by the community. These items acquire relevance and meaningfulness for folklorists through the method and purposes of their production as well as the occasion and frequency of their use.

Although there are a number of physical objects associated with the DotA games, such as T-shirts and figurines, there are also a number of digital items and activities that, while unrelated to actual gameplay, are very much a part of the DotA communities. Players can, for example, buy a $35 hero set for a hero named Crystal Maiden which includes new clothes, new animations for her in-game abilities, and a wolf pup pet that follows her around during the game. These items are not necessary to gameplay in the way that some items are necessary for gaming, such as the cards in the collectible card games that Williams has examined.[54] Williams spends a significant amount of time elaborating on the capitalist aspect of such games. While it is possible to acquire a particularly strong card in a cheap pack of randomly assorted cards, it is much more common that strong cards are held by players who have invested more monetary capital into the game by buying more random packs and increasing the odds of getting a good card or by outright buying expensive cards from other players. DotA 2, however, is a free to play game and while some items are bought and paid for, they do not have the power to affect player or character skill or strength.

Perhaps the most popular digital content in DotA 2 is the Compendium. Each year, a new Compendium is released which gives players a number of in-game challenges that allow them to win prizes, many of which are available for purchase and some of which are specific to the Compendium. These special items are displayed during gameplay and players can see each other’s achievements. Although such items are not as unique, as the anime artist Trevor Blank examines in his chapter on digital collectors, his claim that such collectanea represent “a type of fetish in both an imaginative and a social sense” seems apt here as well. “Ownership”, Blank says, “means absolute possession of a specific, emotionally significant event in the narrative created by using the object. For this reason, possessing such an object invests the owners with equivalent social power among those sharing the same reverence for that narrative”.[55] Similarly, Pearce has spoken of the way that artefacts in the Myst games are often common to most or all iterations of the games, demonstrating the way that physical (or the digital version of digital) objects are an integral part of a community.[56] The acquiring and exchange of items and knowledge as well as original creations such as art or fictions that are based on DotA characters or experience in the DotA communities are likewise markers for community involvement and participation.

The sales from the Compendium fund one of the other main out-of-game activities that community members participate in: The International. The International (TI) is a tournament that happens every year, most recently in Seattle, WA. DotA 2 fans and players can travel to watch the tournament in Washington, or they can watch live online. In August 2015, the tournament was also broadcast live in a number of theatres both in America and in other countries, so that members of the DotA 2 community could watch the championship match live, even if they were unable to travel to the tournament. TI is truly an international tournament, demonstrating, as the small sub-community I’ve chosen to interview attempts to do, the way that this online community is unrestricted by distance. TI consists of Chinese teams, Korean Teams, Argentinean teams, and teams that are comprised of members from multiple nations, like Team Secret, which is located in “Europe”, but has players from Sweden, Canada, and Germany, for example.[57] TI watching is an interesting activity that imitates the gameplay between friends discussed above. DotA community members meet together and combine online activities with physically present social situations.

The DotA communities, furthermore, regularly create and share material that is relevant to the communities at large. DotA’s loading screens are community members’ fan art. Other community creations include guides such as Purge’s guide to the game as a whole and his other guides for individual heroes. Players, furthermore, have access to “builds” for each hero in-game. These builds function as minimalist guides, suggesting which abilities to prioritize and which items to buy during the game, but without the explanation and commentary of the longer guides that players often create. Builds can be rated by community members, helping other players to make informed decisions regarding which build they use.

Other community creations include YouTube videos of games and tactics. These can sometimes be used constructively for gameplay by members but can also be used for entertainment. During my interviews, several players claimed to have learned the game by watching, but some of them specifically mentioned watching the “DotAWTF” YouTube videos, which are a series of videos highlighting particularly poor in-game choices by players.[58] The comments, like on the forums, are often extremely negative and/or harsh. There are more than 150 videos and the views and likes on the individual videos sometimes total more than 2,000,000 and 34,000, respectively.

There are, finally, community creations that have little to do with gameplay and more to do with creativity. Although not at all relevant to gameplay, each hero has a bio and story. During my interviews, it was revealed that the interview was for a folklore seminar, and the players were then asked if they had any ideas about how DotA 2 related to folklore. One of them pointed me to these hero profiles, which read like short fantasy summaries.[59] Another provided an internet link to an hour-long film created by a Chinese DotA player in 2011. Using scenes from the game, the player creates a story about Mirana, Magina, and TerrorBlade, wherein Mirana and Magina are in love. At the climactic end, TerrorBlade (Magina’s brother) kills Mirana. Instead of the common harsh criticism typical of the community, the film seems to be well received. The comments are overwhelmingly about how touching the movie is. Interestingly, the negative comments also seem to be caught up in the movie, as commentators flame the film character using the same language of in-game censure: “Use your ultimate [on] mirana [sic] and kill yourself noob uninstall dota”. Responses to such criticism, explanations like “He was too far to ult”, use in-game experience and logic to argue the point.[60]

 

Conclusion

 

The DotA communities and their lore demonstrate the growing presence of online identities and an opportunity for an extended examination of how traditional folkloric practices are transposed to a virtual space. Although the virtual and physical activities occasionally intersect seamlessly, the digital has largely become the real for such communities. From their beliefs, to community boundaries, to creation, this lore is being distributed virtually to a group of gamers whose physical presence is as realistic as their virtual one.

As a field that focuses on the unique qualities of a community as well as the development and practice of these qualities, folklore seems an apt field for discussions of gaming communities. It’s clear that even though these communities are formed and practiced online – their involvement and focus on games rather than more “traditional” activities like quilting (also a common focus for folklore studies) – gaming communities are not so radically different from traditionally recognized folk groups that a new terminology or methodology is necessary for examination.

As a competing field for the most suitable field by which to study gaming communities, gaming studies poses an interesting possibility. However, although frequently recognized as an independent field, game studies is not only made up of scholars from other fields, but it also often relies on long-established methods and terms used primarily in other disciplines. Perhaps folklore studies will eventually become one of the fields from which scholars enter gaming studies, as sociology, anthropology, and literature are now. Eventually its methodologies and vocabularies may become regular players in gaming studies works focusing on individual gaming communities. For this current project at least, folklore is a fitting field through which to examine the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of these particular communities. The way in which these methodologies prove successful in being applied to digital communities’ comments upon the potential trajectory for further folkloric studies of digital communities, gaming-focused or otherwise.

 

References

Anonymous, “The Truth About IceFrog: Behind the Bullshit”, http://icefrogtruth.blogspot.com, date accessed 10 December 2015.

Barachaos, “Re: Rage-quit: Tell Us Your Story”, DotA 2 Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/3ctg55/ragequit_tell_us_your_story/, date accessed 30 November 2015.

Blank, Trevor J. Folk Culture in the Digital Age: The Emergent Dynamics of Human Interaction, (Logan: Utah State University Press) (2012).

“Bruno”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/Bruno, date accessed 19 November 2015.

Caboose, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

Curtis, “Blizzard and Valve settle ongoing ‘Dota’ trademark controversy”, Gamasutra,https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/170248/Blizzard_and_Valve_settle_ongoing_Dota_trademark_controversy.php, date accessed 9 December 2015.

“Defense of the Ancients”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defense_of_the_Ancients, date accessed 11 December 2015.

Dotanewbe, “Is Icefrog a God”, PlayDota.com, http://archive.playdota.com/threads/is-icefrog-a-god.1342407/, date accessed 4 December 2015.

Dundes Alan, Interpreting Folklore, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (1980).

Gamespot, “Redefining Games: How Academia Is Reshaping Games of the Future”, https://www.gamespot.com/articles/redefining-games-how-academia-is-reshaping-games-of-the-future/1100-6106009/, date accessed 2 September 2017.

Godec Kevin “Purge”, “Welcome to DotA, You Suck”, PlayDota.com, http://archive.playdota.com/threads/welcome-to-dota-you-suck.462907/, date accessed 11 December 2015.

Godec, Kevin “Purge”, “Welcome to Dota, You Suck”, Purge Gamers, http://www.purgegamers.com/welcome-to-dota-you-suck/, date accessed 6 December 2015.

InZomnia365, “Re: I Don’t ‘get’ WoW”, WoW Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/wow/comments/1p92a7/i_dont_get_wow/, date accessed 5 November 2015.

Lapyex, “Dota Gods”, JoinDOTA.com, https://www.joindota.com/en/forums/691-joindota-and-community/693-community/197339-dota-gods&page=1, date accessed 2 December 2015.

masoomdon, “Rage-quit: Tell Us Your Story”, DotA 2 Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/3ctg55/ragequit_tell_us_your_story/, date accessed 30 November 2015.

Munroe Randall, “Online Communities”, Xkcd.com, https://xkcd.com/256/, date accessed 8 December 2015.

Munroe Randall, “Online Communities 2”, Xkcd.com, https://xkcd.com/802/, date accessed 8 December 2015.

Naut1g, “How Do the Devs and Community Feel about Players That Impersonate Pros on Steam?”, Dota2 Dev Forums, http://dev.dota2.com/archive/index.php/t-100430.html, date accessed 10 December 2015.

Oldenburg Aaron, “Simulating Religious Faith”, Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds 3.1 (2011)

O’Connor Alice, “DotA Dev Joins Valve, Hints at Future Game”, Shacknews, http://www.shacknews.com/article/60733/dota-dev-joins-valve-hints, date accessed 30 November 2015.

Pearce Celia, Communities of Play, (London: The MIT Press) (2009).

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pwnies, “Icefrog’s identity finally revealed in court documents”, DotA 2 Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA 2/comments/6c1tp8/icefrogs_identity_finally_revealed_in_court/, date accessed 1 September 2017.

Smith Matt, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

“Team Secret”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/Team_Secret, date accessed 9 December 2015.

Tucker Lavernius, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

Tyler, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

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Williams J. Patrick, “Consumption and Authenticity in the Collectible Strategy Games Subculture”, in Gaming as Culture, ed. J. Patrick Williams, Sean Q. Hendricks, and W. Keith Winkler (London: McFarland & Company, 2006).

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YaphetS, “A History of Dota: Part 1”, Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/notes/yaphets-pis/a-history-of-dota-part-1/377203832338260/, date accessed 22 November 2015.

“YaphetS”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/YaphetS, date accessed 22 November 2015.

 

[1]My title comes from a popular DotA guide, discussed below. The community members often use such harsh language with other community members in a stringent display of community building.

[2] Munroe Randall, “Online Communities”, Xkcd.com, https://xkcd.com/256/, date accessed 8 December 2015.

[3] Munroe Randall, “Online Communities 2”, Xkcd.com, https://xkcd.com/802/, date accessed 8 December 2015.

[4] Dundes Alan, Interpreting Folklore, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (1980), pp. 6-7.

[5] Sims Martha C. and Martine Stephens, Living Folklore: An Introduction to the Study of People and Their Traditions, (Logan: Utah State University Press) (2011), p. 36.

[6] Ibidem, 8.

[7] Blank, Trevor J. Folk Culture in the Digital Age: The Emergent Dynamics of Human Interaction, (Logan: Utah State University Press) (2012), p. 2.

[8] Ibidem, 3.

[9] I am using the words “esoteric” and “exoteric” here and elsewhere as reference to “insider/outsider” knowledge. “Esoteric” refers to aspects, language, etc. that is easily understood or recognized by those within the gaming world – usually participants but also researchers or other observers. “Exoteric” refers instead to knowledge that is recognizable even to those outside of the gaming world.

[10] InZomnia365, “Re: I Don’t ‘get’ WoW”, WoW Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/wow/comments/1p92a7/i_dont_get_wow/, date accessed 5 November 2015.

[11] Pinterest users, for example, don’t form a community in the way that gaming groups do. Instead, Pinterest seems to be a place to declare to which communities a user belongs, including WoW and DotA.

[12] Quoted in Gamespot, “Redefining Games: How Academia Is Reshaping Games of the Future”, https://www.gamespot.com/articles/redefining-games-how-academia-is-reshaping-games-of-the-future/1100-6106009/, date accessed 2 September 2017.

[13] Williams J. Patrick, “Consumption and Authenticity in the Collectible Strategy Games Subculture”, in Gaming as Culture, ed. J. Patrick Williams, Sean Q. Hendricks, and W. Keith Winkler (London: McFarland & Company) (2006), p. 89.

[14] Sims and Stephens, p. 56.

[15] Ibidem, p. 59.

[16] See Pearce Celia, Communities of Play, (London: The MIT Press) (2009).

[17] Although I will sometimes refer to it as “DotA 1”, the first game is rarely called as such, and is only done so anachronistically. Different companies control the two games. DotA 1 was never trademarked as a game and there was no intention of a sequel.

[18] Although DotA was not the first MOBA, it is often cited as one of the most influential. As a testament to its ubiquitous fame, you can reach the MOBA Wikipedia explanation page by following a link for “Dota (genre)” from the Dota Disambiguation page.

[19] Although I feel as though “sub-game” is a sufficient explanation for the relationship between DotA and Warcraft, it is somewhat inaccurate. The Warcraft games are actually a series of several games that are related but not dependent on each other, and they comprise several different genres. Blizzard entertainment first began releasing Warcraft games in 1994. These were RTS (Real Time Strategy) Games, to which MOBAs are directly related, since gameplay involves strategizing against the opposing team. World of Warcraft was the fourth game in the series, and the first that is an MMO rather than an RTS game. DotA, meanwhile, debuted in 2003 (one year before 2004’s World of Warcraft) as a “mod” of Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. These first 3 games, including DotA required a purchase of the game, but not of a subscription like that of WoW.

[20] “Defense of the Ancients”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defense_of_the_Ancients, date accessed 11 December 2015.

[21] For more information on the copyright agreements between Blizzard and Valve, see Curtis, “Blizzard and Valve settle ongoing ‘Dota’ trademark controversy”, Gamasutra,https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/170248/Blizzard_and_Valve_settle_ongoing_Dota_trademark_controversy.php, date accessed 9 December 2015.

[22] “Defense of the Ancients”

[23] Ibidem.

[24] O’Connor Alice, “DotA Dev Joins Valve, Hints at Future Game”, Shacknews, http://www.shacknews.com/article/60733/dota-dev-joins-valve-hints, date accessed 30 November 2015.

[25] Usually, but not always. For example, Guinsoo’s real name, Steve Feak, is publicly known.

[26] In May 2017, only a few months after the original research in this study, IceFrog’s identity was confirmed to be Ismail by the papers in a court case in California. Forum posts on reddit obscured Ismail’s name when announcing that the mystery was resolved, implying that some community members might prefer the belief and speculation to the truth. See pwnies, “Icefrog’s identity finally revealed in court documents”, DotA 2 Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA 2/comments/6c1tp8/icefrogs_identity_finally_revealed_in_court/, date accessed 1 September 2017.

[27] As is common in online communities, many of these remarks included an impressive display of vulgar language and insults, but some of the milder insults referred to them as “dota fan boys”, implying weak-minded bias. For a more detailed look, see Anonymous, “The Truth About IceFrog: Behind the Bullshit”, http://icefrogtruth.blogspot.com, date accessed 10 December 2015.

[28] “Bruno”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/Bruno, date accessed 19 November 2015.

[29] YaphetS, “A History of Dota: Part 1”, Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/notes/yaphets-pis/a-history-of-dota-part-1/377203832338260/, date accessed 22 November 2015.

[30] See Lapyex, “Dota Gods”, JoinDOTA.com, https://www.joindota.com/en/forums/691-joindota-and-community/693-community/197339-dota-gods&page=1, date accessed 2 December 2015. and “YaphetS”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/YaphetS, date accessed 22 November 2015.

[31] Naut1g, “How Do the Devs and Community Feel about Players That Impersonate Pros on Steam?” Dota2 Dev Forums, http://dev.dota2.com/archive/index.php/t-100430.html, date accessed 10 December 2015.

[32] See just kiddings’ response to Lapyex, “Dota Gods”.

[33] Caboose, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

[34] The RNG prayer was made by a member of the WoW community, referencing things outside of DotA gameplay.

[35] See Aircross’ and killer3254’s responses to Dotanewbe, “Is Icefrog a God”, PlayDota.com, http://archive.playdota.com/threads/is-icefrog-a-god.1342407/, date accessed 4 December 2015.

[36] See terryken’s response to Lapyex, “Dota Gods”.

[37] See Dusk562’s response to Lapyex, “Dota Gods”.

[38] Oldenburg Aaron, “Simulating Religious Faith”, Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds 3.1 (2011), pp. 51-52.

[39] Sims and Stephens, p. 119.

[40] Williams, pp. 79-80.

[41] Walbridge Michael, “Analysis: Defense of the Ancients – An Underground Revolution”, Gamasutra, https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/109814/Analysis_Defense_of_the_Ancients__An_Underground_Revolution.php, date accessed 11 December 2015.

[42] DotA 2 was released for play in 2011 for professional players. TI1, the first international tournament for DotA 2 was held in Cologne, Germany in 2011. However, the game wasn’t available to the public until 2013.

[43] According to emails from players Smith Matt, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015., Tucker Lavernius, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015., Tyler, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015., and Willjaf, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

[44] “Purge”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/Purge_(Kevin_Godec), date accessed 2 November 2015, and Godec Kevin “Purge”, “Welcome to DotA, You Suck”, PlayDota.com, http://archive.playdota.com/threads/welcome-to-dota-you-suck.462907/, date accessed 11 December 2015.

[45] Godec, Kevin “Purge”, “Welcome to Dota, You Suck”, Purge Gamers, http://www.purgegamers.com/welcome-to-dota-you-suck/, date accessed 6 December 2015.

[46] Ibidem.

[47] Barachaos, “Re: Rage-quit: Tell Us Your Story”, DotA 2 Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/3ctg55/ragequit_tell_us_your_story/, date accessed 30 November 2015.

[48] masoomdon, “Rage-quit: Tell Us Your Story”, DotA 2 Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/3ctg55/ragequit_tell_us_your_story/, date accessed 30 November 2015.

[49] “Teams” is perhaps a misleading term here. 2–5 friends can choose to play together, and any extra players needed to fill the 5 player slots will be filled with random players.

[50] There are several other members of this group whom I did not interview, but that sometimes join them in playing.

[51] Smith Matt, “Dota Interview”

[52] Tucker, “Dota Interview”

[53] Sims and Stephens, p. 15.

[54] See Williams, “Consumption and Authenticity”

[55] Blank, p. 167.

[56] See Pearce, pp. 158-167 and throughout.

[57] “Team Secret”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/Team_Secret, date accessed 9 December 2015.

[58] Tucker, “DotA Interview” and Caboose, “DotA Interview”.

[59] willjaf, “DotA Interview”.

[60] WoDota, “TerrorBlade’s Revenge”, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fr3lrxg-2mA, date accessed 14 December 2015

Different levels of game genre. A Review.

Marcin Petrowicz

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 177-183.

 

Marcin Petrowicz

Jagiellonian University

 

 

Different levels of game genre. A Review.

 

The problem of genre is probably as ancient as literature itself; anyone who takes up this topic not only has to face the tradition of genre studies but also has to justify the validity of applying narrative fiction concepts to game studies. Therefore, Maria B. Garda’s book Interaktywne fantasy. Gatunek w grach cyfrowych (Interactive fantasy. Genre in digital games)[1] was a daring endeavour from its inception. Yet, after reading through the first chapter one abandons initial doubts regarding Garda’s thesis.

Genre been thoroughly examined not only in many academic disciplines dealing with different media, but also in popular discourse. Labels such as fantasy, gothic, thriller, or romance are used by researchers and connoisseurs of different media, and by novice amateurs, children, and unsavoury fans that are just learning to recognize and understand the vast landscape of different cultural artefacts. Marketing copywriters use genre tags to set expectations for their consumer base; media producers employ genre effects, using them as a recognizable means of communication. Garda argues that game culture in many ways replicates the Hollywood film complex, in which “genres are by definition not just scientifically derived or theoretically constructed categories but are always industrially certified and publicly shared”.[2] Yet the fact that these collections of conventions and effects are constantly used and transformed makes it almost impossible to create an ultimate definition of any genre. Furthermore, living in a world where different types of text converge, exchange, and leave their native platform—a postmedia landscape[3]—the quest for the academic definition of genre is so much more difficult. Therefore the author of the reviewed book writes, “That is why the goal of my work is not to define the concept of [game – M.P.] genre, but rather to examine the role of genre distribution of digital games in relation to similar divisions in film and literature”[4]. Inspired by the concept of genre layers[5], Interactive Fantasy introduces the original concept of merger models and analyzes an example of a well-established one: hardcore fantasy RPG.

 

Genre layers

 

Genre layers assign games to specific genres on different levels. In Interactive Fantasy… three such layers are presented: thematic, ludic, and functional. “Thematic genres relate to categories of semantic systems and are defined primarily on the basis of the representation”[6]. These genres are easily identified throughout any medium that uses any kind of narrative or figurative imagery. Fantasy, horror or western are examples of thematic genres; they are transmedial and mostly originate from creations preceding videogames, thus frequently the tools for their analysis are derived from literature and film studies. The second layer is the ludic genres that are defined by the rules, mechanics, and conventions of gameplay. A point-of-view perspective paired with a three-dimensional environment and shooting-based gameplay will result in an FPS (first-person shooter) game, for example, the Doom series (id Software, 1993–2016), while continuous time plus a commander’s perspective and a gameplay based on economy and military conflict will be an RTS (real-time strategy game) such as the StarCraft series (Blizzard Entertainment, 1998–2017). The Ludic genre is also transmedial, as there are card games (Gwent (CD Projekt RED, in public beta from 2017) and poker), roleplaying games (Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (Games Workshop, 1986–2009) and The Witcher (CD Projekt Red, 2007–2015)) and wargames (Panzer General (Strategic Simulations, Inc., 1994) and Warhammer 40,000 (Games Workshop, 1987–present)) created for different media; but at the same time there are platformers (Super Mario Bros (Nintendo, 1985)), tile matching (Candy Crush Saga (King, 2012)) or dexterity games (Twister (Milton Bradley Company, 1966)) that could not have been transferred to any other platform than the original one. The third layer presented by Garda is the functional genres defined by the context of reception and the modes of participation. The author introduces two independent divisions of games within functional genres. The first relates to the declared goal of the product; whether it is an entertainment game or whether it has another purpose besides fun; the latter is the case of serious games, which can be further divided into educational games, advertisement games or persuasive games. The second division is based on the designed cognitive effort that the game requires from the player, resulting in either hardcore or casual games, as defined by Paweł Grabarczyk[7]. This is probably the most interesting and the least recognized genre layer, because although much is written in academia about serious games, there is little reflection on casual or hardcore games as genres.

 

Genre effects

 

Within each of the described genre layers, the games are divided by a different set of distinguishable features: narrative, gameplay, and social context. Yet, even within the categories the differentiators for each genre label are not of the same nature. FPSs are defined by environment whereas RTSs (real-time strategies) are defined by usage of time. Therefore, as Garda states, the role of the genre is less that of classification, but rather that of interpretation. To analyse this situation, she uses genre effects borrowed from Dominic Arsenault:

Playing a game is experiencing a constant flux of (genre, series or intertextual) markers, that depending on the individual spectator and his competences, can produce the genres effects that precise their expectations and prepare their favourable disposition for the upcoming semiotic sequence.[8]

A genre marker can be one of many differentiators for a single genre, like progression of character statistics in role-playing games, but a marker can also be used in several games of different genres, such as the multiple endings marker. Under this tag on the Steam platform there are listed such different games as triple AAA role-playing game The Witcher 2: Assassins of the Kings (CD Projekt Red, 2014), indie narrative adventure game The Stanley Parable (Galactic Cafe, 2013), or a visual novel Cinders (MoaCube, 2012). Genres arise, mix, and evolve so the gaming community and industry use not only names such as cRPG or FPS, but also tags, which Garda refers to as genre labels, which can either signify a whole genre, e.g. FPS, or also relate to just one genre marker, e.g. multiple ending.

 

Merger models

 

Upon those theoretical foundations, Maria Garda presents her original idea: genre merger models[9]. She argues that specific genres from different layers attract each other and have been historically proven to be popular clusters. For example, the ludic genre of HOPA (hidden object puzzle adventure) is frequently combined with the detective story theme and a casual mode of engagement, resulting in a recognizable historically embedded trend. Merger models describe a specific convention popular at a given time, “those relations change historically, as today many genres that were in the past associated with a hardcore mode of engagement open up to more casual practices”[10]. We could ask about the popularity of the WWII hardcore FPS model of the early 2000s, and how this model has changed now in a time of a possible revival of the model with the premiere of Call of Duty: WWII (Sledgehammer Games, 2017). Garda emphasizes that the list of layers is not complete and can be expanded with labels beyond what the gaming community considers genres. Two interesting additions would be the hardware and nationality layers. A collection of specific local merger models that are highly popular in a particular country could shed light on the national style of game development, while analysis of merger models related to a specific console would tell the story and reveal the strategy of the owner company.

Merger models ought not to be limited to genres; while this framework can serve to interpret a specific genre and its evolution, in my opinion it is more of a tool for writing histories of games. What it should provide us with is an insightful multidimensional map of interconnected trends in game development and its transformations over time. As presented in Interactive Fantasy, the merger model concept can be used to holistically and thoroughly describe a group of games, such as hardcore fantasy RPG, or to analyse chosen aspects of single or multiple games, as Garda does in the last chapters of the book.

 

The Exemplar Model

Fantasy

 

The fantasy genre as it is applied in video games is most indebted to J.R.R. Tolkien, his successors, and followers. Yet Garda does not limit herself to this genre core and presents a brief history that led to the creation of Middle-earth. She describes the inspirations of early fantasy writers (mythopoeic narratives, romantic nostalgy for the pre-industrial world and the English Fairyland) as the roots that set the genre’s standards for the following decades. Following the arguments from Tomasz Z. Majkowski’s monograph of the 20th century fantasy “In the Shadow of the White Tree”, Garda adapts her definition of fantasy based on three main characteristics:

  • its ‘otherness’, geographical and chronological distinctiveness from the areas identified with the common reality (…)
  • presence of fantastical elements motivated by magic,
  • conventional ancientness or ‘medievalism’[11]

Tolkien is also indirectly responsible for the popularity of magic and elves in 21st century popular culture, firstly by inspiring the nascence of tabletop role-playing games in the ‘70s and later with the film adaptation of Lord of the Rings (2001–2003, Peter Jackson). Not satisfied to just follow the history of fantasy popularity, Garda goes on to summarize the academic research dedicated to this genre. While it is not the main point of interest in the book, it is deep and thorough and can be an interesting read not only to uninitiated scholars.

 

Hardcore

 

The chapter devoted to hardcore games, or more precisely games that demand high cognitive engagement, is mostly focused on gamers’ culture and players’ typologies; it is the chapter that concentrates on the social context of games instead of the artefact itself. Following various researchers, Garda presents a history of the rise and fall of the gamer. Looking for the birth of the gamers she summons Greame Kirkpatrick, who places it in the middle of the ‘80s and points to British gaming magazines as the source of this identity[12]. The author of Interactive Fantasy rightly adjusts this statement to a Polish context, in which gaming culture experienced a similar boom in the ‘90s. On the other hand, she sees the beginning of the fall of the gamer in the Casual Revolution—the transformation of the video game industry in the early 2000, when developers opened their products to wider audiences who would not call themselves gamers, as described in Jesper Juul’s A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games[13]. Garda follows the different definitions and characteristics of the engaged user and describes how the RPG genre relates to them. While for years role-playing was considered to be the definition of hardcore games, in her opinion it is more interesting to see the latest changes in that matter. As more and more developers adopt casual strategies for their work, we see titles that have the characteristics of role-playing, but are also more open to casual players, like Games of Thrones: Ascent (Disruptor Beam, 2013), which is analysed in a later chapter.

 

RPG

 

Role-playing games are one of the most popular and vital genres in games culture and even in trying to grasp the topic broadly, Garda has a lot to cover. Yet she does so in a brief but detailed and engaging form which covers the archaeology of computer role-playing games, presenting the details of the creation of Adventure (Will Crowther, 1975), the ancestor of all RPGs. Later Garda discusses the periodization of the genre as defined in Dungeons and Desktops by Matt Barton[14]. However, the most important part of this chapter is the reflection on the foundation elements of role-playing and especially how they changed over time. Nonetheless, the two defining traits of role-playing are just as relevant now as they were in 1998, when the book Garda quotes was published. These essential RPG genre effects are the character development system (aggregation of points) and the player’s diverse interaction with the game world (role-playing)[15]. The analysis of these elements gives insight into the genre’s roots and also its relationship with its tabletop counterpart.

The last part of Interactive Fantasy shows how the theoretical model conceived by Maria Garda can be used in analysis. Especially valuable is the ludic analysis of the roguelike genre, in which the author delves into the history of this convention, describes the revolutionary effect of Diablo (Blizzard North, 1996), and the recent popularity of neo-roguelike. This part not only presents an insightful research of a forgotten breed of games but is also a great example of a middle-range game analysis.

I am convinced that Interactive Fantasy. Genre in digital games will be an essential book in Polish game studies curricula. It is a great handbook for games genre theory, presenting all the necessary concepts for aspiring students. The different theories and wide range of topics related to fantasy role-playing games will make it also engaging reading for fans or avid gamers, as the academic nature of the publication does not make it inaccessible or overly complex. On the other hand, in Interactive Fantasy Maria Garda presents an original and inspiring theoretical framework that could be useful for seasoned game researchers. The genre merger model is an insightful concept that is open to further developments and, despite its name, should be developed and adopted to game aspects beyond just genres.

 

References

Altman Rick, Film/genre, (London: British Film Institute) (2000), p. 16.

Arsenault Dominic, Des typologies mécaniques à l’expérience esthétique: fonctions et mutations du genre dans le jeu vidéo (doctoral thesis) (2011), pp. 287-288. https://www.academia.edu/2999430/Des_typologies_m%C3%A9caniques_%C3%A0_lexp%C3%A9rience_esth%C3%A9tique_fonctions_et_mutations_du_genre_dans_le_jeu_vid%C3%A9o date accessed 11 November 2017.

Barton Matt, Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games, (Wellesley: A K Peters) (2008).

Celiński Piotr, Postmedia. Cyfrowy kod i bazy danych, (Lublin: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Marii Curie-Skłodowskiej) (2013).

Garda Maria, “‘Limits of Genre, Limits of Fantasy’: Rethinking Computer Role-Playing Games”, in Cultural Perspectives of Video Games: From Designer to Player, ed. Adam L. Brackin and Natacha Guyot (Oxford: Inter Disciplinary Press, 2012)

Garda Maria, Interaktywne Fantasy. Gatunek w grach cyfrowych, (Łódź: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Łódzkiego) (2016).

Grabarczyk Paweł, “O opozycji hardcore/casual”, Homo Ludens: Czasopismo Ludologiczne Polskiego Towarzystwa Badania Gier. 1(7) (2015), pp. 89-109.

Juul Jesper, A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players, (Cambridge: The MIT Press) (2010).

Kirkpatrick Graeme, “Constitutive Tensions of Gaming’s Field: UK Gaming Magazines and the Formation of Gaming Culture 1981-1995.” Game Studies 12.1 (2012). http://gamestudies.org/1201/articles/kirkpatrick  date accessed 11 November 2017.

Majkowski Tomasz Z., W cieniu białego drzewa: powieść fantasy w XX wieku, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2013), p. 331.

Uchański Aleksy, Gawrysiak Piotr, Mańkowski Piotr, Biblia Komputerowego Gracza, (Warszawa: Iskry) (1998), pp. 231.

Voorhees Gerald, Call Josh, Whitlock Katie, Dungeons, Dragons, and Digital Denizens: The Digital Role-Playing Game (New York: Continuum) (2012)

 

Garda Maria, Interaktywne Fantasy. Gatunek w grach cyfrowych, (Łódź: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Łódzkiego) (2016).

 

[1] Maria Garda, Interaktywne Fantasy. Gatunek w grach cyfrowych, (Łódź: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Łódzkiego) (2016).

[2] Rick Altman, Film/genre, (London: British Film Institute) (2000), p. 16.

[3] Piotr Celiński, Postmedia. Cyfrowy kod i bazy danych, (Lublin: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Marii Curie-Skłodowskiej) (2013).

[4] Maria Garda, p. 22.

[5] Gerald Voorhees, Josh Call, Katie Whitlock, Dungeons, Dragons, and Digital Denizens: The Digital Role-Playing Game (New York: Continuum) (2012).

[6] Maria Garda, p. 25.

[7] Paweł Grabarczyk, “O opozycji hardcore/casual”, Homo Ludens: Czasopismo Ludologiczne Polskiego Towarzystwa Badania Gier. 1(7) (2015), pp. 89-109.

[8] Dominic Arsenault, Des typologies mécaniques à l’expérience esthétique: fonctions et mutations du genre dans le jeu vidéo (doctoral thesis) (2011), pp. 287-288. https://www.academia.edu/2999430/Des_typologies_m%C3%A9caniques_%C3%A0_lexp%C3%A9rience_esth%C3%A9tique_fonctions_et_mutations_du_genre_dans_le_jeu_vid%C3%A9o date accessed 11 November 2017.

[9] Maria Garda, “‘Limits of Genre, Limits of Fantasy’: Rethinking Computer Role-Playing Games”, in Cultural Perspectives of Video Games: From Designer to Player, ed. Adam L. Brackin and Natacha Guyot (Oxford: Inter Disciplinary Press, 2012).

[10] Maria Garda, (2016), p. 27.

[11] Tomasz Z. Majkowski, W cieniu białego drzewa: powieść fantasy w XX wieku, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2013), p. 331.

[12] Graeme Kirkpatrick, “Constitutive Tensions of Gaming’s Field: UK Gaming Magazines and the Formation of Gaming Culture 1981-1995.” Game Studies 12.1 (2012). http://gamestudies.org/1201/articles/kirkpatrick  date accessed 11 November 2017.

[13] Jesper Juul, A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players, (Cambridge: The MIT Press) (2010).

[14] Matt Barton, Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games, (Wellesley: A K Peters) (2008).

[15] Aleksy Uchański, Piotr Gawrysiak, Piotr Mańkowski, Biblia Komputerowego Gracza, (Warszawa: Iskry) (1998), pp. 231.

War&Technology (Editorial)

Joanna Walewska

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 1-4.

Joanna Walewska

Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń

 

 

War&Technology (Editorial)

 

Jacques Derrida (2008), when asked if the attacks of 9/11 would become one of the major events of the last century, answered that it is symptomatic that we refer to this event by means of its date: 11 September, 9/11. He concluded that it was a “thing” which probably has the status of an event for which we do not have yet a proper name. Referring to Derrida’s words, W.J.T. Mitchell wrote (2011) that every history in fact consists of two histories, one focused on what actually happened, the other on the ways of interpreting and describing the events. The first type of historical narrative is focused on facts and figures, while the other is focused on images and words that enable understanding of past events. Narratives about the past are no longer a domain reserved only for historians, because more frequently they are created in real time by official and independent media (e.g. the attacks on the WTC, when the emergency services learned about the plane that had crashed into the WTC towers from a television broadcast), millions of social media users around the world (Cottle 2006; Monahan 2010; Grusin 2010, Huff M. et al 2013), and the narration of movie directors and video game developers.

A number of social scientists, journalists, scholars, and philosophers have observed that the outcome of the attacks was a radical shift in political discourse and social practices—explained by the necessity of applying new security measures and justified by the “state of exception” (Agamben 2008; Sidel 2007; Sottiaux 2008; Neal 2010). As a result, the notions of terms such as terrorism, bioterrorism, torture, and enemy combatants were redefined in the context of 9/11 (Peters 2004; Meisels 2008; Nathanson 2010; Miller 2013; Stampnitzky 2013). This semantic operation and the introduction of the policy of fear allowed the authorities to make the “state of exception” a permanent state, which caused long-lasting effects and changed the social processes of interpretation of historical events—not only those directly related to the 9/11 attacks, but also those of earlier events from the history of the U.S. military.

These semantic operations were brilliantly identified and described by Peter Singer, who observed that many addresses delivered by George W. Bush during the “War on Terror” are based on the vision of clear binary scheme which allows a clear differentiation between Good and Evil. Singer noted that Bush’s Evil was almost a substantial entity which acts independently of human actions (Singer 2004). According to Bush, those who attacked the WTC were “enemies of freedom” or “enemies of democracy”, and the prerogative of their actions was “to plot Evil”.

Taking into consideration the long-lasting and significant effects of these cultural changes in the social perception of international military conflicts and the threat of domestic terrorism, it is no wonder that most of the authors who responded to our call for papers devoted to the relations between war and technology have dedicated their papers to topics related to the 9/11 attacks.

Most of these texts are devoted to critical analysis of how those post-9/11 phenomena have been reflected in the sphere of pop culture. Thus, in his text about American gaming industry, Filip Jankowski shows how the majority of the shooting games released between 2001and 2008 created a heroic depiction of American soldiers’ WWII effort by using national stereotypes, erasing civilians from the theatre of war, and reinforcing the U.S. government’s position as the primary guardian of global order in the face of the threat of international terrorism. It seems that a highly polarized depiction of military battles during WWII was the equivalent of President Bush’s “Axes of Evil” speech and, in retrospect, it can be seen as a propaganda tool aimed to strengthen public support for US military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The author also analyses the games that have emerged since 2008, when the gruesome acts of torture committed by American personnel in Abu Ghraib prison were revealed and Barack Obama was elected president. Since then, game producers have created a more realistic reflection of military conflicts, abandoning the binary description of ours as good and enemies as evil and presenting the player with moral dilemmas.

In the current issue of TransMissions, we also include a block of papers devoted to critical examination of the interrelations between the current military complex and the moving image industry. In her paper, based on the analysis of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2013) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012), Bethany Crowford shows how the film industry has reinforced neoliberal political agendas and military incentives by creating filmic endorsement glorifying the U.S. government’s military campaigns. In her paper, Kaja Łuczyńska presents military technologies as a precise and effective tool for managing conflicts. She shows that along with the post-2008 politics of of “no boots on the ground”, such an image of military technologies led to the erasing of the image of casual victims (on both sides of the conflict) in the social perception of contemporary conflicts.

Based on the considerations of philosophers and critics of post-9/11 politics such as Noam Chomsky and Jean Baudrillard (among others), she shows the influence of the Western taboo of death on the perception of military interventions in the Middle East. The same line of inquiry is presented in the paper by Tatiana Prorokova, who, while analysing the moving image industry, shows how unconditional belief in the power of technology has changed American society and ensured its confidence in “superiority and dominance of its possessors”.

In the first months after the attacks, the fear of being considered an “enemy of freedom” stopped numerous U.S. intellectuals and scholars from asking questions about the actual causes of the events of 9/11. Also, the “war on terror” declared by George W. Bush led to the international military campaign against Al-Qaeda and other militant organizations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (from 2004), as well as to the introduction of a number of legal measures such as the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act, which was based on the unclear and arbitrary category of “domestic terrorism”, which enabled the limitation of civic rights for the sake of security. The researchers point out that this Act resulted in noticeable loss of privacy as well as the reduction of transparency in public life. Both these phenomena are the subject of the papers by Marta Stańczyk, who analyses Hollywood productions concerning WikiLeaks and Hackers, and by Ivory Mills, who assesses the impact of technologies used to wage war in cyberspace. On the other hand, the paper by Sandra Trappen assesses the consequences of the engagement of anthropologists in the so-called Human Terrain System, a phenomenon which is referred to as “a cultural turn in military”. It seems that all three texts correspond to each other, because while the milieus of anthropologists and psychologists have rejected this type of cooperation as an unethical and undesirable breach of independence in the area of knowledge they are pursuing, it has become evident that the Human Terrain System is a key concept that applies not only to anti-insurgency military actions, but also to the frontiers of cyberwar. The concept appears one more time in the documents leaked by Edward Snowden 2013, concerning on-line actions developed by the American National Security Agency (NSA) and the British intelligence bureau, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) against supporters of WikiLeaks, The Pirate Bay portal, and hacktivist groups such as Anonymous.

The last two texts in the current issue of TransMissions are devoted to more general topics concerning the image of war and technology in contemporary culture, but they can still be read in the same context as the other texts in this volume. In her paper about the return of the nuclear technology debate, Agnieszka Kiejziewicz analyses post-Fukushima movies (both fiction and documentary), accurately pointing to the fact that in some way the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011 plays a similar role to 9/11 in that it invigorated historical debates on the country’s nuclear past. Meanwhile, the paper by Magdalena Podsiadło also addresses the problem of heroic narrative, albeit based on the image of rape in Polish contemporary cinema.

 

References

 

Agamben Giorgio, Stan wyjątkowy, (Warszawa: Korporacja Ha! Art) (2009).

Cottle Simon, Mediatized Conflicts. Issues in Cultural and Media Studies, (New York: Open University Press) (2006).

Derrida Jacques, Filozofia w czasach terroru. Rozmowy z Jürgenem Habermasem oraz Jacques’em Derridą (Warszawa: WAiP) (2008).

Grusin Richard, Premediation. Affect and Mediality After 9/11 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2010).

Huff Mickey S., Rea Paul W., Deconstructing Deceit: 9/11, the Media, and Myth Information, http://www.projectcensored.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/DeconstructingDeceitOnlineEd.pdf (date accessed 10.11.2013)

Meisels Tamar, The Trouble with Terror. Liberty, Security, and the Rispons to Terrorism (Cambridge: Cambridge Univeristy Press) (2008).

Miller Martin A., The Foundations of Modern Terrorism. State, Society and the Dynamics of Political Violence (New York: Cambridge University Press) (2013).

Mitchell W.J.T., Clonning Terror. The War on Images. 9/11 to the Present (Chicago: University of Chicago) (2011).

Monahan Brian, The Shock of the News. Media Coverage and the Making of 9/11 (New York: New York University Press) (2010).

Nathanson Stephen, Terrorism and the Ethics of War (Cambridge-New York: Cambridge University Press) (2010).

Peters Ralph, Beyond Terror: Strategy in a Changing World (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books) (2004).

Sidel Mark, More Secure, Less Free. Antiterrorism Policy and Civil Liberties after September 11 (Michigan: University of Michigan) (2007).

Singer Peter, The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush (Dutton: Plume Books) (2004).

Sottiaux Stefan, Terrorism and the Limitation of Rights (Oxford-Portland: Hart Publishing) (2008).

Stampnitzky Lisa, Disciplining Terror. How Experts Invented „Terrorism” (New York: Cambridge University Press) (2013).

New American Patriotism in Games: WWII-Themed Military Shooters in the Shadow of Post-9/11 Politics

Filip Jankowski

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 5-20.

 

Filip Jankowski

Jagiellonian University

 

 

New American Patriotism in Games:

WWII-Themed Military Shooters in the Shadow of Post-9/11 Politics

Abstract

In the 1980s, American popular culture started to restore its reputation as a dominant political power—weakened after the Vietnam War—by recalling the success of World War II and constructing its mythology. The following cinematic tendency, which Frank Wetta and Martin Novelli label as New Patriotism, disseminated triumphalist views on the U.S. presence during the earlier conflict. This study aims to examine the similar trend in the American gaming industry between 1999 and 2008, when a considerable number of first-person shooter games with a World War II setting were released. The author later argues that this wave responded to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, when the George Bush government started a crusade against the so-called “axis of evil”. This political background affected the American gaming industry, as shown with examples of several shooters constituting three important game series: Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, and Brothers in Arms. Those franchises used the specific setting and stylized antagonists, thus recalling the contemporary events in the Middle East. The main problems with New Patriotism are also raised, including the demonization of enemies and the simultaneous absence of civilians during in-game military actions. Further analysis discusses the hyperrealism of World War II-themed shooters produced in the United States. Products such as Call of Duty resembled cinematic narratives not only in terms of ideological message, but they also recreated scenes from films as such Saving Private Ryan and employed documentary-like cinematic techniques. Finally, the reasons for the natural atrophy of the movement are explained. This explanation includes increasing cathartic violence, the declining credibility of the ideological message provided by New Patriotism, and overutilization of episodes from World War II that are too well-known. The results of the research allow diagnosis of new possible reincarnations of New Patriotism.

Key words: 9/11, digital games, hyperreality, ludology, World War II

 

Introduction

 

The United States has one of the biggest entertainment industries in the world. From Hollywood motion pictures to television stations, this industry plays a vital role in shaping the global political discourse. One of the most important forms of U.S. cultural expansion to foreign countries has become digital games, which are not free of the “discursive, political and ideological meanings” associated with an American point of view on politics, the economy, and history.[1] As Nick Dyer-Whiteford and Greig De Peuter remind us, digital games as a form of media were created for the purposes of the “U.S. military-entertainment complex”, contributing to national imperialist politics.[2] Numerous publications describe digital games as media which support aggressive politics towards other countries (especially Middle Eastern) on the same footing as motion pictures; America’s Army (2003, U.S. Army) serves here as an important example of explicit military propaganda.[3]

However, digital games shape not only discourse about the present, they also influence current views of the past. This article examines a certain tendency in American digital games which coincided with the appearance of military shooters set in the Middle East while using another historical setting and serving similar militainment purposes. Between 1998 and 2008, the movement included an explosion of numerous American first-person shooters[4] devoted to the main events of World War II. Although World War II had already been a theme for several digital games like Panzer General (1994, Strategic Simulations) and Steel Panthers (1995, Strategic Simulations), such productions paid attention to the strategic abilities of the player, therefore appealing to a limited number of board game enthusiasts. Hence, they were overtaken in popularity by action-oriented fantasy games such as Duke Nukem 3D (1996, 3D Realms) and Quake (1996, id Software).[5] The appearance of Medal of Honor (1998, DreamWorks Interactive) changed many things, as this game succeeded at merging the reality of World War II with the conventions of the increasingly popular first-person shooter genre. The choice of this ludic genre was no coincidence because the convention of first-person shooters had a greater potential to immerse players in the game world than strategy games. This article explores the causes of that further expansion of American WWII-themed shooters, their characteristics, and political background.

The aforementioned tendency can be termed “New American Patriotism”, with reference to the name suggested by Frank Wetta and Martin Novelli to describe a movement encompassing American motion pictures with “sentimental and ideological concepts that put the nation and cause ahead of individual survival”.[6] The New American Patriotism, according to Wetta and Novelli, is a celebration of “loyalty to one’s comrades in battle, the ability to survive the horrific face of modern hyper-lethal weaponry and warfare, and the shared experience of battle”.[7] Although both researchers count numerous films from different historical settings as examples of the movement,[8] they claim that an important influence on the message of such motion pictures was remembrance of World War II, which will be further discussed below. Then, because of similarities in their depiction of combat and suffering between both American WWII-themed shooters and films, I will restrict the definition of the New Patriotism to include only the World War II setting.

The following analysis of game characteristics excluded the subversive, parodist reinterpretations of World War II such as Wolfenstein 3D (1992, 3D Realms) and Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001, Raven Software), as well as the games of non-American developers, merely published by American enterprises, like Battlefield 1942 (2002, Digital Illusions CE). Instead, several installments in three gaming franchises (Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, and Brothers in Arms) were chosen because of their prestige among players and non-parodist approach to the war. Because of their highly cinematic form, this analysis intends to indicate the specific narrative form rather than the gameplay. The former ludology vs. narratology debate has lost its significance and some ludologists acknowledge that the narrative can also be the object of research.[9] Espen Aarseth, for example, indicates that modern first-person shooters are linearly designed. The presence of fixed kernels, which Aarseth defines as “events that define a particular story”,[10] makes linear games immune to the randomness of gameplay, as the kernels are repeatable and foreseeable during each play.[11] The American WWII-themed shooters are chained to fixed kernels, which makes them useful for the analysis of storytelling.

 

From “New Patriotism” to Digital Games

 

According to Wetta and Novelli, New American Patriotism was formed as an ideological response to national trauma after the failure of the Vietnam War.[12] During the 1970s and 1980s, American cinema encountered numerous films criticizing national involvement in the Vietnamese conflict and citing several war crimes committed by the U.S. Army. Motion pictures such as Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola), Platoon (1986, Oliver Stone) and Full Metal Jacket (1987, Stanley Kubrick) reflected an absence of faith in optimistic narration about modern conflict. In contrast to this traumatic imagination, the American government sought to replace the feeling of guilt with a revived militaristic discourse (identified with the term “Reaganomatography”) shaped by both the Ronald Reagan administration and the Republican Party.[13] The flood of action heroes like Rambo helped to reinvent the heroism of individual soldiers and therefore allowed an anxious American society to be reassured that right was on their side.

A key role in redefining the official patriotic discourse was played by the remembrance of World War II. A new historical approach, comparing the conflict in Vietnam with more prestigious successes in World War II, reshaped the U.S. attitude to patriotism. World War II became the “Good War”,[14] a conflict which did not shame the nation and could instead help re-establish the common view of soldiers as patriots. The main supporter of this new movement was Stephen Ambrose, a historian who often portrayed combatants from the 1940s as common heroes or “citizen soldiers”. Ambrose’s vision of World War II was embraced by the director Steven Spielberg, who suggested a redefined approach to the spectacle of war. The New Patriotism, combining suffering and explicit violence with moral characters having a deep faith in the legitimacy of war, could give more credibility to such a discourse.[15]

In 1998, Spielberg directed Saving Private Ryan, which would serve as inspiration for the subsequent digital games. The film suggested a new, hyperrealistic approach to the representation of the effects of war on soldiers. The opening sequence of the Omaha Beach assault during the invasion of Normandy staged with attention to violent details and the frequent point-of-view camera shots, condensed the day-long attack into several minutes. Therefore, it fell within Nicholas Mirzoeff’s definition of a “visual event”, which in this example became a prototype of subsequent reconstructions of combat assaults in popular culture.[16] At the same time, it helped reconstruct the triumphalist vision of subsequent conflicts in which the United States took part; the Americans are depicted as the only liberators of Nazi-occupied France, and although “they commit atrocities in the fog of war […], this is the exception rather than the rule”.[17] Albert Auster notes that World War II, thanks to films like Saving Private Ryan, “has become for Americans that mythic, Edenic moment when the entire nation bent itself to victory over evil and barbarism”.[18]

In the same year, Spielberg produced a digital game called Medal of Honor (1998, DreamWorks Interactive), which served the same triumphalist purpose, but the adaptation of World War II reality to the first-person shooter genre was intended for younger recipients. Spielberg, fascinated with digital games, planned to popularize the “Good War” amongst a new generation raised with new forms of media. Knowing that Private Ryan’s violence would be potentially damaging to children, he commissioned a war game with a different plot, without blood and suffering.[19] The result was an adventurous shooter with the player directing a serviceman at the Office of Strategic Services. Tasks involved diverse covert actions behind enemy lines, such as stealing important documents and sabotaging military objectives. In contrast to previous strategic games about World War II, Medal of Honor did not intend to realistically imitate the historical battles themselves, and it employed the point of view of an individual soldier only; its arcade-like gameplay seemed to imitate the spy shooting game GoldenEye 007 (Rage, 1997).[20] However, there was no specific story which shaped the Rage game; intersections during the main game included briefings with tasks to complete, and nothing more.

Nevertheless, Medal of Honor received positive reviews and encouraged its publisher, Electronic Arts, to develop a series of games within a World War II setting. The sequel to Medal of Honor, subtitled Underground (2000, DreamWorks Interactive), maintained a similar tone while providing the fresh perspective of a French female underground activist.

 

The Influence of 9/11

 

Medal of Honor’s adventurous tone changed after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. According to Jean Baudrillard, the psychological damage it caused to the American nation led to a globalized cultural expansion of the United States (resulting in such events as the First Gulf War, where the United States led military action against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq), with such symbolic violence questioning the global domination of this North American military power.[21] However, the terrorist attack did not lead to any reflections about the U.S. militarized national diplomacy. Instead, it became an excuse for President George W. Bush to order military intervention in Afghanistan in the same year, where the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda responsible for the attack was based. In 2003, the Bush government invaded Iraq for the second time, citing Iraqi development of weapons of mass destruction as a reason. Both invasions were legitimized by Bush’s speech of 23 January 2002, during which the President branded Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan as sponsors of international terrorism, the so-called “axis of evil”. A comparison to the political alliance between Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan (Axis Powers) during World War II was evident,[22] and was not without reason, as further World War II games would allude at the same time to both “axes of evil”, both historical and current.

In the post-9/11 period, the number of military first-person shooters alluding to the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq became much more visible. Popular culture, steered by the connection between military forces and various kinds of entertainment, was involved in the popularization of “justified” violence against other nations, as it had been during the previous events.[23] The role of military shooters cannot, therefore, be diminished, as this ludic genre reflected the enduring cult of guns and violence in the United States.[24] First-person shooters, as one of the most popular ludic genres, reflected this attitude to violence. On the one hand, there was a vast array of digital shooting games directly supported by the American government, such as America’s Army and Full Spectrum Warrior (2004, Pandemic Studios). Their role as persuasive games with an explicit political message, whose intention was to convince players to support U.S. military interventions, became a topic of comprehensive research.[25] However, it is harder to explain the simultaneous wave of American WWII-themed shooters, which lasted until 2008.

Following Medal of Honor’s success, Electronic Arts continued the series with such games as Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (2002, 2015 Inc.), Medal of Honor: Rising Sun (2003, EA Los Angeles), Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault (2004, EA Los Angeles), and Medal of Honor: Airborne (2007, EA Los Angeles). Meanwhile, another publishing company, Activision, decided to jump on the bandwagon and launched another gaming franchise with Call of Duty (2003, Infinity Ward), Call of Duty 2 (2005, Infinity Ward), Call of Duty 3 (2007, Treyarch), and Call of Duty: World at War (2008, Treyarch). An independent gaming studio, Gearbox Software, also joined the trend, producing a trilogy named Brothers in Arms, consisting of three games: Road to Hill 30 (2005), Earned in Blood (2005), and Hell’s Highway (2008). Whereas the Medal of Honor and Call of Duty series employed various perspectives of soldiers from different fronts, and featured run-and-gun mechanics restricted to shooting at enemies and destroying enemy installations, Brothers in Arms established a coherent narrative about a squad from the 101st Airborne Division during the Normandy invasion and the Operation Market Garden in 1944, with more monotonous and slow-paced gameplay involving the ability to command the whole infantry squad from a first-person perspective. Although the games were cloaked under a specific historical setting, scholars such as Marc Ouellette[26] and Trent Cruz[27] claim that the World War II-themed military shooters were used to account for military interventions both in Afghanistan and Iraq, assumptions we shall now consider.

Firstly, it is noteworthy that WWII-themed games, while not explicitly showing the influence of the war in Afghanistan and the Gulf War, tended to re-locate to Middle East settings in time and space. For example, Medal of Honor: Rising Sun, set in the Pacific Theatre, begins with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, which became a convenient excuse for the United States to engage in the world conflict. The Japanese invasion has been frequently compared to American public opinion concerning the devastation of the Twin Towers. Although there are claims that such a comparison has been lax and based on simplification,[28] the memory of Pearl Harbor within the context of the 9/11 crisis functioned as a persuasive emotional response to human misfortune and suffering.[29] This metaphorical outlook on recent events as a reiteration of the past permeated Rising Sun along with Pacific Assault. In both games, Pearl Harbor develops into a turning point of the main story. While playing Rising Sun, the player confronts kamikaze planes while defending the USS Oklahoma destroyer; in Pacific Assault, the Japanese bombers devastate the base while the defenseless player sees the other people suffering from below. Ouellette observes that the fumes of burning Pearl Harbor seen from the distance in a cut-screen resemble the smoke from the Twin Towers after the 9/11 attack.[30]

Conversely, the references are sometimes subtler. For example, the beginning of Medal of Honor: Allied Assault is a covert operation taking place in Arzew, Algeria, where a group of OSS servicemen prepare for Operation Torch, an invasion of the Allied military forces on Morocco and Algeria, where the Axis forces are stationed. One of the campaigns featured in Call of Duty 2 also includes levels depicting the British offensive against German forces in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. Although both games feature protagonists of different nationalities (the reasons for establishing different national viewpoints will be discussed later), the allusion to current events in the Middle East is mediated via Arab urban landscapes. In such scenarios, the Germans—the like Japanese in Rising Sun and Pacific Assault—serve as the equivalent of Middle Eastern terrorists. If the Japanese soldiers attack the player with bayonets and sword by surprise, the German soldiers organize a violent resistance against Allied forces, performing ambushes with grenade launchers—just like the guerrilla forces in Iraq.[31]

The Germans and the Japanese in these games are both portrayed as fanatics: they repeat conventional cries like “Banzai” and “Amerikaner”, and their role is restricted to those of targets at a shooting range. They are cruel to their captives, and their brutality becomes highlighted in Call of Duty: World at War. Each campaign of the game opens with similar scenes: in the American campaign, the player observes an enemy officer burning a prisoner with a cigar, then cutting his throat; the Soviet campaign begins with the player witnessing a massacre of his comrades by German forces. The unfolding narrative suggests the following message: the enemy shows no mercy, so we cannot show it to them either.[32]

Of course, the situation is different when it comes to portraying the Allies. Activision’s Call of Duty series, marked initially with the slogan “No one fights alone”, involves the diverse perspectives of nations fighting against the Axis. The Call of Duty game series, in contrast to homogenized American meta-narratives about their involvement in the war, features varying viewpoints of American, British, Soviet, and other Allied soldiers. All the gaming franchises also include naturalized Americans from ethnic minorities such as Italians and Mexicans (African Americans are not featured, though, due to racial segregation in the American military forces). What linked the meta-narration of the New American Patriotism in games was the accentuation of an international alliance against common enemies.[33] The national and ethnic diversity of fighting characters suggested that they united against a serious threat to their existence. The inclusion of selected Allied nations was affected by the contemporary balance of power, for example the Soviet presence in the Call of Duty series can be attributed rather to the intermittent collaboration between the United States and Russia during the invasion of Afghanistan than to the historical alliance between the Soviet Union and the United States during World War II.

By contrast, the perspectives of the defeated nations are not included. Tanine Allison notes that while in many strategy games the player can control German and Japanese forces, the narration of American WWII-themed shooters stays highly vectorized, and the Allies constitute the only playable side of the conflict.[34] The civilian perspective is also reduced from the main narration, as the New Patriotism in games would lose attractiveness if the player confronted the real suffering of defenseless people murdered during military action. According to Holger Pötzsch, such a tendency is typical for first-person shooters in general:

If civilian deaths are presented, their fates are disconnected from player involvement and usually presented as the consequence of the opponents’ actions and decisions. The only violence that is enabled is strictly battle related and targeted at opposing soldiers or paramilitary forces this way excluding such documented war-related abuses as rape, the killing of children, or the unintended targeting of non-combatants with heavy weapons.[35]

The only WWII-themed shooter which included civilians as refined characters is Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway. The game, set in The Netherlands during Operation Market Garden in 1944, features several Dutch people who interact with an American unit while residing in the city of Eindhoven; a shoemaker offers the main protagonist Matt Baker some information about the enemies’ position, and a secondary character falls in love with a local girl. However, two motives—resistance and love—are dramatically curtailed with the brutal deaths of the shoemaker’s son and the girl. Their sacrifice, however, is used pretextually to illustrate enemy atrocities, and the narration still defines the American servicemen as people determined to prevent the civilians from suffering.

 

Cinematic Imagery

 

These factors—relocation of the present into the past, demonization of enemies, and heroization of protagonists—correspond to period films constituting the cinematic New Patriotism. However, American WWII-themed shooters are defined not only by their common, ideological message, but also by their hyperrealism in staging scenes from the conflict. Although the games’ developers frequently used slogans that seemingly attest to the authenticity and realism of their products,[36] the notion of realism in digital games is actually very problematic. We can attribute this issue to the ontological status of digital games in general. The realism considered as being in the real-world environment does not apply to digital games because they can only simulate their worlds, and simulation always excludes some factors constituting real life. For example, virtual bodies disappear after the passage of time, and the player can easily heal herself even after being seriously injured. As Aarseth says, virtual bullets used in various shooters do not differ ontologically,[37] and simulation as part of gaming experience always combines the real and the fictional.[38]

Furthermore, WWII-themed military shooters from 1998–2008 are more intertextual than extratextual, which means that they borrow from cinematic imagery rather than from real experiences on World War II battlefields. One can cite numerous inspirations of game developers by the cinematic New Patriotism. For example, the Omaha Beach sequence from Saving Private Ryan appeared in two Electronic Arts’ games about the Normandy invasion (Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and Medal of Honor: Frontline) where even details such as the subtitle “Omaha Beach, June 6th, 1944” with the Times New Roman font are copied from the film. Similarly, the Call of Duty and Call of Duty: World at War’s Soviet storylines that take place during the Battle of Stalingrad remediate the settings and events previously seen in Enemy at the Gates (2002, Jean-Jacques Annaud). The spectacularly staged sequence of the parachute landing in the French countryside, which introduces Road to Hill 30, as well as the serialized narrative of the whole series, recalls the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers (2001, Steven Spielberg & Tom Hanks), whereas Rising Sun and Pacific Assault imitate Pearl Harbor in their depiction of the titular base attack.

Adapting Jay David Bolter and David Grusin’s term of “remediation”, defined as the “refashioned and improved versions of other media”,[39] James Campbell sees such a tendency as an example of “remediated nostalgia”. His research indicates that WWII-themed shooters were intended to simulate not World War II itself, but a World War II film. Hence, games such as Medal of Honor and Call of Duty attempt to provide ludic visual experiences similar to those from the 1990s American combat films.[40] This assumption, according to Eva Kingsepp, recalls the Baudrillardian notion of hyperreality which replaces historical events, currently impossible to revive, with their mediated representations.[41] The games imitated reality, but their developers could not develop a real experience, only a feeling of authenticity.[42]

Following James Campbell’s suggestion that WWII-themed shooters simulate cinematic experience, we discover that their design is intended not to demonstrate real suffering during combat, but to just “look” real. Discussing this issue, Andrew Salvati and Jonathan Bullinger define American WWII-themed military shooters as using “selective authenticity”, a term introduced to describe the creative interpretation of historical facts instead of strict historical reconstruction. This process, according to Salvati and Bullinger, applies to these shooters within the framework of three categories: technology fetishism (an accurate depiction of the weaponry used during the war), documentary authority (a selection of documentaries or quotations from known personalities), and cinematic convention.[43] The latter category is characterized by frequent use of slow-motion and cut-scenes (Rising Sun, Pacific Assault, Earned in Blood, Hell’s Highway), as well as a stabilized virtual camera during significant events (Road to Hill 30, Call of Duty 3, World at War) and the inclusion of authentic documentaries that are already cinematic in their form. All these factors contributed to the meta-narrative of the New American Patriotism in games and made them a visually attractive collection of factual discourses, where complex military operations are rapidly achieved on screen.[44]

 

The Decline and the Revival?

 

New American Patriotism in games, considered here as the presence of American WWII-themed shooters, rapidly disappeared after 2008—there were no further productions about the conflict. One can posit several causes of such a decline. Firstly, the virtual image of World War II became much darker during the existence of the movement. The first Medal of Honor games which attracted the attention of players featured no blood or gore. This situation changed after the appearance of the Brothers in Arms franchise, in which the player had to confront the dispiriting deaths of fallen comrades and scenes naturalistically picturing the physical fragmentation of soldiers. This increase of violence reflected the brutalization of the Second Gulf War, when a growing number of news reports indicated the tragic result of American aggression against civilians. The military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq were failures resulting in the appearance of so-called Islamic State in post-2010 Iraq. The last game of the Brothers in Arms series, Hell’s Highway, is set during Operation Market Garden in 1944, which was regarded a similar failure because of equally poor intelligence and dire consequences for civilians. This game, featuring horrifying imagery of the consequences of war on soldiers and civilians, ends with the operation unaccomplished and the player-directed unit being demoralized, but nevertheless having faith in further phases of the war (retrospectively motivated, anyway). James W. Creel suggests that the closure of Hell’s Highway was paradoxically uplifting in its allusion to the War on Terror and hope for a final victory since World War II had been won despite the operational failure.[45] Yet if we consider the demotivating tones of the whole game, the implicit ideological message of Hell’s Highway seemed ineffective, the story being assessed by a British journalist Kristan Reed as “overblown, and, towards the end, really quite cringeworthy”.[46]

Secondly, the constant ideological remembrance of such historical battles as the Normandy beaches, Stalingrad, and Pearl Harbor became counter-productive. The discourse, when repeated without refreshment, turned out to be unconvincing, and the depictions of historical conflicts lost their attraction, as the meta-narrative of the New American Patriotism was still the same.[47] When Activision realized that moving the World War II setting to fictionalized modern conflicts in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007, Infinity Ward) “made the game more exciting to the players”,[48] the developers shifted to political fiction while maintaining the militaristic discourse to justify U.S. military aggression. Conversely, a new trend began to infect military shooters. The bonus horror episode of Call of Duty: World at War, in which the player could battle against zombified versions of the Nazis, became more popular than the game itself.[49] Thus, World War II in military shooters turned itself into a dead project, and the military–entertainment complex sought new methods of persuading the audiences to intervene in the Middle East.

However, the relocation of U.S. military forces to Iraq to counter an increasing regional threat from the so-called Islamic State gave the American government new arguments for maintaining the position of primary guardians of the global order. The military–entertainment complex seems to respond to such trends, with Activision and Gearbox Software recently announcing the development of new games set in World War II.[50] Thus, the question of American imperialism is being reintroduced. The living dead of WWII-themed games are rising from their graves, thus forcing us to indicate the renewed articulation of New American Patriotism.

 

References

 

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[1] David A. Clearwater, Full Spectrum Propaganda: The U.S. Military, Video Games, and the Genre of the Military-Themed Shooter (McGill University) (2006), p. XIII.

[2] Nick Dyer-Witheford, Greig De Peuter, Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games (Minneapolis: Universiaty of Minnesota Press) (2009).

[3] Nick Dyer-Witheford, Greig De Peuter; see also Marcus Schulzke, “Serving in the Virtual Army: Military Games and the Civil-Military Divide”, Journal of Applied Security Research, 8.2 (2013), pp. 246–261.

[4] First-person shooter (FPS) is a genre of digital games based on shooting at enemy objects and moving within three-dimensional game worlds where the player can manipulate the point of view by steering the mouse.

[5] In the Readers’ Top 10 poll for an American gaming magazine Computer Gaming World, the debuting Quake was placed immediately higher than the Steel Panthers and Panzer General games, which were listed there for several months. See “Readers’ Top 10”, Computer Gaming World 150:1 (1997), p. 42.

[6] Frank J. Wetta, Martin A. Novelli, “Now a Major Motion Picture: War Films and Hollywood’s New Patriotism”, The Journal of Military History 67:3 (2003), p. 861.

[7] Frank J. Wetta, Martin A. Novelli, p. 861.

[8] Their objects of analysis range from movies about World War II, like Saving Private Ryan (1998, Steven Spielberg), The Thin Red Line (1998, Terrence Malick) and Pearl Harbor (2001, Michael Bay), to modern warfare, like Three Kings (1999, David O. Russell) and Black Hawk Down (2001, Ridley Scott), to the American Revolution, like The Patriot (2003, Roland Emmerich).

[9] Michalis Kokonis, “Intermediality between Games and Fiction: The ‘Ludology vs. Narratology’ Debate in Computer Game Studies: A Response to Gonzalo Frasca”, Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies, 9.1 (2015), pp. 171–188; compare Gonzalo Frasca, “Ludologists Love Stories, Too: Notes from a Debate That Never Took Place”, in Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference Proceedings, ed. by Marinka Copier and Joost Raseesne, (presented at the Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference, Utrecht: DiGRA and University of Utrecht) (2003), pp. 92–99.

[10] Espen Aarseth, “A Narrative Theory of Games”, in Proceedings of the International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games (Raleigh, North California: ACM) (2012), https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Espen_Aarseth/publication/254006015_A_narrative_theory_of_games/links/57fb37a708ae280dd0bf9983.pdf, date accessed 14 February 2017.

[11] Espen Aarseth.

[12] Frank J. Wetta, Martin A. Novelli, pp. 865–867.

[13] A term coined by Łukasz Kobylarz, “‘Rambo! Your Country Needs You!’ czyli kino w służbie państwa”, Panoptikum, 7 (2008), pp. 296–302.

[14] A phrase popularized by Studs Terkel, The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two (New York: Ballantine Books) (1984).

[15] Frank J. Wetta, Martin A. Novelli, p. 868.

[16] Nicholas Mirzoeff, “The Subject of Visual Culture”, in The Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff, (London and New York: Routledge) (2002), pp. 6–7.

[17] Albert Auster, “Saving Private Ryan and American Triumphalism”, Journal of Popular Film & Television 30:2 (2002), p. 102.

[18] Ibid., p. 104.

[19]Retro Gamer Team, “The Making of Medal of Honor”, http://www.retrogamer.net/retro_games90/the-making-of-the-sims/, date accessed 4 February 2017.

[20] Gerald Voorhees, “Monsters, Nazis, and Tangos: The Normalization of the First-Person Shooter”, in Guns, Grenades, and Grunts: First-Person Shooter Games, ed. Gerald Voorhees, Joshua Call, Katie Whitlock (New York – London: Continuum) (2012), p. 103.

[21] Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays (Verso) (2003), p. 6-8.

[22] William Safire, Safire’s Political Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford Dictionary Press) (2008), pp. 30–32.

[23] See, for example, an examination of the Captain America comic book as influenced by up-to-date geopolitics: Jason Dittmer, “Captain America’s Empire: Reflections on Identity, Popular Culture, and Post-9/11 Geopolitics”, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 95:3 (2005), pp. 626–643.

[24] See a comprehensive study of the Americans’ attitude to gun culture: Gary Kleck, Point Blank: Guns And Violence In America (Transaction Publishers) (2005).

[25] Margot A. Susca, “Why We Still Fight: Adolescents, America’s Army, and the Government-Gaming Nexus”, Global Media Journal, 12 (2012), p. 1–16; compare David B. Nieborg, “America’s Army: More Than a Game”, ed. by Thomas Eberle and Willy Christian Kriz (presented at the Transforming Knowledge into Action through Gaming and Simulation, Munchen: SAGSAGA, 2004).

[26] Marc Ouellette, “‘I Hope You Never See Another Day Like This’: Pedagogy & Allegory in ‘Post 9/11’ Video Games”, Game Studies 8:1 (September 2008), http://gamestudies.org/0801/articles/ouellette_m, date accessed 22 February 2017.

[27] Trent Cruz, “’It’s Almost Too Intense’: Nostalgia and Authenticity in Call of Duty 2”, http://docplayer.net/30795749-It-s-almost-too-intense-nostalgia-and-authenticity-in-call-of-duty-2.html, date accessed 28 February 2017.

[28] See Fred L. Borch, “Comparing Pearl Harbor and ‘9/11’: Intelligence Failure? American Unpreparedness? Military Responsibility?”, The Journal of Military History, 67:3 (2003), pp. 845–860.

[29] See Geoffrey M. White, “National Subjects: September 11 and Pearl Harbor”, American Ethnologist, 31:3 (2004), pp. 293–310.

[30] Marc Ouellette.

[31] Ken Silverstein, “Soviet-Designed Weapon Is Still Guerrillas’ Choice”, Los Angeles Times, 6 July 2003, http://articles.latimes.com/2003/jul/06/world/fg-rpg6, date accessed 24 June 2017.

[32] See Robin Andersen, Marin Kurti, “From America’s Army to Call of Duty: Doing Battle with the Military Entertainment Complex”, Democratic Communiqué 23:1 (2009), p. 56.

[33] See Debra Ramsay, American Media and the Memory of World War II (Oxford: Routledge) (2015), p. 170.

[34] Tanine Allison, “The World War II Video Game, Adaptation, and Postmodern History”, Literature/Film Quarterly 38:3 (2010), pp. 191.

[35] Holger Pötzsch, “Selective Realism: Filtering Experiences of War and Violence in First- and Third-Person Shooters”, Games and Culture 12:2 (2007), http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1555412015587802, date accessed 9 February 2017.

[36] See James Campbell, “Just Less than Total War: Simulating World War II as Ludic Nostalgia”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. by Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press) (2008), p. 186.

[37] Espen Aarseth, “Doors and Perception: Fiction vs. Simulation in Games”, Intermédialités 9 (2007), p. 38.

[38] Espen Aarseth, s. 43.

[39] Jay David Bolter, Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press) (1999), p. 15.

[40] James Campbell, pp. 187–188.

[41] Eva Kingsepp, “Fighting Hyperreality With Hyperreality: History and Death in World War II Digital Games”, Games and Culture, 2:4 (2007), pp. 367–368.

[42] Eva Kingsepp, “Immersive Historicity in World War II Digital Games”, Human IT: Journal for Information Technology Studies as a Human Science, 8:2 (2013), p. 64.

[43] Andrew J. Salvati, Jonathan M. Bullinger, “Selective Authenticity and the Playable Past”, in Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History, ed. Matthew Wilhelm Kapell, Andrew B.R. Elliott (New York: Bloomsbury) (2013), pp. 153–167.

[44] For example, in the Soviet campaign of Call of Duty, there is a mission in which the player defends a strategic object known as Pavlov’s House during the Battle of Stalingrad. Whereas the real defense lasted two months before the arrival of supporting Soviet forces, the in-game defense could be easily completed in 15–20 minutes. The historical events are condensed to fully immerse the player in the battle that could not be as intense as on screen.

[45] James W. Creel, “Failure Is Not An Option: WWII, Video Games, and the War on Terror”, in The Game Culture Reader, ed. by Jason Thompson and Marc Ouellette (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) (2013), pp. 175–187.

[46] Kristan Reed, “Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway”, Eurogamer, 2008 http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/brothers-in-arms-hells-highway-review?page=2, date accessed 24 June 2017.

[47] Brian Crecente, “Video Games Bid Adieu to World War II”, http://kotaku.com/5555349/black-opsvideo-games-bid-adieu-to-world-war-ii, date accessed 24 February 2017.

[48] Seth Schiesel, “In This Electronic War, Momentum Shifts to the Underdog”, The New York Times, 4 July 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/08/arts/television/08battle.html?nytmobile=0, date accessed 24 June 2017.

[49] Adam Rosenberg, ‘Zombies Don’t Belong in Call of Duty — so How the Hell Did They Get There?’, Digital Trends, 2015, https://www.digitaltrends.com/gaming/zombies-dont-belong-call-duty-hell-get/, date accessed 24 June 2017.

[50] Cade Onder, “Randy Pitchford teases new Brothers in Arms game”, http://www.gamezone.com/news/randy-pitchford-teases-new-brothers-in-arms-game-3453060, date accessed 11 July 2017.

 

Moving Image as Political Tool: The impact of neoliberalism on the role of the moving image in postmodern warfare

Bethany Crawford

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 21-36.

Bethany Crawford

Dutch Art Institute

 

 

Moving Image as Political Tool:

The impact of neoliberalism on the role of the moving image in postmodern warfare

Abstract

This research critically examines the interrelation of neoliberalism, the moving image, and postmodern warfare with the intention of determining the impact of the neoliberal influence on the increasingly important role of the moving image in postmodern warfare. Through analysis of a selection of contemporary films, this research attempts to decipher how neoliberalism is pervading culture, both in the West and abroad, and why this is important in the context of postmodern war. As image and screen-based technologies are a dominant element in contemporary culture, it is vital to understand the extent of societal manipulation delivered via these platforms to perpetuate potentially harmful political economic agendas and military incentives.

Key words: neoliberalism, post-modern warfare, warfare, moving image, moving image technologies

 

 

Introduction

 

This paper intends to evaluate the ramifications of the Western political establishments’ conformation to the politically applied neoliberal ideology on the utility and increased dependence of moving image technology in the arena of postmodern warfare, as both a weapon and a societal tool. With a focus on the modern wars that have been the consequence of the neoliberal agenda, this paper will consider the function of the moving image within this political context, with particular emphasis on cultural control. This will allow for comments on the counteractive capacity of artists’ moving image and the necessity of activating an engaged spectatorship in the face of increasingly immersive technologies and manipulative images. The intricate interrelation of neoliberal ideology, war and the film industry is a complex subject of study, as each factor facilitates and necessitates the other. Each element is historically and developmentally interwoven, with political and economic issues being a direct effect and result of motivations in conflicts and industry, and contrariwise. Due to the impact of neoliberal ideology, it has further become increasingly difficult to distinguish between these aspects in order to study their relation, as the resulting oligarchical control has amalgamated government, war and film into one indistinguishable, powerful businesses.

American hegemonic domination of the international film industry and the country’s presiding role over modern global politics and warfare certify the importance of examining the role of Hollywood and mainstream American cinema when investigating the neoliberal impact on moving image within postmodern warfare. As the U.S. government launched the post-9/11 ‘Global War on Terror’ to initiate invasions and substantial military campaigns in various locations in the Middle East, filmic endorsement was necessary in order to mobilise public support and maintain the advantageous governmental position over a society seized by fear. Two examples of films conforming to the contemporary propagandised depictions of the recent American military endeavours in the Middle East are Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2013) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012). American Sniper details the exploits of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle during his four tours of Iraq, as he accumulates the 160 confirmed kills that earned him the honour of ‘America’s deadliest sniper’. The CIA hunt for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and Pakistan is portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty through the motivations of a young, female CIA operative, Maya. The delivery of these war films in the slick narrative characterised by mainstream and Hollywood cinema exemplifies the passive consumption and neutralisation of on-screen violence that is arguably promoting a dangerous complacency of conflict in contemporary society. The inactive spectatorship encouraged by such narratives allows for a governmentally valuable platform for simultaneously administering glorification of both neoliberal values and the military violence that comes with it. Critical evaluation of American Sniper will focus on the film’s portrayal of Arabs and Muslims as a form of mobilising and maintaining public support for military action in the Middle East through fear and misrepresentation. Examination of the characterisation of gender in American Sniper will allow study of the definition and promotion of the ‘neoliberal man’ in relation to a neoliberal state. This will lead into analysis of the function of the female protagonist in Zero Dark Thirty and the production’s associations and appropriations of feminist rhetoric. Zero Dark Thirty will further provide the basis for a dissection of the film’s formal arrangements in regards to invalidation of the impact of on-screen violence, and the resulting consequences on its commentary of militarised torture.

The neoliberal ideological model supports a process of globalisation in order to internationalise economic structures and embrace a global free market. An idealised impact of international subscription to neoliberalism would ensure a globally competitive market, increased international productivity and consumerism, and minimisation of state controls on trade and economy. This economic and financial motivation is the foundational incentive of contemporary warfare in the neoliberal age. Other than allowing for the implementation of a plunderable economic structure, globalisation has proven a valuable vehicle for delivering a dominating cultural paradigm through the international export of American film, known as ‘soft power’.[1] The impact of the cultural imperialism of globalized American cinema, in tandem with the enforcement of political and economic neoliberal ideologies, is exemplified in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014). Both films focus on the aftermath of the Western-backed Indonesian coup d’etat led by General Suharto in 1965–66, which directly resulted in the deaths of over one million people. The Act of Killing thematically centres on the influence of American cinema on a group of gangsters unrepentantly responsible for a multitude of the genocidal killings as they re-enact the massacres through various cinematic genre conventions. The Look of Silence acts as a contextualising counterpart that follows the family of one of the victims of the genocide as the younger brother utilises his role of optometrist to confront the perpetrators. Analysis of the content and formal arrangements of The Act of Killing, with notes on similar methods used in The Look of Silence, will allow for considerations on Oppenheimer’s self-reflexive deconstruction of the role of film as mode of delivery for ideological sentiments and cultural reinforcement of military and economic force, in a direct critique of the impact of globalised American cinema. Character analysis of key participants in The Act of Killing will allow the examination of the ramifications of neoliberalism on a societal level and question the rewarded personality traits under a neoliberal regime.

The increasing internationally globalised interrelation of Western political aggression with Hollywood and American mainstream cinema has necessitated calls for a counteractive utility of the moving image to provoke a politicised dissidence in spectators. As militarised screen-based technologies are rapidly evolving and leading to eventual implementation as culturally accessible technology, society is becoming progressively more dominated by screen culture and advancing immersive and interactive moving image technology which multiplies the effectiveness of passive consumption. Experiential participation in simulated and immersive visual technology allows a situation in which the penetrative ideological impact of images pervades the mind at a deeper cognitive level.[2] Through these technologies, such as video games and virtual reality, the brain is being trained to function in conjuncture with neoliberal anticipation. The pre-emptive nature of the neoliberal state, such as anticipatory military action exemplified in the invasion of Iraq, is beneficial for an Orwellian governmental control over citizens through the perpetual threat of war and constant fear.[3] These passively engaging modes of moving image utility open dialogue for an inverted employment and critique of these technologies which is represented in the provocative works of the German artist filmmaker Harun Farocki, with specific focus on Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1988) and Serious Games I–IV  (2009-10). Analysis of the formal arrangements of both Images of War and Serious Games will establish effective techniques of provoking spectator engagement with moving imaging works in direct remedial response to the encouraged passive consumption of contemporary image-based technologies. This will lead to investigation into methods of self-reflexive deconstruction of the moving image in the modern theatre of war in both Images of War and Serious Games I: Watson is Down.

 

American Sniper and Establishing the Enemy

 

Following the recent military endeavours in the Middle East, there has been an increase in anti-Islamic sentiment and Arab vilification within recent Hollywood war productions. The Arab world has assumed the role of the terrorist ‘Other’, a position formerly held by communists during the years of the Cold War. This cultural establishment of the Arab enemy beneficially maintains public support for the continuing military involvement in the Middle East. This trend is exemplified in American Sniper (2013) and will be illustrated through an analysis of the film’s use of sound and visual form.

The film sonically opens with the Islamic call to prayer eventually obscured by the mechanical sound of a military tank; this is confirmed visually as a tank appears rolling through a burned-out Middle Eastern town. The very outset of the film provides the initial connotations of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ rhetoric, the call to prayer not just providing a locational signifier (as there are mosques all over the globe), but when coupled with militarised images establishes an emotive connection between Islam and war. This is thematically continued through the duration of the film with consistent visual references to the Iraqi fighters as Muslim and the American soldiers as Christian, establishing a wrongful context of a war of religion (e.g. the scene featuring a quick cut to a suicide bomber’s lifeless hand falling whilst clutching prayer beads). The call to prayer is again used as sonic accompaniment to a climactic moment of tension by which the audience is first introduced to the main antagonist, the Iraqi sniper ‘Mustafa’. This scene further commemorates Mustafa’s first on-screen killing of a U.S. soldier, continuing the demonising association of Islam through sonic suggestion. The character of Mustafa is a cartoonish depiction of a villainous Arab, complete with an ominous, deep and throbbing leitmotif that intensifies his caricaturised evil persona.

American Sniper is punctuated throughout with a series of point-of-view shots through Kyle’s rifle viewfinder, as he tracks potential enemies in the deadly crosshairs. These shots are effectively subjective, implicating the spectator in the position of Kyle, strengthening emotional identification with the protagonist whilst simultaneously alienating and vilifying the subjects in shot, nearly always Iraqis. In one instance, after the audience is introduced to Kyle in the beginning of the film, he lines up a nefariously behaving hijab-clad female with her young child. Tracked through Kyle’s rifle viewfinder the child runs forward carrying an RKG grenade, passed to him by his mother. Not only is this sequence subject to the criminalising effect of the viewfinder POV, but the shot then quickly cuts to a scene of Kyle as a young boy shooting his first deer. This rapid transition infers a moral relation between the shooting of a deer and that of an Arab, effectively animalising and dehumanising the ‘Other’.

 

American Sniper and the Neoliberal Man

 

Eastwood’s American Sniper successfully advocates contemporary neoliberal-influenced prescriptions of gender. The attributes of the idealised self-disciplined individualism of the neoliberal man easily fulfils the ‘Hollywood hero’ prototype that Kyle profitably conforms to—a design unchanged since the early days of Hollywood that reinforces the conservative notions of gender and masculinity. Corresponding to these traditionally masculine character criteria is valuable in maintaining multitudes of young men signing up for armed service with aspirations of achieving similar cinematically hyper-masculine heroics. Kyle’s character is fundamentally a microcosm of the model conservative, neoliberal American state. He emphasises the desirable qualities of a neoliberal subject—exhibiting resilience, a constant pre-emptive anticipation, and an individualised self-reliance—that are admirable character traits necessary to thrive under neoliberal implications.

The film is an unadulterated celebration of masculine violence and individual merit within its very premise—a production solely dedicated to heralding the heroic sacrifices of ‘America’s deadliest sniper’. This congratulatory stance concerning ‘honourable’ violence is established early in the film through a sequence depicting an incident from Kyle’s youth. As a young Kyle and his family sit around the family table, his authoritative father delivers an analogical lesson on good and evil through the categorisation of an individual into a sheep, a wolf or a sheepdog. He refers to sheepdogs as “those who have been blessed with the gift of aggression and the overwhelming need to protect the flock” whilst condemning his young sons to turn out as anything other than a noble and protective sheepdog, and ultimately congratulating young Kyle on finishing a fight. This in essence is the summation of American Sniper’s attitude to violence, and eludes to the violence in Iraq as being a justifiable retaliation (a potentially dangerously misinforming connection of the invasion of Iraq to 9/11.)

Kyle embodies the impulsive and enterprising self-confidence rewarded under neoliberal individualism. On several occasions in the film, he instinctively recognises the correct course of action, even breaking rank in order to follow his intuition. The pinnacled climax, in which Kyle finally kills his nemesis Mustafa, is one such occasion. Kyle is repeatedly told to hold fire so as not to give away their position, under the commanding officer’s assurance that the distance between Kyle and Mustafa would render it an impossible shot. Kyle, however, is confident of his gifted marksmanship and takes the shot anyway, to great success. His character further displays the resilience desired in a prosperous neoliberal subject, an ability to speedily re-cooperate which negates any danger of dependence on anyone or establishment other than the self. This is illustrated in his ability to return immediately to the battlefield moments after his close friend ‘Biggles’ is shot, and his lackadaisical attitude to his girlfriend’s infidelity and their consequential breakup early in the film.

 

Neoliberal Women and Feminism in Zero Dark Thirty

 

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty was widely commended for its depiction of a dynamic female CIA agent accountable for arguably one of the greatest U.S. military victories in post-9/11 conflict. Some have even hailed the production a ‘feminist epic’—a claim that typifies current assumptions of female representation being the centrally significant issue of the feminist struggle, over endeavours for redistribution of power.[4] Aspirations for female representation over redistribution are commonly understood as a prerogative of post-feminism, arguably defined as a neoliberalised feminism.[5] Zero Dark Thirty provides exemplification of the current trend of appropriating feminist rhetoric to provide credibility to the contemporary military agenda.

Zero Dark Thirty’s gender representations within its central character, Maya, largely comply with the postfeminist ideal. She epitomises individualism, manifesting as a deeply driven ‘lone wolf’ character that is utterly devoted to her career. She is single-mindedly motivated to ensure the death of Bin Laden, which becomes an individually driven pursuit as her superiors move on to more imminently demanding issues of national security. This crusade eventually comes to fruition with Maya reaping the rewards of her dedicated individual labour, through the killing of Osama bin Laden at the hands of the navy SEALS under her direction. Early in the film, Maya is complimentarily referred to as a ‘killer’ in her field. As men primarily dominate this field of expertise, this statement resonates as an empowering accomplishment for her as a woman, but the violence of the term ‘killer’ provides potential insight to her success as a consequence of adopting traditionally masculine traits. Her aggressive ambition and quickly learned immunity to brutal violence align her with conventionally understood aspects of the ‘alpha male’. This encouraged female adaption to a more masculinised archetype in order to succeed in the workplace is a negation of foundational aspects of the feminist struggle and is characteristic of post-feminism. Maya’s character exhibits the self-surveillance and regimented self-discipline expected of an efficient post-feminist woman. Her slender and well-groomed appearance confirm that however engrossed she is in her vocation, she is still attentive to her physical presentation. Throughout the film she maintains an emotionally restrained persona, only exhibiting an aggressively emotive response when her superiors impose obstacles to the fervent pursuit of her goal. She appears to be constantly monitoring her own behaviour, contrastingly highlighted next to the relaxed and natural demeanour of her male co-agent. Maya’s unswayable individualism and inherently capitalist temperament is confirmed through the competitive acquaintance between her and her fellow female CIA agent, Jessica. Their initial meeting is an icy exchange, which later develops into a guarded friendship. This lack of establishing a sense of sisterhood or even a natural friendship is testament to the postfeminist severance of the necessity for a socialised unification of women that was prevalent in second wave feminism.

 

Neutralising Violence and the Brutality of Torture in Zero Dark Thirty

 

The narrative of Zero Dark Thirty presents a confirmation of the constructive outcome of employing enhanced interrogation techniques (“EITs”, commonly known as torture.) The director, Kathryn Bigelow, and the writer, Mark Boal, worked closely with the CIA to ensure a ‘realistic’ interpretation of the CIA manhunt for Osama bin Laden, leading many critics to decry it as pro-torture propaganda. Not only does the film provide justification for the military use of torture through the storyline, it further nullifies the brutality of the violence depicted through specific methods of camera work and structural form that increase viewer identification with the perpetrators of the violence and dampen the impact of its cruelty.

The entire film is shot with a minimum of four cameras for each scene, allowing the final product to provide a fully immersive exposure of the viewer to the characters, narrative, and location. Each scene cuts relatively quickly amongst the differing angles of the various cameras, with one camera delivering an active, seemingly handheld perspective. This shot appears almost as POV and forms an informal viewpoint that provides a subjective platform for the viewer. The resulting mode of experiential presentation strengthens viewer empathy with characters and gives the viewer a sense of their own personal presence within the narrative. This method acts as an effective vehicle to fortify the validation of state-sanctioned violence that is established in the plot through the spectator’s enhanced feeling of camaraderie with the characters performing the violence.

The diluted effect of the violence depicted in the film’s early displays of torture can further be contributed to discerningly utilised camera work. The scenes mostly deliver abstracted images of the imposed brutality—an example of another advantageous employment of the active, handheld camera perspective. The constant transition between the camera angles also provides a manipulating distraction from events unfolding within the narrative and ensures they don’t always stay in shot. In the opening scene, in which the detainee is water-boarded, there are frequent cuts to the shot of Maya as the passive witness. These interruptions in the representation of the torture mitigate the director’s claim of a ‘realistic’ and ‘unbiased’ exploration of the use of EITs in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

 

The Globalised Impact of American Cinema

 

The Act of Killing provides testimony to the globalised influence of the passively consumed American cinema, detailed in the previous section, and the impact of cultural imperialism both through its filmic structure and its narrative political content. The premise of the film encompasses a selection of perpetrators to re-enact their involvement in the killings, through performative conformation to the American movie genres that they adulated. This construct establishes a surreal reflective critique as the killers talk about learned killing techniques from these American films that they then feedback into re-enacted imitations adhering to those specific genre conventions. The idolised violent heroics portrayed in the Hollywood films they admire act as reconfirmation of their own heroism. This can be exemplified in the previous study of American Sniper, Kyle being celebrated for his abundance of valiant assassinations as they were all justifiable kills due to the victims’ undeniable status of ‘bad guys’. The Indonesian perpetrators are similarly convinced of the undoubtedly villainous nature of the ‘communists’ they killed, thus they are heroes worthy of filmic commemoration also.

The Act of Killing utilises a self-reflective employment of screens throughout the production which act as a visual exposition of the critical historical and current involvement of film within the events depicted.[6] Throughout the production there are scenes of Anwar re-watching the re-enactments on a television set. This provides an opportunity for objective viewing of his actions, but yields little emotional response. The distancing and de-contextualising impact of screen-delivered images is highlighted in a scene that features the main character’s participation on a National television talk-show. The sequence cuts between formats, altering the perception of the viewer. Some frames are from the talk-show production itself, implicating the spectator in the position of a member of the Indonesian public watching the show on their televisions. Other shots return to the cinematic format of the film, which depicts the interview taking place and the studio cameras capturing the action. The most interesting frames refer to the previously mentioned method of featuring the images on a television screen within the frame.  One instance of this method that is particularly provocative features many different small screens depicting the image of Anwar as he talks on the show, as the footage is viewed by the programme operators. The shot zooms in a small screen showing a black and white image of Anwar as he speaks with the host, and a larger coloured screen with the same image. The visual impact of the dual television screens provides a comparable image of Anwar, perceivably far more sinister in the small black and white screen than on the larger, coloured screen. This comparative framing of the differently formatted images is resonant of the previously shown extracts of the anti-Communist government propaganda film that was essential viewing for all school-aged children and portrays the evil deeds of the communists in the same effectively vilifying black and white. The shot illustrates the power of framing in altering content and further alludes to the thematic considerations of time central to both The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. The viewer apprehends the same image of Anwar in the antiquated format of black and white and again in modernised full colour, thus referencing past and present and highlighting that although many decades have elapsed since the genocide, neither Anwar nor his rhetoric have altered.

 

Neoliberal associations with Psychopathy

 

The central characters in The Act of Killing illustrate not only the neoliberal ideological impact on personality development, but also, critically, the personality traits rewarded under such conditions. The gangsters and paramilitary personnel that perpetrated the genocidal killings in the mid-60s are shown to have risen to positions of political and economic power due to their active role in the massacres. As this was a western-backed coup d’etat with neo-imperial motivations, those who helped facilitate the overthrow were rewarded capital power in the newly established highly corporate and international-business-friendly state. The characters in the film exhibit the psychopathic features that excel under neoliberal regimes—traits that are comparable to the desirable modern attributes of successful corporations and businesses.[7] The cut-throat emphasised individualism that propels a successful neoliberal subject has habitual connotations to psychopathic behaviours that are exhibited strongly in nearly all the characters featured in The Act of Killing, although analysis will be streamlined to focus on the characters of Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry.

Anwar Congo provides the foundational character in the film and is responsible for directing the narrative production that re-enacts the differing methods of killing under various Hollywood genre conventions. The arc of the film follows his journey of altering moral awareness, from the unrepentant pride of his direct role in the killings to his seemingly empathetic epiphany. This is highlighted in a scene near the beginning of the film in which he dances the cha-cha on the rooftop where he used to kill ‘communists’—a post re-enactment of his murderous actions. This location is then revisited at the very end of the film, where this time Anwar violently retches as he describes again his killing of ‘humans’. It can be argued that Anwar Congo is representative of learned psychopathic behaviour, perpetrating violence and brutality that was continuously rewarded with the implementation of the new regime and therefore never explicitly considering the implications of his actions. Throughout the film it is evident that Anwar is lacking in any form of self-awareness; his inability to grasp the situation is frustratingly highlighted formally, with punctuations in the film of Oppenheimer playing back the footage of the re-enactments for him. The viewer is able to watch Anwar’s reaction to the footage—often frowningly studious—which alludes to a potential moment of realisation, only for it to conclude with a voiced disapproval of his clothing or inauthentic acting. In the film, he confesses to being plagued by nightmares, even dedicating a scene in the re-enacted production to his night terrors, but he doesn’t seem to have the emotional depth to fully understand the cause. Anwar’s unadulterated conviction in his behaviour during the genocide is arguably the result of his ability to deflect responsibility by imitating some of his favourite on-screen gangsters and military heroes, illustrated in his learning of some basic empathy through the same filmic language.[8] In this line of reasoning it is feasible that Anwar learned these desensitised, psychopathic traits as a survival tool which he has continued to manifest through its beneficial recompense in the proceeding administration.

Adi Zulkadry appears a third of the way through the film and features in the narrative re-enactments of the killings. A character analysis of Adi beneficially provides comparative understanding of Anwar’s potentially ‘learned’ psychopathy through establishing Adi’s inherent and firm character correspondence to traits understood to be undeniably psychopathic. Adi exhibits a clear understanding of the immorality of the ‘65–‘66 genocide. At one point during a re-enactment he attempts to coach his fellow perpetrators: “Listen, if we succeed in making this film it will disprove all the propaganda about the communists being cruel and show that we were the cruel ones…it’s not about fear, it’s about image. The whole society will say…they lied about the communists being cruel.” His intellectual capacity seems to be greater than that of Anwar in his ability to perceive the moral injustice of his actions and understanding of how this film will be perceived. This awareness fortifies the fact that he possesses the psychopathic ability to feel no remorse or empathy; this is further highlighted in a scene in which Adi and Oppenheimer are talking in a car. Oppenhiemer clarifies that under the Geneva Convention the Indonesian genocide is definitively classified as war crimes. Adi defensively replies that the definitions of right and wrong in war are susceptible to change, further arguing that war and mass killing is just part of the organic behaviour of people and always has been. This talent for intellectually manipulating concepts of justice to comply with his own individual agenda is a further example of psychopathic behaviour.

 

Active Spectator Participation in Artist Moving Image

 

Passive consumption of the moving image and the inactive spectator participation encouraged by mainstream cinema maintains film as the definition of a capitalist ‘product’. The emancipation of both film and the viewer from the capitalised process of production and mass consumption is arguably exemplified in artist moving-image works that endeavour to actively engage viewers, thus ensuring the film is realised through the mutual labour of both filmmaker and spectator-turned-producer.[9] This collaborative intellectual provocation of active spectatorship counteracts the neoliberal influence within mainstream and Hollywood cinema, detailed previously. Instigating active engagement with moving-image works can be achieved through formal considerations in both the moving-image work and the environment in which a viewer is exposed to the work. These constructive modes of deliverance are demonstrated in the works of the German artist filmmaker Harun Farocki, illustrated through formal analysis of Serious Games I–IV and Images of the World and the Inscription of War.

Serious Games comprises four moving-image installations, each detailing varying facets of the interrelationship between video game technology and the military. The installation is intended to be spatially experienced, allowing an immersive and participatory active engagement with the work and space, in direct contention with the virtual and video game technology depicted in its content. This environmental encouragement of movement ensures the spectator maintains a level of corporeal awareness whilst engaging with the moving-image works, which arguably functions as a form of Brechtian distanciation.[10] The spectators’ autonomous engagement with both the form and content of the installation provides a platform for an individuated apprehension of the work. This self-determining perception of the work further develops the installation to be experientially comparable to an expanded model of ‘montage’ and undoubtedly exceeds the limitations of a singular work in ensuring the participatory role of the viewer. The coupling of images in this manner is a technique Farocki described as ‘soft montage’; it allows the spectator to develop and question ongoing associations, informing “a general relatedness, rather than a strict opposition or equation.”[11] The impact of the ‘soft montage’ requires the spectator to assimilate the images and engage in a process of spatial editing, implicating the viewer as collaborative producer.

The activating method of montage is evident in the majority of Farocki’s work, including his seminal film essay Images of the World and the Inscription of War. This single screen work utilises a more conventional linear mode of montage, reminiscent of early montage methods employed by filmmakers such as Eisenstein, using cut up and re-appropriated archival images delivered through a thematic and rhythmically repetitive image track. This technique provokes the viewer to infer significance from between the images and successfully nullifies the potential didacticism associated with political film or the documentary genre. The laboured viewing required of the spectator in Images of the World encourages a broader contextual consideration of the images.[12] Another process utilised to certify spectator engagement with Images of the World is in the soundtrack, featuring a neutral female voice over. The objectivity of the narration negates the possibility of emotive manipulation of the viewer when apprehending the images, instead behaving symbiotically with the images to inspire a greater degree of autonomously produced questioning in the viewer.

 

Using the Form of the Moving Image to Deconstruct the Relationship of War and Images

 

In ‘Towards a Third Cinema’, Getino and Solanas call for revolutionary filmmaking to harness the communicative power of the moving image in order to counteract the “culturally penetrative” neo-colonial and consumerist films generated by the ‘System’.[13] This form of filmmaking would mobilise the spectators into being the reactionary, active citizens necessary to implement radical changes and a self-determining culture of the people, in contrast to the oppressive, neo-imperial culture of capitalism that caters solely to the ruling classes. This mode of revolutionary filmmaking is embodied in the works of Farocki. His moving image critiques on the increasingly dominating role of technology in contemporary society—importantly in the modern theatre of war—provide a vital self-reflexive filmic discourse. Through transitions in the formal deliverance and content of his work, Farocki’s development as a filmmaker and artist have reflected and symbiotically evolved with the technologies he scrutinised. His introspective and deconstructive examinations of image-making technology in contemporary warfare are centrally thematic to Images of the World and Serious Games I: Watson is Down. Analysis of these works will provide insights to the advancements of these technologies within the timeframe of each work and the effectiveness of artist moving image in intellectually disseminating the medium’s role in modern warfare.

Images of War utilises found photographs and documentary footage articulated into a film essay that references issues of aesthetics, visuality, and deception in the context of postmodern warfare. Farocki focuses on contemporary warfare’s fundamental endeavour to omnipotently see all, whilst simultaneously remaining hidden. It questions the problematic role of images in the theatre of war—centrally photography—and the implications of the techno-surrogate perception of the lens in terms of framing, perception, and context. Farocki utilises reoccurring motifs and sequences in the form of montage, frequently revisiting images and contextually rearranging them, thus highlighting the ease of altering the content of an image through reframing. A sequence that features repetitively in the film depicts photographs of Berber woman from Algeria, unveiled in order to photographically document their full appearance for the purpose of identity cards. When introduced to the full frame images of the women, the viewers are informed that only at home and with close family would they normally be without their veil. This implies the questionable veracity of an image portraying an already reframed facial identity of the photographed subject. As this sequence is revisited later in the film, the viewer is exposed to the same images of the women, albeit from the pages of a photography book as it’s flipped through by an on-screen reader. This alteration of context converts the content of the images, reframed once more from an operational image purposed for surveillance to a commodified image of pleasure. When the photographs reappear later in the film they are reconstructed once again, this time reframed by the hands of the on-screen reader, who alternates between covering the eyes and the mouths. As he covers the mouths of the women, only their eyes are visible, therefore revealing a more accurate portrayal of the real-life appearance of the woman through replicating what would be visible when veiled. This layered study of image de-contextualisation and restructuring highlights the deceptive nature of photography and imaging technologies.

As the military interrelation with image-based technologies has intensified and rapidly advanced, the functional capacity of these technologies has broadened. The participatory virtual worlds now utilised by the military for both training and rehabilitation purposes are the subject of Farocki’s multi-screen video installation Serious Games I–IV. In these works, Farocki explores how these immersive techniques potentially blur the spectator–participants’ distinction between fiction and reality and further the relationship of their physical body with the computer-generated images. The participant is neurologically receptive to video game imagery in a far more penetrable manner than of images perceived in films and photographs.[14] This ability to control the conscious level of comprehension of a soldier is beneficial in ensuring a highly effective desensitisation, dehumanisation of the enemy, and subconscious response in the field. This is highlighted in the first work of the series, Serious Games I: Watson is Down, a split screen installation showing an army unit involved with a video game purposed for training. Although the split screen images alternate and cut between images in conformation of the ‘soft montage’ method, they predominately subscribe to a format of one channel presenting the video game as it is played, while the other is fixed on the soldiers as they are playing. This assimilation of images—correlated with the language used by the soldiers—underscores the video game’s deconstruction of bodily and conscious separation from the on-screen virtual world. The soldiers converse with one another and refer to their avatar characters on-screen as ‘you’ and ‘I’. This hyper-subjective connection with the game is provocatively contrasted with the encouraged objective viewing of the spectator through Farocki’s activating use of both soft and spatial montage. As a soldier states “Watson just got killed”, we simultaneously see the computer-generated Watson fall from the tank and be left behind as the tank drives away and the real-life Watson lean back in his seat with a defeated sigh.

 

Conclusion

 

The research in this dissertation concludes that the most potent impact of neoliberalism on the role of the moving image in postmodern warfare is the augmentation of its societally manipulative function. Through promotive representation of ideals that perpetuate the neoliberal agenda, such as attaching false morality to military campaigns or valorising particular character traits and gender subscriptions, the moving image is a vital tool in maintaining a weak, fragmented and conformable society. This is reinforced with the encouraged consumerism of the neoliberal era, which manifests in an abundance of personal screen-based possessions that maximise exposure and alter engagement with the moving image. Oversaturation of information and images of war and violence ultimately normalise the suffering of others through establishing a desensitised society.[15]  Persistent exposure to these images preserves the perception of constant, unstoppable war, which leads to a dangerous apathy. The influence of the internet and the democratisation of image-making technology has led to a multitude of platforms to access informative content and beneficially communicative moving image, but this inundation of information exacerbates distractibility and obscures qualifiable veracity. The distancing effect of perceiving images of war and violence on screens has enhanced alienation and decreased empathy with the civilians on the receiving end of the military aggressions of the Western powers. The separating effect of the screen, combined with the effective ‘Otherising’ in largely circulated productions such as American Sniper, sustains indifference to the suffering of those fictionally perceived as enemies. This perpetuates the neo-imperial north–south divide that is maintained by the cyclical relation of neoliberal globalisation and the hugely funded technologically advanced weaponry of the wealthy Western nations.

As distinction between government, business, and industry has dissipated into a multi-corporate, neoliberal miasma, it has become increasingly difficult to discern the invested motivations of moving images in any given context. Artist moving image is not immune to prejudiced funding through gallery ownerships and private cultural funding bodies that boast corporate and political affiliations. With neoliberal privatisation, more and more aspects of society are becoming corporately sponsored, from the images and information consumed daily to educational establishments and hospitals. This fully penetrative impact of neoliberalism has arguably lead to a self-fulfilling, cyclical momentum of the applied ideology facilitated by the power of the image, comparable to the notions in Guy Debord’s ‘The Society of the Spectacle’: “for what the spectacle expresses is the total practice of one particular economic and social formation; it is, so to speak, the formations agenda…the spectacle is essentially tautological, for the simple reason that its means and its ends are identical. It is the sun that never sets on the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire globe, basking in the perpetual warmth of its own glory.”[16]

 

References

 

Boal, Iain A; Retort (Organisation), Afflicted powers: capital and spectacle in a new age of war, (London: Verso) (2005).

Boddy, Clive et al, ‘Extreme managers, extreme workplaces: Capitalism, organisations and corporate pyschopaths’, Organization 22:4 (2015).

Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books) (1994).

Elsaesser, Thomas, Harun Farocki: Working on the Sight-Lines, (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press) (2004).

Elwes, Catherine, Installation and the Moving Image, (London & New York: Wallflower Press)(2015).

Farocki, Harun & Silverman, Kaja, Speaking About Godard, (New York: New York University Press) (1998).

Fraser, Nancy , Fortunes of Feminism:  From Sate-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis, (London: Verso) (2013).

Getino, Octavio & Solanas, Fernando, ‘Towards a Third Cinema’, Cineaste 4:3 (1970-71).

Gill, Rosalind, ‘Postfeminism Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility’ European Journal of Cultural Studies 10:2 (2007).

Halle, Randall, ‘History Is Not a Matter of Generations: Interview with Harun Farocki’, Camera Obscura 16 (2001).

Kapur, Jyotsna & Wagner, Keith B. Ed, Neoliberalism and Global Cinema: Capital, Culture and Marxist Critique, (New York: London: Routledge) (2011).

Michalski, Milena& Gow, James, War, Image and Legitimacy: Viewing contemporary conflict, (London: Routledge) (2007).

Nayman, Adam, ‘Find Me Guilty: Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing’. Cinema Scope Magazine. http://cinema-scope.com/cinema-scope-magazine/24-find-me-guilty-joshua-oppenheimers-the-act-of-killing/ , date accessed 10 February 2016.

Oppenheimer, Joshua & Ten Brink, Joram ed., Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory and the Performance of Violence, (London & New York: Wallflower Press) (2012).

Ranciere, Jacques, The Emancipated Spectator, (London: Verso) (2009).

Sontag, Susan, Regarding the Pain of Others, (London: Penguin Books) (2003).

Väliaho, Pasi, Biopolitical screens: image, power, and the neoliberal brain, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press) (2014).

 

Filmography

 

American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, 2014).

Images of the World and the Inscriptions of War (Harun Farocki, 1989).

Serious Games I-IV (Harun Farocki, 2010).

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenhiemer, 2012).

The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenhiemer, 2014).

Zero Dark Thirty, (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012).

 

 

[1] Kapur & Wagner, p.23.

[2]  Väliaho, Pasi, Biopolitical screens: image, power, and the neoliberal brain, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press) (2014) p.82.

[3] Boal, Iain A; Retort (Organisation), Afflicted powers: capital and spectacle in a new age of war, (London: Verso) (2005) pp.101-102.

[4] Fraser, Nancy, Fortunes of Feminism:  From Sate-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis, (London: Verso) (2013) Part II, 6.

[5] Gill, Rosalind. ‘Postfeminism Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility’ European Journal of Cultural Studies 10:2 (2007) pp.147 – 166.

[6] Michalski, Milena& Gow, James, War, Image and Legitimacy: Viewing contemporary conflict, (London: Routledge) (2007) p.46.

[7] Boddy, Clive et al. ‘Extreme managers, extreme workplaces: Capitalism, organisations and corporate pyschopaths’, Organization 22:4 (2015).

[8] Nayman, Adam, ‘Find Me Guilty: Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing’. Cinema Scope Magazine. http://cinema-scope.com/cinema-scope-magazine/24-find-me-guilty-joshua-oppenheimers-the-act-of-killing/ , date accessed 10 February 2016.

[9] Ranciere, Jacques, The Emancipated Spectator, (London: Verso) (2009) p.66.

[10] Elwes, Catherine, Installation and the Moving Image, (London & New York: Wallflower Press) (2015) p.146.

[11] Farocki, Harun & Silverman, Kaja, Speaking About Godard, (New York: New York University Press) (1998) p.142.

[12] Halle, Randall. ‘History Is Not a Matter of Generations: Interview with Harun Farocki’, Camera Obscura 16 (2001) p.55.

[13] Getino, Octavio & Solanas, Fernando. ‘ Towards a Third Cinema’, Cineaste 4:3 (1970-71) p.1.

[14]  Väliaho, p.41.

[15] Sontag, Susan, Regarding the Pain of Others, (London: Penguin Books) (2003) p.84.

[16] Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle, (New York: Zone Books) (1994) p.6.

 

 

Technology and the War on Terror: Film and the Ambivalence of Transhumanism

Tatiana Prorokova

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 50-61.

 

Tatiana Prorokova

Philipps University of Marburg

 

Technology and the War on Terror:

Film and the Ambivalence of Transhumanism

 

 

Abstract:

 

The War on Terror declared by the U.S. government after 9/11 resulted in the two most technologically equipped invasions the country has ever launched: the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War. American soldiers were provided with newly designed uniforms and weapons, with the best defensive armour and night-vision equipment, off-road vehicles, helicopters, and tanks. These enabled them to dominate the enemy technologically and guaranteed success in combat, minimizing the risk of injury and death among Americans. Film responded to these changes, playing with the issue of technology in war. In analysing Bigelow’s war drama, The Hurt Locker, which focuses on U.S. military actions in Iraq, and Favreau’s sci-fi Iron Man, which raises the problem of Afghan terrorists and thus implicitly deals with the Afghanistan War, this article looks over the role of technology in war and investigates the blurred boundaries between humanity and machinery in the era of technology. Additionally, the article examines Bay’s Transformers and its sequels to see whether war machines possess humanity.

 

Key words: The War on Terror, technology, machine, transhumanism

 

 

Introduction: Film and the War on Terror

 

The terrifying terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the consequences they entailed have made the opening of the twenty-first century frightening and disquieting for the whole world—specifically for the United States. The U.S. government’s War on Terror has resulted in multiple military operations, the longest of which are the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The two wars in the Middle East can be considered a continuation of the long military history of the United States but, undoubtedly, they are especially noteworthy due to the novel techniques used in the conduct of warfare. The Afghanistan War and the Second Gulf War turned into the two most technologically advanced wars the United States has ever launched. Indeed, the variety and abundance of newly-designed uniforms, arms, equipment, gadgets, and vehicles strikes one’s imagination. The U.S. demonstrated its indisputable readiness to fight the enemy, thus avenging the deaths of thousands of innocent people on 9/11 and protecting the country’s foundational values of freedom and democracy. Whether these interventions were successful or worth it are complex questions, but one can say without demur that the United States counted on their soldiers’ obvious technological superiority over the enemy for the success of these military intrusions. As James S. Corum aptly puts it, “At the centre of modern U.S. military culture lies a belief in technological determinism: that technology is a central factor in warfare and that the country with the best technology is bound to win”; in terms of military planning, such an attitude is perhaps, as the scholar himself puts it, ‘wrong’.[1] Nevertheless, this idea vividly illustrates the so-called American cultural belief in the unconditional power of technology to guarantee unreserved superiority and dominance to its possessor.

American cinema is teeming with examples of this faith in technology—in its unlimited power and ability to defeat the enemy—no matter how strong, ruthless, and insidious that enemy may be. Whether one distinguishes between films about wars that actually took place and science-fiction films that depict endless fights between humanity and aliens, robots and monsters, or whether one considers the two genres together, taking war films in general as one broad media category, one can find multiple cinematic examples that appeared long before the War on Terror that deal with the issue of technology in war. There is obviously a long chain of sci-fi films: from James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) to James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) to Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996). Additionally, Hollywood dwelled on the importance of technology in films about real wars, which became especially prominent from the era of the Vietnam War onward, from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) to David O. Russell’s Three Kings (1999).

Technology has become an integral part of war: the battlefield is no longer considered the territory of humans as machines have started to play a significant role there, too. The two recent interventions in the Middle East, however, have clearly foregrounded the leading role of technology that, in turn, explains the impulse of the cinema of the War on Terror which unites films about the two wars with the sci-fi films that were released in the era of the War on Terror and to various degrees either explicitly or implicitly reflects it, showing the grotesque capabilities of technology in the twenty-first century. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008), Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor (2013), Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014), along with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 (2013), Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), and Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014), Shawn Levy’s Real Steel (2011), Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012), Peter Berg’s Battleship (2012), and Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) constitute a cluster of films that celebrate the new warfare and the era of new military technology.

The reason for this overt interest in technology and its role in war that action films and war dramas demonstrate is stipulated by the transformed nature of war. The ‘new’ war of the twenty-first century is peculiar due to the existence of the so-called faceless enemy which has been an impossible target for the U.S. and its allies since 9/11. It is thus unsurprising that when dealing with the problem of the global war, cinema vehemently attempts to present possible solutions for winning the war and eradicating terrorism. What 9/11 films have explicitly demonstrated is that the enemy is so elusive and strong that to win the war U.S. soldiers have to be technologically transformed. In other words, humans can never win the war on their own—in the twenty-first century we particularly strongly need advanced technology. Advancing this idea, action, sci-fi, and war films challenge the concept of the human body, suggesting that the ‘normal’ body is no longer needed, for it is not capable of successfully performing a military task. While terrorists are portrayed, in some way, as ‘freaks’, which ‘assures spectators that terrorism can be overcome’,[2] positive characters frequently, literally or metaphorically appear as superheroes who have to ‘com[e] to terms with their abilities, powers and bodies.’[3] Andrew Schopp makes an interesting observation, claiming that 9/11 induced the belief that “risk must always be managed, even if at some level we know that such management is impossible”.[4] One, therefore, might argue that the new, technologically advanced soldier skilfully turns the ‘impossible’ mission into a real one and, what is even more important, an accomplishable task.

The cinema of the War on Terror thus proposes an intriguing shift that war demands: the transformation of human participants into machines. Being overtly transhuman in their nature, these films not only approve of ‘cyborgization’, i.e. the ‘process of changing a human into a cyborg’,[5] but they see it as the only option that is available for the military today. The demand for a so-called transhuman, i.e. ‘a being which due to technological augmentations boosts its body and mind abilities far beyond the standards’,[6] foregrounds the power of technology and sees it as the only means to win the War on Terror. Some more explicitly than others, the cinematic examples that this article analyses demonstrate a crucial shift in the image of a soldier/fighter, thus overtly commenting on the problem of humanity and machinery that exists in times of war. But most importantly, they question the ability of humans to defeat the enemy, celebrating the power of machines.

 

The Rise of Technology

 

When one talks about the predominance of technological progress in the twenty-first century, one should of course realize that technology appeared much earlier than in the time of the War on Terror. Significantly, starting from primitive technologies from the far past and finishing with the high technologies of today, technology has always given privileges to its owner, facilitating social, political, economic, and educational development. Thomas J. Misa draws attention to ‘the several technologically marked historical epochs, such as the Bronze Age . . . [and] the Iron Age’.[7] Indeed, technology emerged when the first metal tools were created and widely applied. With the lapse of time, technology was improved and refined to such an extent that it now defines the status of its possessor and dictates the order in the world both in terms of military and economic domination. Richard Li-Hua claims:

 

Technology means state power to both developing and developed countries. Technology is regarded as a strategic instrument in achieving economic targets and in the creation of wealth and prosperity in developing countries, while technology is taken as an important vehicle to get large profits in developed countries. The effective use of technology is perhaps the most important issue faced by both developing and developed countries, and will undoubtedly become even more critical in years to come.[8]

 

Technology is therefore equated with power, and vice versa. Analysing Paul Virilio’s War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, Mark Lacy underscores a crucial observation made by the scholar:

 

Society is transformed by technologies that allow military leaders, police and policymakers to see the enemy before they arrive at the castle walls, before enemy ships arrive on the beaches, before the bombers arrive over our cities, before the terrorist arrives at the airport terminal.[9]

 

Daniel Sarewitz pinpoints the characteristic of technology as a manipulator and argues that “Power is the projection of human intent over other people, animals or things. Technology magnifies intent and makes it more reliable”.[10]

Yet, when considering the role of technology in war and its influence on modern warfare, it becomes clear that technology has stimulated progress on the battlefield, which allows one to define the war of the twenty-first century as a new, technologically advanced war that is more difficult to predict and at the same time easier yet harder to fight. Still, Sarewitz accentuates the ambivalence of the use of technology in war and the ultimate guarantee of superiority, accepting the idea of the ‘absolute supremacy in military technology’ of the U.S. as demonstrated in the Iraq War, but foregrounding the ambiguity of ‘the technology-power nexus’ and claiming that ‘the proximal objectives enabled by a technology—killing a soldier or destroying a building, for example—say little if anything about the power of that technology to facilitate broader outcomes, for example the compliance of one society to the will of another.’[11] Indeed, noticeable technological superiority on the battlefield may not and does not guarantee the same status in the political arena, yet it arguably plays in favour of the better-equipped side.

How does technology modernize war? Using the example of visual technology, Jose N. Vasquez contends that it ‘chang[es] the experience of war in dramatic ways’.[12] With the help of technology, soldiers are able to control the territory of the enemy and are more capable of protecting their own; they are able to fight at any time of the day and night, and they can reach the enemy from nearly every position—a feat which was hardly imaginable decades earlier. Vasquez speculates that “Conceptualized as ‘cyber warriors’, ‘cyborgs’, and ‘digital soldiers’, the futuristic war fighters once thought of as purely science fiction are gradually becoming reality”.[13] This fascinating observation prompts me to address the issues of humanity and machinery as well as their relations in the modern times of technology and war. Is the widespread dependence on technology in the army a sign of technological self-enslavement, and can this tendency be characterized by the assumption of Antoine Bousquet that the development and improvement of technology is “nothing less than an attempt to insulate the system from uncertainty by creating a perfectly controlled and perfectly stable . . . artificial world”?[14] Do soldiers turn into machines, thus becoming science-fiction superheroes in the real world? Can we speak about a phenomenon such as ‘human machines’ or does humanity remain important even in perhaps the most unattainable, unimaginable, equivocal, and savage state—in war?

 

Humans or Machines? The Hurt Locker and Iron Man

 

Who are the soldiers of the twenty-first century, humans or machines? And whose victory is ultimately expected? Film provides a detailed and fascinating overview of the issue. I would like to focus on Bigelow’s war drama The Hurt Locker, which deals with the actual war in Iraq and Favreau’s action film Iron Man, which touches upon the issue of the war in Afghanistan.

The opening scene of The Hurt Locker, which immerses the audience into the world of a technologically advanced war, is the most memorable. Spectators are forced to see the action through the eyes of a robot driving through a street in Baghdad. As the picture is distorted, we realize that it is not a soldier but a robot that provides the overview of the locality. The camera moves and reveals a unit of soldiers arriving and taking their positions and then returns to the robot, thus making it evident that the mechanical character is as important to the operation as the human soldiers. The picture is distorted several times more before the director reveals that the robot is operated by a soldier. With the help of the robot, the soldiers find out what kind of bomb is planted nearby, and therefore are able to plan their further actions. They fasten a small cart to the robot and send it back to the bomb but, dramatically, the cart breaks on its way, demonstrating the imperfection of technology, and a sapper has to continue carrying out the operation. The audience observes Staff Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) being dressed in a special suit designed to protect him from the blast wave. The camera lingers for an instant and, as soon as the helmet is on and carefully fixed, the soldier is ready to perform the mission. The scene is fascinating as it arguably raises the issue of the human and robotic characteristics of the modern soldier. The suit makes him look rather unnatural, as if he himself is another technological innovation of the U.S. army. As he raises his head to see a helicopter, the audience is forced to see through his eyes and although the picture is not as heavily distorted as it was in the scene filmed through the robot’s camera, there is still something that disturbs our vision, i.e. the helmet’s transparent plastic visor; although the visor allows us to see everything, it makes the picture blurry enough to realize that we are looking though a barrier and there is a black frame around our field of vision. The soldier, therefore, represents a human being locked inside a technological product; he becomes part of that technology—a robot that breathes. What makes the ‘robot’ ultimately a human is his dramatized death as the bomb is activated by one of the locals. Trying to escape the fatal ending, the soldier runs as fast as the suit allows him, but he is finally caught by the blast wave. As he falls down in slow motion, spectators notice the transparent part of the helmet covered with blood from the inside.

The soldier is substituted by a new sapper, which is a rather regular case in the army as newcomers take the places of those who die. However, such a ‘conveyer belt’ system allows for another interpretation, namely that just as a robot, machine, or gadget can break down and then be substituted, so can a human being, with the crucial difference that unlike a technological product, a human-being cannot be repaired. There are multiple scenes in the film where a new sapper deactivates a bomb, but I would like to underscore their importance to our understanding of the issue of humanity and machinery. The changing scenes—from the normal human interaction to the transformation of a soldier into a sapper who visually resembles a robot—are disturbing. Additionally, they reveal the ambiguity of the main character’s (Sergeant First Class William James, played by Jeremy Renner) nature. His fearlessness and calmness that often resemble indifference elevate him beyond an average human-being, thus hinting at his supernatural or hi-tech abilities that will allow him to stay alive, no matter what happens. At the same time, his care for a local boy as well as the presence of his wife and baby at the end of the film show James as a rather conventional human who has feelings. The film’s ending, however, contradicts this characterization as we observe smiling James in a sapper’s suit walking towards his next mission in Iraq, which he has volunteered for. He therefore gives up his ‘human’ life, choosing one enabled by technology. Thus, Bigelow’s words that The Hurt Locker reveals “dehumanising and humanising aspects of war” can, indeed, be interpreted in terms of the war and its constituent parts’ (one of which is undoubtedly technology) ability to not only control but also suppress the human side, turning soldiers into machines, both psychologically and physically.[15]

The story of Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), the main character of Iron Man, is somewhat reminiscent of the story of the sappers from The Hurt Locker. Considering the issue of the Afghanistan War and American participation in it, Iron Man is an apt example of an action film that explicitly deals with the duality of a war participant. Tony Stark, a wealthy businessman, creates an iron suit that he puts on every time the world is in danger. At the beginning, the film makes the story as plain as possible: there is a human-being inside of a highly technological, practically indestructible iron suit that accurately resembles the shape of a human body. Every time Tony communicates with somebody, he uncovers his face so that the audience is always aware that it is a human that interacts, takes decisions, argues, smiles, in short, performs all the actions that are typical of people. However, there is a nuance that is not to be neglected, namely that the suit is bonded to Tony (or is Tony bonded to the suit?) with the help of an electromagnet that was installed in Tony’s body when he was captured in Afghanistan, and later improved into a powerful reactor by Tony himself. What at first looks like Tony’s hobby later turns into an addiction that connects him and the suit so tightly that both the audience and Tony himself have difficulty distinguishing when Tony is a human and when he is a powerful superhero. Tony, whose high-tech weapons have guaranteed power and dominance to their possessors and fear to the ones at which they are targeted, now himself turns into such a high-tech weapon. Indeed, in the course of all the three parts of the film, Tony fights terrorists, criminals, and other bad guys, posing danger to them only when he is reincarnated as Iron Man.

In Iron Man 2, Tony goes as far as declaring: “I am Iron Man. The suit and I are one”.[16] Tony’s general condition, however, worsens as the suit negatively influences his health and it becomes clear that if Tony does not stop being Iron Man, he will simply die. The generator that is mounted right in his chest and that figuratively stands for the heart of Iron Man, is slowly killing Tony and, thus, Tony’s powerful second self. Therefore, the question of whether to remain as Iron Man or to return to ordinary life should be rather easy to settle in such a situation; Tony, however, tries to figure out a way to continue being a superhero. Although Tony’s human qualities (such as devotion, his desire to protect his dearest ones, his ability to love, his patriotism, and his decision not to speculate and purely gain profit from his arms business, but to care for the well-being others) construct Tony as a human superhero; his robotic side also gets a lot of attention. We often find him in his laboratory where he creates all kinds of technologically advanced gadgets and robots. The laboratory is literally the place where Tony feels at home, surrounded by all the iron constructions and creatures that communicate with him. Tony, therefore, is presented as someone who gets more and more involved in the world of technology, inevitably alienating himself from the world of humans.

Tony’s addiction to the iron suit strengthens in Iron Man 3, where virtually at the beginning of the film he feels a physical and emotional bond to it, suffering from ‘anxiety attacks’[17] any time he does not wear it and feeling comfortable and protected each time he is inside it. One can speculate that the reason for his fear of vulnerability is virtually a consequence of the events of The Avengers (2012), in which he was very nearly killed. Tony becomes even more involved in the world of machines that are, indeed, living creatures for him. Thus, we observe him placing the uncharged suit on the sofa in a way that he thinks the iron suit would find comfortable; showing compassion in the scene where a boy breaks off the suit’s finger, assuming that the suit can actually feel the pain. Tony stops sleeping, which represents his inconceivable physical endurance; he acknowledges that his suits are ‘part of’[18] him and, indeed, this is how he is finally perceived by his girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who, although struggling to accept the technological self of her boyfriend, upon finding the helmet, holds it close to herself thinking of Tony, as she assumes this is the only bit of him left after the brutal fight.

The Iron Man trilogy, therefore, is an important work that raises the questions of machinery and humanity in war. Unlike The Hurt Locker, however, it provides a radically different answer to the question: who wins? Tony Stark’s humanity apparently wins over the technological, mechanical self of Iron Man as, at the end of the third part, we observe Tony throwing his generator into the ocean, thus demonstrating his acceptance of humanity and rejection of the robotic side for good. The same happens to the U.S. army (that with Tony’s help became largely equipped with iron suits, turning into the most frightening army on the planet) when Tony takes the decision to liquidate all the robots that he created. Iron Man, therefore, makes a clear appeal to the audience: it is easy to fight against the enemy with the help of technology; however, it can also become our enemy as it deprives us of our humanity, turning us into machines that are not able to enjoy the privileges of human life.

 

Transformers: Humanity in Machines

 

Investigating the transformation of humans into machines, I inevitably address the opposite issue, namely whether machines in war can possess humanity. To examine the problem, I have chosen to analyse a recent series of films that are primarily concerned with machines, demonstrating the flourishing of the technological era and, as a result, of technological progress; the film series in question is Michael Bay’s Transformers and its sequels.

The four films released so far can and should be treated as one story of relations between robots and human-beings. The film’s most apparent message is that technology today is much cleverer, less biased, and somewhat more humane than humans themselves. The Autobots are arguably represented as the only truly good characters in the film (perhaps with the exception of a small group of people that includes Sam (Shia LaBeouf) and his friends). Their reason for being on Earth is to protect the human race from the evil Decepticons. They exist as a small group of robots that resembles a family in which everyone is ready to help, protect, and care for each other. More than that, their desire to save people (who in the course of the film do not seem to be very thankful for this, preferring to exploit the robots rather than treat them as equals or accept their technological superiority) stands for the robots’ ability to feel love, devotion, responsibility, and compassion. There are a number of scenes in the film when, by means of contrasting a robot and a human, the director shows a tremendous difference between the two, accentuating humanity in robots and a certain inhumanity in a humans. For example, in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, we witness an Autobot pining because his friend Sam has to leave him to go to college, whereas later in the scene, Sam fails to say, ‘I love you’[19] to his girlfriend, which provokes a tense dialogue between the two. Thus, it is easier for a robot to express emotions rather than for a human.

All the robots in Transformers and its sequels represent a specific race—a race of ‘intelligent mechanical beings’[20], as they call themselves. Indeed, their intellect and thinking abilities are striking, but what is more fascinating is their uncanny resemblance to the human race. First, the robots look very similar to humans: they have a body, limbs, a head, and a face. The robots are not clumsy despite their huge size; when they fight, they can literally feel pain; when they get a punch in the face, they spit out liquid that looks very much like a mixture of blood and spit; as mentioned earlier, they can cry; they also can propagate, as we witness in a scene in which multiple cocoons are revealed; finally, robots grow old and suffer from typically human health problems. Their inner qualities are peculiar too: the robots are humanly superior, as unlike people they all possess moral qualities and very often are shown judging humans, making them behave and act better. “It’s inhumane is what it is!”[21] complains a robot that Sam locked outside in the rain. Indeed, according to Transformers, these are machines that possess humanity, whereas human beings do not.

This interpretation, however, may change dramatically if we consider Terence McSweeney’s suggestion that Transformers is a vivid projection of 9/11 in which the Decepticons stand for real terrorists.[22] In this case, the Autobots represent humans who fight against terrorists. But then it remains unclear who the real people in Transformers are. Therefore, I propose examining the film not as a pure metaphor of the world after 9/11, but in terms of its treatment of technological progress. In this case, the film sends a clear message that machines could develop into such highly intelligent creatures that they will become more perfect than humans in all aspects.

 

Conclusion: Humans. Or Machines?

 

In a time of high-tech wars, the question whether humanity and machinery have become equal or whether one prevails over the other remains a complex issue. Despina Kakoudaki interprets “the tendency to imagine the artificial body as a mechanical, rather than organic, entity” in terms of neutralization of ‘human vulnerability’.[23] Arguably, this is a pivotal aspect to consider when dealing with the issues of humanity and machinery. Vulnerability, or perhaps also victimization, therefore, are not to be treated as purely physical aspects (although they are, indeed, here); as The Hurt Locker, the Iron Man trilogy and the Transformers series illustrate, emotions are one of the most crucial characteristics that define humanity. Thus, those who can feel are considered humane whether or not they are humans or machines. Technological progress, indeed, changes humans. While technology develops into more and better products, humans transform as well. The complexity of the issue will hardly ever allow anybody to provide a single answer to the problem of humanity and machinery. The analysed cinematic examples, however, do not give up on the human race, but underline the difficulty of remaining true humans in the era of technology.

 

References

 

Bousquet Antoine, The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity, (London: Hurst & Company) (2009).

Corum James S., Fighting the War on Terror: A Counterinsurgency Strategy, (St. Paul: MBI Publishing and Zenith Press) (2007).

Holden Lisa, and Fran Pheasant-Kelly, “Freak-Show Aesthetics and the Politics of Disfigurement: Reconfiguring the Cinematic Terrorist in the Post-9/11 Era”, in Reflecting 9/11: New Narratives in Literature, Television, Film and Theatre, ed. Heather E. Pope and Victoria M. Bryan (New Castle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) (2016).

Iron Man (Jon Favreau, Paramount Pictures) (2008).

Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, Paramount Pictures) (2010).

Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures) (2013).

Kakoudaki Despina, Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press) (2014).

Lacy Mark, Security, Technology and Global Politics: Thinking with Virilio, (London: Routledge) (2014).

Li-Hua Richard, “Definitions of Technology”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing) (2009).

McSweeney Terence, The ‘War on Terror’ and American Film: 9/11 Frames per Second, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2014).

Michalczak Rafał, “Transhuman and Posthuman – On Relevance of ‘Cyborgisation’ on Legal and Ethical Issues”, 25th IVR World Congress Law Science and Technology, Paper Series 084: C (2012).

Misa Thomas J., “History of Technology”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology. ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing) (2009).

Purse Lisa, Contemporary Action Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2011).

Sarewitz Daniel, “Technology and Power”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing) (2009).

Schopp Andrew, “Interrogating the Manipulation of Fear: V for Vendetta, Batman Begins, Good Night, and Good Luck, and America’s ‘War on Terror”, in The War on Terror and American Popular Culture: September 11 and Beyond, ed. Andrew Schopp and Matthew B. Hill (Madison: Rosemont Publishing) (2009).

Tasker Ivonne, The Hollywood Action and Adventure Film, (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell) (2015).

The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, Summit Entertainment) (2008).

Transformers (Michael Bay, Paramount Pictures) (2007).

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Michael Bay, Paramount Pictures) (2009).

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Michael Bay, Paramount Pictures) (2011).

Transformers: Age of Extinction (Michael Bay,Paramount Pictures) (2014).

Vasquez Jose N., “Seeing Green: Visual Technology, Virtual Reality, and the Experience of War”, in An Anthropology of War: Views from the Frontline, ed. Alisse Waterston (New York: Berghahn Books) (2009).

 

 

[1] James S. Corum, Fighting the War on Terror: A Counterinsurgency Strategy, (St. Paul: MBI Publishing and Zenith Press) (2007). p. 117.

[2]Lisa Holden, and Fran Pheasant-Kelly, “Freak-Show Aesthetics and the Politics of Disfigurement: Reconfiguring the Cinematic Terrorist in the Post-9/11 Era”, in Reflecting 9/11: New Narratives in Literature, Television, Film and Theatre, ed. Heather E. Pope and Victoria M. Bryan (New Castle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016), p. 200.

[3] Ivonne Tasker, The Hollywood Action and Adventure Film, (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell) (2015). p. 180. My italics.

[4] Andrew Schopp, “Interrogating the Manipulation of Fear: V for Vendetta, Batman Begins, Good Night, and Good Luck, and America’s ‘War on Terror”, in The War on Terror and American Popular Culture: September 11 and Beyond, ed. Andrew Schopp and Matthew B. Hill (Madison: Rosemont Publishing, 2009), p. 261.

 

[5] Rafał Michalczak, “Transhuman and Posthuman – On Relevance of ‘Cyborgisation’ on Legal and Ethical Issues”, 25th IVR World Congress Law Science and Technology, Paper Series 084: C (2012), p. 2.

[6] Rafał Michalczak., p. 4.

[7] Thomas J. Misa, “History of Technology”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), p. 9.

[8] Richard Li-Hua, “Definitions of Technology”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), p. 18.

[9] Mark Lacy, Security, Technology and Global Politics: Thinking with Virilio, (London: Routledge) (2014), p. 79.

[10] Daniel Sarewitz, “Technology and Power”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), p. 308.

[11] Daniel Sarewitz, pp. 309-310.

[12] Jose N. Vasquez, “Seeing Green: Visual Technology, Virtual Reality, and the Experience of War”, in An Anthropology of War: Views from the Frontline, ed. Alisse Waterston (New York: Berghahn Books, 2009), p. 87.

[13] Jose N. Vasquez, pp. 88-89.

[14] Antoine Bousquet, The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity, (London: Hurst & Company) (2009), p. 11.

[15] Quoted in Lisa Purse, Contemporary Action Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2011), p. 162.

[16] Iron Man 2 (2010, Jon Favreau).

[17] Iron Man 3 (2013, Shane Black).

[18] Iron Man 3 (2013, Shane Black).

[19] Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009, Michael Bay).

[20] Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011, Michael Bay).

[21] Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011, Michael Bay).

[22] Terence McSweeney, The ‘War on Terror’ and American Film: 9/11 Frames per Second, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2014), p. 139.

[23] Despina Kakoudaki, Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press) (2014), p. 69.

Unseen war? Hackers, tactical media, and their depiction in Hollywood cinema

Marta Stańczyk

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 62-77.

Marta Stańczyk

Jagiellonian University

 

 

Unseen war? Hackers, tactical media, and their depiction in Hollywood cinema

 

 

The geeks have emerged in politics.
(Tim Jordan, Activism! Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Society)

The feelings of vulnerability, fear of the unknown, and embarrassment that feed the hysterical reaction to hackers also lead to the fetishizing of hackers in popular culture.
(Tor Ekeland, Hacker Madness)

Abstract

 

Emerging controversies about WikiLeaks’ contribution to Donald Trump’s electoral triumph and the ongoing persona-non-grata status of Edward Snowden highlight the notion of hacking in the modern world. Hackers used to be dualistically stereotyped on one hand as black hats, criminals and cyberpunk/cypherpunk hidden figures, and on the other as whistle-blowers, open access activists and hacktivists whose actions are potentially subversive. Film coverage of hackers and their tactics shows a paranoid and militarized vision of the world, with grey eminence often depicted either as a threat, or as survivors. Hence, from WarGames (1983, John Bedham), TRON (1982, Steven Lisberger) and Hackers (1995, Iain Softley) to The Fifth Estate (2013, Bill Condon), Live Free or Die Hard (2007, Len Wiseman) to Jason Bourne (2016, Paul Greengrass), hacking seems to have emerged as the avant-garde of militarized social space—as its main weapon and fundamental defence. Pop culture feeds itself with this ambiguity as long as it accommodates the dualistic needs of its receivers: a countercultural anti-hero becomes a scapegoat while a general sense of insecurity predominates. Distrust in technology and underground experts is simultaneous with redemption narratives about disclosing corporate/state/elite conspiracies and is heavily influenced by current non-cinematic events. This paper is an examination of hackers’ cultural impact and their connection with tactical media through subversive actions. It becomes essential to decode their manipulated or simplified public image, especially with ongoing progressive politicization of hacking and its significance.

 

Key words: electronic civil disobedience, hack, hacker, hacktivism, tactical media

 

 

Introduction

 

Surfacing controversies about WikiLeaks’ contribution to Donald Trump’s electoral triumph, the commuting of Chelsea Manning’s sentence, or the ongoing Edward Snowden’s persona-non-grata status highlight the notion of hacking in the modern world. Hackers were stereotyped as black hats, criminals, and cyberpunk hidden figures for a long time, until the media and popular culture emphasized the potential subversiveness in their actions as whistle-blowers and free software and open source (FOSS) activists. Nowadays, on the one hand, they more often tend to be depicted as the last men standing; maybe antisocial, but driven by the virtuous ideological motives of a desire for justice, patriotism, anti-globalist protests, a sense of freedom, etc. On the other hand, with their excellent coding abilities, they are a part of information warfare (IW), threatening the inner harmony of social life and protecting citizens’ privacy. Film coverage of hackers and their tactics redistributes a paranoid and militarized vision of the world, with hidden figures often depicted either as a potential threat, or as survivors; either as a weapon in the fight against plutocracy, or as a technocratic nightmare.

“Hackers induce hysteria. They are the unknown, the terrifying, the enigma. The enigma that can breach and leak the deepest secrets (…). You feel vulnerable and it feels as though what happened is black magic”[1]; this quotation shows that the elaborate nature of hacking practice can cause its pathologization and even demonization. Rejecting such a perspective, this paper tries to locate hackers in a more neutral, objective discourse and to decode the biased opinions which fuel cinematic depictions of programmers pushing back the frontiers of technology. My case studies of movies together with real events and their media coverage are influenced especially by Tim Jordan’s research on hacker culture, community, ethics, and political agenda. He describes hacking as the act of computer intrusion, but he simultaneously accentuates that this intrusion does not have criminal motivations—its core is a tech-savviness. A good hack is original and autonomous; an activity is more important than the results, it extends the regular computer usage and is made in a joyful atmosphere, but “[h]acking has become associated in the mass media with illicit computer intrusion rather than with innovative uses of technology. This has led to the definition of cracking, a term many hackers use to refer to unwanted entry into computer systems by explorers or criminals”.[2] This differentiation has led Jordan to distinguish three fundamental notions about hacking: “there is the hacker who breaks into computer systems; the hackers who write software; and hacking as the essence of twenty-first century creativity”.[3]

Today hacking is often more of a cultural than a technological asset; it “is the way of understanding what is possible, sensible, and ethical in the twenty-first century”[4], therefore it becomes essential to decode its manipulated or simplified public image, especially with the ongoing progressive politicization of hackers and their significance. First of all, they are treated as a threat to social and private security due to the state engagement of hackers in cyberwar, IW and the sabotaging of other countries. Secondly, their actions are legally prohibited. Thirdly, hacking is by nature political due to its subversive use of media and reversing of power relations. And finally, hackers increasingly frequent collaboration with social activism has initiated hacktivism; hacking “turns into a form of ‘warfare’ (…) hackers engage in to advance their political agendas”.[5] Jordan describes hacktivists as “political activists, most often associated with the alter-globalisation movement, who utilize hacking techniques to create grassroots activist political campaigns. Hacktivists produce both ephemeral electronic civil disobedience actions (…) and try to create infrastructures of secure anonymous communication often to support human rights workers”.[6] So, hackers can be both agents of difference and change, and criminally-inclined “black hats” or crackers. Moreover, Hollywood cinema accentuates the tension between cyberterrorism and hacktivism; narratives fluctuate from these taking advantage of the militarization of cyberspace and paranoiac spirits (especially since 9/11) to redemptive ones that disclose corporate/state/elite conspiracies. Hence (cinematic) hacking seems to emerge as the avant-garde of militarized social space, its main weapon, and a fundamental defence. Pop culture feeds itself with this ambiguity as long as it accommodates the dualistic needs of its audience—a countercultural anti-hero becomes a scapegoat while a general sense of insecurity predominates.[7]

 

They’re stealing the Internet![8]

 

Hacking culture emerged in the 60s within American universities, but only two decades later did cinema find a formula for depicting computer geeks. In the 80s—with its hi-tech excitement, youth culture, and popularity of the IBM PC and other technological gadgets (e.g. the fetishized Power Glove[9])—the faith in information technology’s limitless potential and the sense of overriding fun were all-pervading. Although in Superman 3 (1983, Richard Lester), a hacker constructed a supercomputer in order to defeat the protagonist, coding had previously been used primarily as a tool of entertainment for movie characters (Revenge of the Nerds [1984, Jeff Kanew]; Weird Science [1985, John Hughes]). In TRON (1982, Steven Lisberger) Master Control’s predatory needs were justified by the real-life villain’s greed and in Electric Dreams (1984, Steve Barron) the PC and the protagonist were rivals over a woman. Even in WarGames (1983, John Badham) a military central computer appeared to be not maleficent but wrongly programmed. However, these optimistic narratives simplified hacking itself, presenting it as a movie gimmick rather than a process requiring professional skills. Depictions of hacking in 80s Hollywood cinema were often misunderstood and misleading. Repeating a random command such as “Access database” seemed to be sufficient for breaking into any system, thus making coding skills redundant.[10]

In the 90s modern angst emerged. There were still some gimmick hacks (as in Jurassic Park [1993, Steven Spielberg] or Universal Soldier: The Return [1999, Mic Rodgers][11]), sci-hack flicks (the absurd The Lawnmower Man [1992, Brett Leonard]) and genre recreation of hacking motives (for example, the corporate thriller The Net [1995, Irwin Winkler], comedy Office Space [1999, Mike Judge], and heist movie Sneakers [1992, Phil Alden Robinson]), but some Baudrillardist movies were indicative of the sense of paranoia: Johnny Mnemonic (1995, Robert Longo), The Thirteenth Floor (1999, Josef Rusnak) and especially The Matrix trilogy (1999, 2003 and 2003, The Wachowskis). Hackers began to be perceived as a threat for common citizens whose lives were affected by information technology to the point where it became an immanent element of their day-to-day reality. The Ashley Madison data breach,[12] the Sony Pictures Entertainment hack,[13] Silk Road’s embezzlement,[14] or Celebgate[15] all are scandals which undermined cybersecurity and net neutrality.

Hackers—although they should be called crackers for their criminal inclinations— occurred as hidden figures thinking only about their profits and capitalizing on their digital supremacy by preying on the malfunctions of omnipresent technology. Moreover, cybercrime gangs and state-backed hackers[16] joined the information warfare (which is defined as a “conflict or struggle between two or more groups in the information environment”[17]). In the case of cyberwarfare particularly, computers and networks are main targets and are struck by cyberattacks, espionage (depicted and revealed in Snowden [2016, Oliver Stone] or Jason Bourne [2016, Paul Greengrass]), sabotage (the disruption of equipment which is shown in Live Free or Die Hard [2007, Len Wiseman] among others), or DDoS attacks (the Distributed Denial-of-Service attacks that finds their most iconic representation in Hackers [1995, Iain Softley]). In 2009, President Barack Obama declared America’s digital infrastructure to be a “strategic national asset”.[18] On the one hand, cyberwar is often safer and reduces losses in people and infrastructure, as was the case of the American attacks on Iraqi communications networks in the Gulf War. On the other hand, it encourages illegal actions. During the aforementioned war, Dutch hackers stole information about U.S. troop movements from U.S. Defense Department computers and tried to sell it to the Iraqis, who thought it was a hoax and turned it down. Nowadays such an offer would be taken more seriously. Other threats are for example viruses and worms such as the infamous Stuxnet, “the world’s first digital weapon”,[19] which installed a rootkit on Windows OS. This was later believed to be an effect of American-Israeli cooperation against Iran’s nuclear facilities.[20] As Eugene Kaspersky, founder of Kaspersky Lab, said, “[t]he term ‘cyber-war’ is used by many to describe the situation, but that term—which implies that there are two equal, known enemies duking it out—is outmoded. With today’s attacks, you are clueless about who did it or when they will strike again. It’s not cyber-war, but cyberterrorism”.[21]

The threat seems ominous; therefore, in this situation hackers have commonly been criminalized, especially after the September 11 attacks, when the sense of paranoia became predominant. “Since 9/11, however, many liberal democratic states around the world have adopted legislation that ‘…paves the way for a far more permissive environment for electronic surveillance…’, and the online surveillance of activist communities as a way of policing social movements and stifling political protest is a growing concern for activists under traditionally repressive regimes and in Western democracies alike.”[22] The persecution of hackers, for example Fidel Salinas[23] and Jeremy Hammond[24], or Barack Obama’s attitude towards Edward Snowden show a state-based hysteria about any hack regardless of its motivations.[25] But whistle-blowers and hacktivists undermine the social trust in law and order, exposing state and media misuses: infiltration, invigilation, gatekeeping and hacking itself.[26] Moreover, as is written on the “Exposing the Invisible” webpage, “[p]eople are newly empowered to uncover hidden information, expose corruption and bring the truth to light”,[27] taking advantage of their anonymity and subverting power relations.

 

Hack the planet!

 

Hackers are often more socially accepted, as represented by the popularization of hacking conferences (H.O.P.E., DefCon), makerspaces, Hackathons and the Internet Protection Movement. There are even training courses for hackers that end with the certificate of Ethical Hackers.[28] FOSS’ flagship products—Firefox and GNU/Linux—“have both significant symbolic effects (in providing the ability of FOSS methods to create complex, stable programs) and market effects (providing significant alternatives of quality and freedom to commercial dominance)”.[29] Hackers engage themselves in fighting for social change not only through free software and open source principles The threat posed on the digital freedom was an inspiration for acts of electronic civil disobedience (ECD).[30] More and more social activists appropriate the tactical media manifesto written by Geert Lovink: “Tactical media are media of crisis, criticism and opposition. This is both the source [of] their power, (‘anger is an energy’: John Lydon), and their limitation. Their typical heroes are the activist, nomadic media warriors, the prankster, the hacker, the street rapper, the camcorder kamikaze; they are the happy negatives, always in search of an enemy. (…) [C]onsumers use the texts and artefacts that surround us (…) ‘tactically’. That is, in far more creative and rebellious ways than had previously been imagined.”[31]

Hacktivism can be understood as “activism! running free in the electronic veins that enliven our 21st-century, global socio-economies”.[32] Digitally-founded social actions are “a qualified form of humanism”[33] and they aim to create the space for “netizens”,[34] nevertheless hacking is conducted mainly by people with excellent coding skills who try to inspire social change by translating political thought into code. The most notorious groups in the United States are Anonymous and LulzSec. Julian Assange has been posting classified documents on WikiLeaks to call for “privacy of the weak, transparency for the powerful”.[35] In 1996, the Critical Art Ensemble recognized the politicization of cybersphere. In 1998, the Electronic Disturbance Theatre shared FloodNet, which was a tool enabling acts of (electronic) civil disobedience. And in 1999, the CULT OF THE DEAD COW (cDc) launched the Hacktivismo group, whose main goal was fighting for access to information as an expression of human rights. The group explained their mission in “The Hacktivismo Declaration” and “The Hacktivismo FAQ”. A few paragraphs from the latter should be evoked here as a representative of hactivists’ goals and hacker culture:

Q: What do you mean by the word “hacktivism”, then?

A: The provenance of hacktivism winds back to Omega – a longstanding member of the cDc – who started using it as a joke to describe on-line protest actions. Oxblood appropriated the word and began using it with a straight face; then many journalists, fading stars of the Left, and eventually script kiddies picked up on it, all claiming to know what hacktivism meant. It has been a noun in search of a verb for some time now. Oxblood once defined hacktivism as “an open-source implosion”, and now he’s added “disruptive compliance” to its range of description.

Q: What the hell are you talking about? I’m just looking for a simple answer here.

A: Hold your kimono, cupcake. O.K., hacktivism is the use of technology to advance human rights through electronic media.[36]

This short excerpt from cDc’s FAQ emphasizes not only the mission and motivations of Hacktivismo and similar groups, but also their slightly anarchistic, ironic style, anonymity linked with peer recognition and alternate, partly hidden communicating platforms such as IRC. It is the “performance of technology”[37] that interested the movie industry. Hacking has an allure which spread not only among whitehats involved in cybersecurity or computer geeks, but also film producers. However, hackers are still stereotyped and treated as public enemies because of their abilities, common illicitness and anonymity symbolized by Guy Fawkes’ mask.

 

Hollywood OS: bio-digital jazz[38]

 

“Most hackers do it for the challenge, thrill, and social fun. (…) [I]t [hacker culture] reconfigures technology and social relations by subverting the rules, laws, and social norms regarding the use of technology. It works in opposition to monopolistic, capitalist, statist regulation and perception of the new technologies.”[39] Hacker culture, while maybe not as cyberpunk or cypherpunk as in Hackers, has risen from a vivacious cleverness and striving for intellectual challenges amongst students, especially from MIT. The Social Network (2010, David Fincher) is a contemporary movie that redistributes that sense of adventurous experiments with emerging technology. Hackers have their ethics inspired by the notions of information sharing, freedom of inquiry, unlimited availability of (digital) tools and democratic ideals, in sheer opposition to cybercrimes, cracking, and all black hat activities.[40] Simultaneously, media depictions of hacking are frequently unjust, although not always deliberately.

As Cory Doctorow from MIT Media Lab points out: “[t]he persistence until now [until the premiere of Mr. Robot, 2015–, series – M.S.] of what the geeks call ‘Hollywood OS,’ in which computers do impossible things just to drive the plot, hasn’t just resulted in bad movies. It’s confused people about what computers can and can’t do. (…) The worst thing about WarGames [in which a teenager broke into NORAD’s mainframe, nearly causing a nuclear escalation – M.S.] – and its most profound legacy – was the reaction of panicked lawmakers. (…) The CFAA took an exceptionally broad view of what constitutes criminal ‘hacking,’ making a potential felon out of anyone who acquires unauthorized access to a computer system”.[41] Stephanie Schulte says that “the release of the film ‘WarGames’ helped merge Cold War anxieties with those involving teenage rebellion”.[42] Relatively soon after its premiere, public opinion, IT specialists and lawyers were surprised by the so-called Morris worm (1988), but this was cinema itself that strengthened law related to cybercrimes, causing penalisation (and even criminalisation) of young programmers—as was evident during the Obama administration—and had its peak in Aaron Swartz’s suicide after he was charged with thirteen felonies, the result of using his own script to download files from the JSTOR repository.[43]

Swartz’s story was depicted emphatically in The Internet’s Own Boy (2014, Brian Knappenberger). Modern documentaries are actually very committed to legitimatising hackers’ actions, but mainstream Hollywood cinema is still abundant in iniquitous representations. Hack flicks distort the image of hackers, their personality and hacking itself, which is reduced to fast typing and simply playing a game (Hackers, TRON, or Masterminds [1997, Roger Christian]). Hackers use multiple windows whose abundance is representative of the hacker’s skills; they talk with personified viruses,[44] they give nonsense explanations in which they merge random parts of IT vernacular[45] when locked in their mother’s basement with a myriad of screens, wires and bobbleheads (provoking wisecrack comments from the old guard, like John McClane in Live Free or Die Hard). The sole process of hacking is compressed and reduced to erratic typing from which multidimensional visual data or Nmap graphics emerge in order to cover the boring truth about the nature of coding. Hollywood representations eliminate not only the wearisome writing of lines of illegible code, but also software and hardware parameters or social engineering that are necessary to gain access to most accounts. Hackers are not modern sorcerers, although their depictions show the contrary. One of the most frequent and absurd sentences in hack flicks is “Hack the mainframe!”[46], hackers have supernatural computer intuition (as Stanley in Swordfish [2001, Dominic Sena]) and they are often vindictive masterminds (which is the case of Skyfall [2012, Sam Mendes], Untraceable [2008, Gregory Hoblit], GoldenEye [1995, Martin Campbell], Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol [2011, Brad Bird] and so on). And even if they are shown in a more psychologically-motivated way, filmmakers annihilate realism with a high level of aestheticization. For example, in Takedown (2000, Joe Chappelle) the process of hacking is shown through multiple exposures in which the protagonist is merely engulfed by code. Similar poetics are used in Hackers, in which film characters’ faces are changed into screens with mathematical equations on them. The film adds to that the transformation of New York into optical fibres and an embodied virus that is a half-naked man with long hair. And while Blackhat (2015, Michael Mann) tries to show code’s architecture through a simple figuration of links, wires, optical fibres and electrical impulses, TRON and TRON: Legacy (2010, Joseph Kosinsky) create autonomous worlds on the grid where duels, races and power games take place. No wonder Mr. Robot, with its social engineering, legitimate use of IT tools and jargon (ShellShock bug, onion routing, tor networking, rootkit, etc.), or accurate representations of hacker culture (more realistic and down-to-earth than the cyberpunk universe developed in Hackers) has gained words of approval not merely from critics, but also from programmers, cybersecurity professionals, and even Anonymous.[47]

The image of computers as black boxes or magical crates is dangerous [48] and leaves viewers awed when confronted with someone who recognizes deep technological structures, especially in the age of total digitalization and web 2.0. Hackers could be depicted in an even more “analogue” way—as they are in heist movies (Sneakers, The Italian Job [2003, F. Gary Gray], Swordfish, or Coin Heist [2017, Emily Hagins]), where they are often only a small part of crooks’ operations—but the black hat image remains. Hackers as antisocial, alienated, predominantly male[49] hidden figures seem to threaten society with their menacing invisibility and immanence (related to technological immanence itself). People’s privacy is identified as being most vulnerable to cyber activity; hence the popularity of ghost hacking’s motive has risen, resulting in such movies as Ghost in the Shell (1995, Mamoru Oshii, and 2017, Rupert Sanders), Inception (2011, Christopher Nolan), Source Code (2011, Duncan Jones) or even The Lawnmower Man and Johnny Mnemonic. The whistle-blowers’ activities which exposed many state or corporate abuses of privacy were a turning point in the social image of hackers, or rather hacktivists. Their pursuit of their own vision of justice, patriotism (as shown by Oliver Stone in Snowden) and freedom has gained them support as watchmen and as the last men standing.

Hackers with their subversive potential have become pop cultural icons, as is apparent in their biopics and cameos. Steve Jobs and Silicon Valley’s moguls are not the only epitome of information technology because filmmakers depict net activists juxtaposing the open source movement[50] with the corporate establishment. Takedown tells the story of Kevin Mitnick. Although based on a book by Tsutomu Shimomura, Mitnick’s main antagonist in real life, the hacker is shown ambiguously. This more understanding perspective was inspired by another book, The Fugitive Game by Jonathan Littman. Shimomura and Mitnick are shown as equal in skills and means, but with different goals. The first works for big corporations as a cybersecurity specialist, while the latter, although intrusive and invasive to the privacy of others, fights for freedom of information. The real Mitnick refused to acknowledge his crime as cracking and rather think of it as the effect of social engineering. He is now a white hat, a security consultant and pop cultural icon (appearing in Emmanuel Goldstein’s documentary Freedom Downtime (2004) and Werner Herzog’s documentary Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016) or as the inspiration for the main protagonist of the comic book Wizzywig). Edward Snowden (Snowden, Citizenfour [2014, Laura Poitras]) or Julian Assange (Australian Underground: The Julian Assange Story [2012, Robert Connolly], The Fifth Estate [2013, Bill Condon]) are other heroes of public interest who are followed by (for the time being, only in documentaries) stories about such hacktivists as Jeremy Hammond, Aaron Swartz and so on. Even without any real characters, movies recreate Zeitgeist, conspiracy theories, the sense of living in a tech-illusion, or just a deep contempt for the unseen mechanisms elaborated by corporations or states. It remains valid regardless of narrative structure. Popular types of characters include programmers and hackers working in big, exploiatative companies (e.g. Antitrust [2001, Peter Howitt]),[51] disadvantaged rebels using computer skills as their only weapon against elites (e.g. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo [2011, David Fincher]), people treated as a tool in cybermanipulations and living in dystopias blurring the line between reality and VR (e.g. The Matrix trilogy but also the less obvious One Point O [2004, Jeff Renfroe, Marteinn Thorsson] and the already mentioned TV series Mr. Robot[52]).

Another popular narrative arc is old versus new, in which the old guard that can be called ‘a Timex watch in a digital age’, is confronted with digital era challenges. But this conflict is artificial and maybe even vaguely compensating. Popular culture has begun to acknowledge the omnipresence of hacking and put it in the context of warfare. Unseen war is not only the set of tactics related to IW: nowadays hackers are a synecdoche of socio-political conflicts and predominant power dynamics.

 

References

 

Agard Chancellor, “Why USA Network’s ‘Mr. Robot’ Is the Most Realistic Depiction of Hacking On Television”, International Business Times, http://www.ibtimes.com/why-usa-networks-mr-robot-most-realistic-depiction-hacking-television-2020213, date accessed: 9 April 2017.

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Berardi Franco, Lovink Geert, “A call to the Army of Love and to the Army of Software”, Net Critique, http://networkcultures.org/geert/2011/10/12/franco-berardi-geert-lovink-a-call-to-the-army-of-love-and-to-the-army-of-software/, date accessed: 8 April 2017.

Cannata-Bowman Nick, “Why ‘CSI: Cyber’ Fails in Terms of Accuracy”, The Cheat Sheet, http://www.cheatsheet.com/entertainment/why-csi-cyber-fails-in-terms-of-accuracy.html/?a=viewall, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

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Evans Robert, Brinkman Caleb Eldon, “5 Hacking Myths You Probably Believe (Thanks to Movies)”, Cracked, http://www.cracked.com/personal-experiences-1262-5-hacking-myths-you-probably-believe-thanks-to-movies.html, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

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Hammond Jeremy, “Jeremy Hammond’s Sentencing Statement”, Indymedia UK, http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2013/11/513761.html, date accessed: 8 April 2015.

Hohenbild Sonja, Khonsari Shahriar, McMullen Heather, Turner-Beckman Kalea, “The Internet protection movement”, New Media Activism, http://wpmu.mah.se/nmict11group4/the-internet-protection-movement/, date accessed: 8 April 2017.

Holkins Jerry, Krahulik Mike, “Penny Arcade”, http://pennyarcade.wikia.com/wiki/July_16,_2007, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

Hong Nicole, “Silk Road Creator Found Guilty of Cybercrimes”, The Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/silk-road-creator-found-guilty-of-cybercrimes-1423083107?mod=WSJ_hp_RightTopStories, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

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Kumar S., “How Ashley Madison hack hurt everyone, not only cheaters”, Fortune, http://fortune.com/2015/08/20/ashley-madison-hacks-cybersecurity/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

Lovink Geert, “The ABC of Tactical Media”, nettime, http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-9705/msg00096.html, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

Mason Jeff, Felsenthal Mark, “Obama Disses Snowden, Says No ‘Wheeling and Dealing’ Or ‘Scrambling Jets to Get A 29-year Old Hacker’”, Business Insider, http://www.businessinsider.com/obama-not-scrambling-jets-to-get-29-year-old-hacker-2013-6?IR=T, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

McCullagh Declan, “From ‘WarGames’ to Aaron Swartz: How U.S. anti-hacking law went astray”, C-Net, https://www.cnet.com/news/from-wargames-to-aaron-swartz-how-u-s-anti-hacking-law-went-astray/, date accessed: 8 April 2017.

Meisner Jason, “Chicago man plead guilty to ‘Celebgate’ photo hacking”, Chicago Tribune, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-celebrity-photos-hacking-plea-met-20160927-story.html, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

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Palmer Danny, “What’s the difference between state-backed hackers and cybercrime gangs? Nothing at all”, ZDNet, http://www.zdnet.com/article/whats-the-difference-between-state-backed-hackers-and-cybercrime-gangs-nothing-at-all/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

Peterson Andrea, “The Sony Pictures Entertainment hack, explained”, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2014/12/18/the-sony-pictures-hack-explained/?utm_term=.b7f9226e319d, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

Porche Isaac R., III, Paul Christopher, York Michael, Serena Chad C., Sollinger Jerry M., Axelband Elliot, Min Endy Y., Held Bruce J., Redefining Information Warfare Boundaries for an Army in a Wireless World, (Santa Monica–Arlington–Pittsburgh: RAND Corporation) (2013).

Annika Richterich, Karin Wenz, “Introduction: Making and Hacking”, Digital Culture & Society 3:1 (2017), p. 8.

Ricker Schulte Stephanie, Cached: Decoding the Internet in Global Popular Culture, (New York–London: New York University Press) (2013).

Shamah David, “Latest viruses could mean ‘end of world as we know it’, says man who discovered Flame”, Start-up Israel, http://www.timesofisrael.com/experts-we-lost-the-cyber-war-now-were-in-the-era-of-cyber-terror/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

Rebecca Slayton, “The Paradoxical Authority of the Certified Ethical Hacker”, Limn 8 (2017), http://limn.it/preface-hacks-leaks-and-breaches/, date accessed 22 July 2017.

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“VAULT 7: CIA Hacking Tools Revealed”, WikiLeaks, https://wikileaks.org/ciav7p1/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

Zetter Kim, “An Unprecedented Look at Stuxnet, the World’s First Digital Weapon”, Wired, https://www.wired.com/2014/11/countdown-to-zero-day-stuxnet/, date accessed: 8 April 2017.

 

 

[1] Tor Ekeland, “Hacker Madness”, Limn 8 (2017), https://limn.it/hacker-madness/, date accessed: 22 July 2017.

[2] Tim Jordan, Activism! Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Society, (London: Reaktion Books) (2002), p. 120.

[3] Tim Jordan, “Hacking and power: Social and technological determinism in the digital age”, First Monday, 14:7 (2009), http://firstmonday.org/article/viewArticle/2417/2240, date accessed: 22 July 2017.

[4] Tim Jordan, Hacking: Digital Media and Technological Determinism, (Cambridge–Malden: Polity Press) (2008), p. 1.

[5] Annika Richterich, Karin Wenz, “Introduction: Making and Hacking”, Digital Culture & Society 3:1 (2017), p. 8.

[6] Tim Jordan (2009).

[7] This article describes Hollywood cinema and American cases of hacking due to the range of the phenomenon, but other countries with notorious hackers recreate their stories in pop culture, e.g. 23 (1998, Hans-Christian Schmid) and Who Am I. No System Is Safe (2014, Baran bo Odar) succeeded in German box office and Deutschland 83 (2015–) is a national TV hit due to the fame of Chaos Computer Club and Klaus Koch.

[8] Jerry Holkins, Mike Krahulik, “Penny Arcade”, http://pennyarcade.wikia.com/wiki/July_16,_2007, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[9] Kung Fury (2015, David Sandberg), an homage to the 80s poetics, had a wide web advertising, for example video Kung Fury: Hackerman – How to Hack Time in which we can find grid, computer disk (“First off you need a lot of ram… at least 256 kb” which is commented: “But remember – with great processing power came great responsibility”) and even the Power Glove, a pre-haptic accessory for the Nintendo Entertainment System (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KEkrWRHCDQU, date accessed: 1 April 2017).

[10] One of the YouTube users commented accurately the compilation of the 80s hack flicks: “The fast track method to become an 80’s computer hacker. You’ll need… 1) – A can of Pepsi 2) – A poster of Michelle Pfeiffer on the wall 3) – A pair of Walkman headphones around your neck 4) – A nervous friend looking over your right shoulder 5) – A desk lamp …Now type the words ‘Access database’. Wait for the response ‘Access denied’, and simply reply with ‘Override’. Congratulations, the world is now your oyster.” 97channel, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rUGQHdYUIEo, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[11] In Universal Soldier: The Return alleged supercomputer creating its army has a rather primitive way of communicate his rebellious nature: “Hello Dr. Cortner. I’m ready when you are. But, on the other hand… fuck you!”

[12] S. Kumar, “How Ashley Madison hack hurt everyone, not only cheaters”, Fortune, http://fortune.com/2015/08/20/ashley-madison-hacks-cybersecurity/, date accessed: 1 April 2017. The case was mentioned in Mr. Robot by Michael whose wife asked for divorce after his romances had been disclosed.

[13] Andrea Peterson, “The Sony Pictures Entertainment hack, explained”, The Washington Posthttps://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2014/12/18/the-sony-pictures-hack-explained/?utm_term=.b7f9226e319d, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[14] Nicole Hong, “Silk Road Creator Found Guilty of Cybercrimes”, The Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/silk-road-creator-found-guilty-of-cybercrimes-1423083107?mod=WSJ_hp_RightTopStories, date accessed: 1 April 2017. The scandal and other abuses connected with Dark Web were depicted in documentary Deep Web (2015, Alex Winter).

[15] Jason Meisner, “Chicago man plead guilty to ‘Celebgate’ photo hacking”, Chicago Tribune, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-celebrity-photos-hacking-plea-met-20160927-story.html, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[16] Danny Palmer, “What’s the difference between state-backed hackers and cybercrime gangs? Nothing at all”, ZDNet, http://www.zdnet.com/article/whats-the-difference-between-state-backed-hackers-and-cybercrime-gangs-nothing-at-all/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[17] Isaac R. Porche III, Christopher Paul, Michael York, Chad C. Serena, Jerry M. Sollinger, Elliot Axelband, Endy Y. Min, Bruce J. Held, Redefining Information Warfare Boundaries for an Army in a Wireless World, (Santa Monica–Arlington–Pittsburgh: RAND Corporation) (2013), p. XV.

[18] The White House, Office of the State Secretary, Executive Order on Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2013/02/12/executive-order-improving-critical-infrastructure-cybersecurity-0, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[19] Kim Zetter, “An Unprecedented Look at Stuxnet, the World’s First Digital Weapon”, Wired, https://www.wired.com/2014/11/countdown-to-zero-day-stuxnet/, date accessed: 8 April 2017. The cyberattack was depicted in documentary Zero Days (2016, Alex Gibney).

[20] Ellen Nakashima, Joby Warrick, “Stuxnet was work of U.S. and Israeli experts, officials say”, The Washington Post,  https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/stuxnet-was-work-of-us-and-israeli-experts-officials-say/2012/06/01/gJQAlnEy6U_story.html?utm_term=.920c5dae260b, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[21] David Shamah, “Latest viruses could mean ‘end of world as we know it,’ says man who discovered Flame”, Start-up Israel, http://www.timesofisrael.com/experts-we-lost-the-cyber-war-now-were-in-the-era-of-cyber-terror/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[22] Sonja Hohenbild, Shahriar Khonsari, Heather McMullen, and Kalea Turner-Beckman, “The Internet protection movement”, New Media Activism, http://wpmu.mah.se/nmict11group4/the-internet-protection-movement/, date accessed: 8 April 2017.

[23] Andy Greenberg, “Hacker claims feds hit him with 44 felonies when he refused to be an FBI spy”, Wiredhttps://www.wired.com/2015/02/hacker-claims-feds-hit-44-felonies-refused-fbi-spy/, date accessed: 8 April 2017.

[24] Jeremy Hammond, “Jeremy Hammond’s Sentencing Statement”, Indymedia UK, http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2013/11/513761.html, date accessed: 8 April 2015. His case and political agenda were shown in The Hacker Wars (2014, Vivien Lesnik Weisman).

[25] Jeff Mason, Mark Felsenthal, “Obama Disses Snowden, Says No ‘Wheeling and Dealing’ Or ‘Scrambling Jets To Get A 29-year Old Hacker”, Business Insider, http://www.businessinsider.com/obama-not-scrambling-jets-to-get-29-year-old-hacker-2013-6?IR=T, date accessed: 1 April 2017. China, not especially legitimate for respecting human rights itself, called hypocritical – Joe Mullin, “Obama says he can’t pardon Snowden”, ArsTechnica, https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2016/11/obama-says-he-cant-pardon-snowden/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[26] One of the latest leaks applied to revealing CIA hacking tools: “VAULT 7: CIA Hacking Tools Revealed”, WikiLeaks, https://wikileaks.org/ciav7p1/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[27] Exposing the Invisible, https://exposingtheinvisible.org/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[28] Rebecca Slayton, “The Paradoxical Authority of the Certified Ethical Hacker”, Limn 8 (2017), http://limn.it/preface-hacks-leaks-and-breaches/, date accessed 22 July 2017. Slayton writes that CEH “sought to appropriate the technical savvy associated with hackers and the U.S. military and intelligence agencies while distancing itself from the untrustworthy and morally suspect image of hacking” but she also quotes Swartz’s statement about CEH “alumns”: “Some ‘IT pros’ may find a few techniques to secure against well-known attacks, but the underground is always 10 steps ahead.”

[29] Tim Jordan (2009).

[30] Critical Art Ensemble, Electronic Civil Disobedience & Other Unpopular Ideas, www.critical-art.net/books/ecd, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[31] Geert Lovink, “The ABC of Tactical Media”, nettime (1997), http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-9705/msg00096.html, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[32] Tim Jordan (2002), p. 119.

[33] Geert Lovink (1997).

[34] The paradigm of DIY is substituted with DIWO – Do It with Others – which emphasizes common goals and inclusive operations.

[35] Julian Assange, Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet, (New York–London: OR Books) (2012), p. 7.

[36] CULT OF THE DEAD COW, The Hacktivismo FAQ, http://www.cultdeadcow.com/cDc_files/HacktivismoFAQ.html, date accessed: 22 July 2017.

[37] Douglas Thomas, Hacker Culture, (Minneapolis–London: University of Minnesota Press) (2002), p. xx.

[38] “It’s a bio-digital jazz, man” is a quote from TRON: Legacy.

[39] Pramod K. Nayar, An Introduction to New Media and Cybercultures, (Malden–Oxford Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell) (2010), p. 100.

[40] At least in their literal, official meaning because hacktivists describe legal system as biased, corrupted, and serving elites.

[41] Cory Doctorow, “Mr. Robot Killed the Hollywood Hacker”, Technology Review, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/603045/mr-robot-killed-the-hollywood-hacker/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[42] Stephanie Ricker Schulte, Cached: Decoding the Internet in Global Popular Culture, (New York–London: New York University Press) (2013), p. 28.

[43] Declan McCullagh, “From ‘WarGames’ to Aaron Swartz: How U.S. anti-hacking law went astray”, C-Net, https://www.cnet.com/news/from-wargames-to-aaron-swartz-how-u-s-anti-hacking-law-went-astray/, date accessed: 8 April 2017.

[44] In the 4th episode of Mr. Robot’s season 1, few members of society watch Hackers which is criticised by Romero: “Hollywood hacker bullshit. I’ve been in this game 27 years. Not once have I come across an animated singing virus.”

[45] For example, in CSI: Cyber (2015-2016) there is a very absurd dialogue: “I’ll create a GUI interface using Visual Basic. See if I can track an IP address.” “I’ll distract her. You ping her IP.” See also: Nick Cannata-Bowman, “Why ‘CSI: Cyber’ Fails in Terms of Accuracy”, The Cheat Sheet, http://www.cheatsheet.com/entertainment/why-csi-cyber-fails-in-terms-of-accuracy.html/?a=viewall, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[46] “You won’t find the nuclear launch codes hidden in anything attached to Defense.gov” (Robert Evans, Caleb Eldon Brinkman, “5 Hacking Myths You Probably Believe (Thanks to Movies)”, Cracked, http://www.cracked.com/personal-experiences-1262-5-hacking-myths-you-probably-believe-thanks-to-movies.html, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[47] Chancellor Agard, “Why USA Network’s ‘Mr. Robot’ Is The Most Realistic Depiction Of Hacking On Television,” International Business Times, http://www.ibtimes.com/why-usa-networks-mr-robot-most-realistic-depiction-hacking-television-2020213, date accessed: 9 April 2017. Sam Esmail hired many consultants (for example Michael Bazzell and Kor Adana) to help screenwriters with technological details. It can be seen in television that showrunners give much more attention to programming “anthropology.” There are still TV series as CSI: Cyber or Scorpion (2014–), but next to them we can observe shows that depict computer environment with reverence – Halt and Catch Fire (2014–), Sense8 (2015-2018), Person of Interest (2011-2016), and so on.

[48] The sense of insecurity is fuelled by narratives about the machines’ rebellion – as in The Matrix Trilogy, TRON and TRON: Legacy, WarGames: The Dead Code (2008, Stuart Gillard) or Storm Watch (2002, Terry Cunningham) – and almost omnipotent antagonists who use advanced technological devices in simplified way – for example in Live Free or Die Hard the villain left all country in despair with two clicks, in Eagle Eye (2008, D.J. Caruso) the offender used an everyday technology to trace and monitor her victims, and even in Sneakers characters had an ultimate weapon for hackers – a universal key which can break into all software.

[49] The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, based on first part of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy, can initiate a new trend.

[51] Geert Lovink called them “the Army of Software” and appealed to them for rejecting Finazism (see: Franco Berardi, Geert Lovink, “A call to the Army of Love and to the Army of Software”, Net Critique, http://networkcultures.org/geert/2011/10/12/franco-berardi-geert-lovink-a-call-to-the-army-of-love-and-to-the-army-of-software/, date accessed: 8 April 2017).

[52] Elliot’s mental illness emphasises the schizoid character of modernity which is best depicted in the last episode of the first season – Elliott is standing in front of neon American flag in Times Square full of society supporters after talking with projections of his mind.

The nuclear technology debate returns. Narratives about nuclear power in post-Fukushima Japanese films

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 117-131.

 

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz

Jagiellonian University

 

 

The nuclear technology debate returns.

Narratives about nuclear power in post-Fukushima Japanese films

 

 

Abstract

The presented article revolves around the widespread debate on the Fukushima catastrophe in Japanese cinematography and the artists’ responses to the incident. They give the viewers clues on how to understand the reasons and results of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, as well as how to perceive nuclear technology after the catastrophe. The author analyses the chosen post-Fukushima films, points out the recurring depictions, and deliberates on the ways of presenting nuclear power. The analysis starts with a brief comparison of post-Hiroshima and post-Fukushima cinematography. The author then focuses on activists’ art in the form of anti-nuclear agitation (Nuclear Japan, 2014 by Hiroyuki Kawai) and pictures that can be classified as shōshimin-eiga: Kebo no kuni (The Land of Hope, 2012) and Leji (Homeland, 2014). The third part of the article puts emphasis on the description of the catastrophe as a “new beginning”, as Takashi Murakami presents it in Mememe no kurage (Jellyfish Eye, 2013). The debate on nuclear technology also appears in the remake of the story about the best-known Japanese monster, Godzilla, reactivated by Hideaki Anno in the post-Fukushima film Shin Gojira (New Godzilla, 2016). The last part of the paper presents the Western point of view and covers analysis of films such as Alain de Halleux’s Welcome to Fukushima (2013), Doris Dörrie’s Grüße aus Fukushima (Fukushima, My Love, 2016) or Matteo Gagliardi’s Fukushima: A Nuclear Story (2015).

Key words: Fukushima, nuclear power, post-Fukushima film, Japanese cinema, catastrophe

 

Introduction

 

The widespread debate on the Fukushima catastrophe, the future of the Japanese reactors, and the suffering, fears, and social problems the nation has to face have also influenced Japanese cinema. The artists’ responses to the incident and the aftermath that is still felt have resulted in a cinematic wake that happened surprisingly quickly after the catastrophe. The narrations about nuclear power, even though considered as a taboo that should not be violated while the memories of the tragedy are still alive, are constructed so as to face social fears; they give the viewers (also around the world) clues on how to understand the reasons and results of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, as well as how to perceive nuclear technology after the catastrophe.

The recurring pictures that can be found in most of the post-Fukushima films are depictions of the off-limits exclusion zone, guarded by the government because of high-level radiation. The artists also underline the contrast between the silence in the zone and the hustle and bustle of the temporary houses and schools occupied by the victims. Nuclear power itself is presented in two ways: neutrally, for example in Leji (Homeland, 2014) by Nao Kubota or Kibō no kuni (The Land of Hope, 2012) by Sion Sono, or in the form of activist art and anti-nuclear agitation (Nuclear Japan, 2014 by Hiroyuki Kawai). It is almost impossible to find positive commentaries about nuclear power in post-Fukushima films; however, the catastrophe can be described as a “new beginning”, as Takashi Murakami presents it in Mememe no kurage (Jellyfish Eye, 2013). The debate on nuclear technology also appears in the remake of the story about the best-known Japanese monster, Godzilla, reactivated by Hideaki Anno in the post-Fukushima film Shin Gojira (New Godzilla, 2016).

The primary purpose of this paper is to analyse the narrations about nuclear power in Fukushima-related Japanese films in the context of the directors’ personal points of view on the issue and the impact of their works on Japanese society. As can be perceived, observing the catastrophe through subjective lenses is almost unavoidable as the authors of the aforementioned films are not only distant observers. They combine personal experiences with the national trauma they are part of. Due to this fact, the presented article aims to deliberate on the problem of how Japanese filmmakers have presented nuclear technology since 2011, while linking their works to the films that emerged after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Another point of focus presented in this paper is how the audience understands the aforementioned films about the tragedy and why they are gaining popularity in Japanese society. Moreover, it is also worth focusing on the impact the pictures may have on collective memory, as will be discussed later. The examples of the films presented in this article were chosen because of their popularity and significance for the development of the nuclear technology debate.

 

From Hiroshima to Fukushima

 

The massive and immediate destruction caused by nuclear energy and the fact that the source of this annihilation is human-made traumatizes the collective memory beyond any measurable limits. What is significant in the case of nuclear disasters is the fact that its results function in two visual orders. On the one hand, pictures of untouched landscapes juxtaposed with sudden, total destruction bring to mind apocalyptic visions of the End of Times which are known from Western depictions. On the other hand, the invisible radiation and lack of immediate results (or, in other words, “immediate victims”) have no simple visual representations; this traumatizes the imagination the most[1]. The visible effects of the destroyed surroundings of these catastrophes are extended in time by the menace of nuclear contamination that will also affect society in the future[2]. The impact of the nuclear catastrophe on the Japanese nation, happening twice in a relatively short period, put the filmmakers in a situation in which they try to present on the screen a tragedy that is impossible to understand. David Deamer observes that “Each atom bomb film overcomes the spectre of impossibility in its way; each in its own way creates a singular encounter with the nuclear attacks […]”.[3]

Visions of the apocalypse derived from Western culture influenced the rise of the post-Hiroshima subgenre of Japanese cinema: hibakusha. Narratives which can be classified under this term introduced the topic of the atom bombs and explored the meaning of “Hiroshima” for the post-war generations[4]. The critical potential that characterized the hibakusha films, the emphasis on the sociological context of the catastrophe, and the variety of other genres combined with the determinants of the subgenre allows it to be connected to the post-Fukushima cinematic wake. It should be pointed out that the earliest on-screen depictions of the destruction caused by nuclear power were dominated by the three genres which also appear most often in the case of the March 11 incident: contemporary drama, monster movies, and documentary[5]. For example, analogies can be found between Ito Sueo’s Hiroshima Nagasaki ni okeru genshi bakudan no eikyō (The Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,1946) and Hiroyuki Kawai’s Nuclear Japan (2014) documentary films, both of which are described in the next part of this article. Both films use original footage and capture with scientific precision the tragedy of the Japanese nation. However, when Kawai restrains himself from providing a plethora of drastic pictures of mutilated bodies, Sueos’s footage shows the drama without euphemisms. The second part of the very first post-bombing documentary[6] devoted to Nagasaki presents narrations about the tragedy of particular people which can also be found in the film from 2014. The post-Hiroshima style of producing dramas, like Shindo Kaneto’s melodrama Genbaku no ko (Children of Hiroshima, 1952) or Shohei Imamura’s Kuroi ame (Black Rain, 1989), both of which emphasize sentimentalism and focus on the emotions of particular people, can be found in Kibô no kuni (The Land of Hope, 2012) by Sion Sono. It should be underlined that the differences found in the films mentioned above are intangibly connected to the nature of the two catastrophes: genocide in the case of the World War II events and a tragedy initiated by an unfortunate series of natural factors.

In terms of the impression on American society, March 11, 2011 is also compared to the events of 9.11[7]. It was Takashi Mikuriya who first suggested that the sengyo (the long post-war period in Japan) ended with the Fukushima disaster. Furthermore, Mikuriya proposed another term, saigo (literally: next, after), to describe the time “after the catastrophe”.[8] The new era, in the opinion of the Japanese researcher, has the potential to become more democratic, thus a period full of hope and peace[9]. Barbara Geilhorn and Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, deliberating on the artistic pursuits related to the nuclear disaster of March 11, point out in their publication that “Fukushima forced artists across the genres to reconsider the relationship between art, representation, and live experience”.[10] The experience of the disaster and the analysis of the emotions accompanying the traumatic events appeared not only in film but also in literature and performing arts. Here, it is worth mentioning the artistic pursuits on the grounds of Japanese theatre and the plays of Oriza Hirata and Toshiki Okada: the former, in his play entitled Sayonara (Good bye, 2011), uses a female android as a metaphor for the failure of the human-technological understanding which resulted in the Fukushima disaster[11]. On the other hand, Okada’s theatre, defined as “musical theatre with ghostly apparitions”[12], aims to criticize Japanese cultural norms, society, and politics. His Jimen to yuka (Ground and Floor, 2013) performance “depicts a group of people experiencing an intense post-Fukushima malady”,[13] which metaphorically comments on the failure of the Japanese political system[14].

 

Activist art or searching for the ultimate solution

 

The controversy arising around the catastrophe that appeared due to the social accusations of the negligence of the government resulted in the emerging activist movement. While searching for the ultimate solution to the problem, both in the West and in Japan, the filmmakers strive to answer whether it is necessary to rely on nuclear energy in future technological development. It should also be underlined that the activists define nuclear power as unequivocally wrong and postulate that its use should cease.

One of the most publicly visible activists who uses film as a medium to communicate his postulates is Hiroyuki Kawai[15]. This professional lawyer who decided to become a documentary filmmaker was born in Manchuria, China, but he mentally tied himself to Japan after he graduated from the University of Tokyo in the 1970s. His interest in lawsuits against nuclear power plants reached its peak after Fukushima, but even before the tragic events of March 2011, he was deeply involved in the fight to eradicate nuclear power from Japan[16]. Kawai admits that his main purpose is to protect the environment, especially from the tragic nuclear disasters that have long-term effects on natural habitats. Analysing how to reach a wide audience and not satisfied with the number of people attending his lectures, the activist realized that explaining his objectives with a movie would be the best way to popularize his ideas.

Nuclear Japan, released in 2014, was to answer the question that had been asked by the director many times: Has nuclear power brought happiness to the Japanese nation? The documentary goes back to the seven hours before the catastrophe and the camera’s eye accompanies a group of firefighters. They accomplish different tasks, from looking for missing people after the tsunami, to the disposal of radioactive materials. However, their efforts are only presented to underline the message conveyed by the author. At every step, he stresses that if it had not been for the nuclear disaster, many more lives could have been saved[17] and, consequently, he accuses the Japanese government for its faulty decisions. In his work Kawai combines footage illustrating the efforts of the public services and the pain of civilians with interviews with experts (e.g. Tetsunari Iida, the director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies) and, as he refers to on his website, “facts and evidence”.[18] Moreover, the documentary offers a wealth of technical information on how the reactors function, nuclear policy in Japan, and safety regulations[19]. However, even though the author tries to present his findings in the most objective way possible, he cannot help avoiding subjectivization of the matter.

Kawai presents only a one-sided point of view, demonizing nuclear power and providing the ultimate solution to the problem: “to halt nuclear power plants all over Japan[20]”. The director perceives his movie as a tool that helps to convey his ideas and bring them to a wider audience, not only to those in academia. It should also be underlined that thanks to the complexity of the presented issues and the unique footage of the testimonies provided by the victims, the film was considered as evidence during the trials related to the catastrophe[21]. Even though the event has an obvious tragic meaning, the message Kawai tries to convey can be read as a positive look at the future of the nation. He observes that “the Fukushima disaster has increasingly forced the courts and the judges to expose the lies of the government and the nuclear industry, as well as take responsibility for the huge damage caused[22]”. Kawai creates an analogy to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, comparing the government reactions, commentaries, and actions taken. It is visible that the director has a feeling that the catastrophe, paradoxically, helped to raise the tabooed issue of the post-nuclear trauma. Consequently, Kawai perceives himself as a representative of a new movement that will shed some light on the safety of nuclear energy in Japan.

 

Screening the zone, preserving the memories

 

The catastrophe and form of post-Fukushima societal order in Japan are also vividly presented in dramas. In this category, under the label of the shōshimin-eiga[23] genre, there is a plethora of poetic pictures that aim to not only show the destruction, despair, and lack of hope, but also the preservation of collective memories, as well as on the discourse on the future of the nation. The lightly fictionalized narrations, depicting the tragedy of particular families, are designed to challenge viewers’ emotions and, in the case of foreign audiences, make them familiar with the problems of Japanese society. It can be observed that the message proposed by the authors of the post-Fukushima dramas conveys more neutral meaning than in the case of Kawai’s documentary. Under the genre of drama, it is the story of the suffering and pain that matters the most, not the strict anti- or pro- nuclear point of view of the author.

One of the first post-Fukushima drama films, and, at the same time, one of the most appreciated by foreign critiques[24], is Kibō no kuni (The Land of Hope, 2012) directed by Sion Sono. The picture received the NETPAC Award for Best Asian Film at the 37th Toronto International Film Festival. The author focuses on presenting the histories on two families uprooted from their home cities, who strive to fight back for their lost safety by adjusting themselves to the new reality. Sono pays great attention to showing what has happened to the mental condition of the protagonists since the traumatic experiences and the extent to which it is possible to overcome the trauma. The feeling of the constant danger of radioactivity causes the families to develop neuroses, compulsive behaviours, and anxieties. For example, Izumi Ono (Megumi Kagurazaka), the wife of Yoichi Ono (Jun Murakami), is obsessed with protecting her body from contact with radioactive objects or places. When she realizes that she is pregnant, Izumi not only covers her whole house with aluminium foil, but also compulsively checks the radiation level on a Geiger counter—everything to protect her unborn child. By showing three generations of protagonists fighting for survival, the director undertakes a discourse about the future of the country[25]. Even though it is a farmer Yasuhiko Ono (Iaso Natsuyagi) and his wife Chieko Ono (Naoko Otani) whose fight is depicted in the most dramatic way, it is the child yet to be born that will bear all the consequences of the situation. The actions taken by Izumi to protect her child, depicted in an almost humorous way, show the desperate attempts the Japanese people undertook to preserve their health. In this case, Sono demonstrates that it is impossible to escape the fate and every desperate attempt seems to be grotesque in the face of the inevitable consequences of the radiation.

Leji (Homeland, 2014) by Nao Kubota is another film about the results of the Fukushima catastrophe that was mostly appreciated abroad. Even though the director has more documentary pictures than fictionalized dramas on his account, he made a feature film to discuss the post-catastrophe issues. However, the critics observed that Kubota’s film differs from the aforementioned Kibō no kuni in terms of the presentation of emotions. The critics accused the director of creating a narrative which “perversely refuses to engage on a dramatic or emotional level, or to look its unavoidable political context in the eye”.[26] The picture, screened in 2014 at the Berlin Film Festival, mostly explores the toxic relations between the characters, thus resembling Shohei Imamura’s narrations about the dark blood ties that led to the tragedy in the rural, apparently idyllic setting[27]. Kubota focuses on the topic that returns in almost every post-Fukushima drama: the ancestors’ attachment to the land. Here, the Japanese concept of furusato, a mythologized picture of a traditional birthplace situated in the beauty of nature, appears as a lost part of Japanese culture. The characters are trapped in the world between—it is impossible to return to the cradle because the furusato is lost and, at the same time, they cannot start new lives. Their longing for the lost safety leads them to transgressive behaviour, as in the case of Soichi (Seiyo Uchino), who spends his days loitering around the entertainment district, unable to find a new job[28].

Manifesting a literal-minded approach to constructing a plot that resembles documentary films, the director especially focuses on the daily routines of the people influenced by the catastrophe[29]. Paradoxically, the most striking scenes in the film are not those presenting the dynamic actions of the characters, but the ones depicting rural labour or food preparation. There, Kubota emphasizes the attempts of the protagonists to maintain social order, even though, together with the houses, the bonds of the family have been destroyed.

 

Monsters reactivated

 

Cultural anxiety about radiation and the fear of nuclear fallout appeared on Japanese screens right after World War II. Among the science fiction films featuring a variety of monsters, mysterious creatures, and physically changed people, the greatest popularity was won by Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla series. Except for its similarity to Ryūjin—the deity of the sea that appears in the scriptures of the ingenious Japanese religion, Shinto—the dragon-like creature that emerged from the ocean symbolized the fears of the sudden development of deadly technology and the results of its use in warfare[30]. The appearance of the monster emerging from the water was described in the first film of the series, Gojira (Godzilla, 1954), as the result of the H-bomb experiments[31]. What is more, Honda’s films, especially the first one, bring together unnamed fears of a mystery that comes from ‘the outside’. As Toni A. Perrine observes in her publication concerning the cultural anxieties of the nuclear age, both the appearance of nuclear energy and the cinematic Gojira can be perceived as acts of “transformation of matter into an unimaginable destructive force”.[32]

It is not surprising that the rubber monster came back to screens again after the Fukushima catastrophe and its symbolic connections to the destructive power of nuclear energy were reactivated. Shin Gojira (New Godzilla, 2016), directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, at the same time breaks with both the familiar schemes from the previous productions and the references to the canonic appearance of the monster. However, what is most significant in terms of researching the ways in which the Fukushima disaster is depicted in Japanese film is that Gojira is no longer a result of nuclear experiments. It comes with a tsunami wave, earthquakes and radiation, but the origins of the creature remain unknown. Furthermore, the role of the Americans in the narrative has changed: in the newest production, they are the most important allies in the deadly fight[33]. It is also worth mentioning the focus on the reactions of the catastrophe victims presented in Anno and Higuchi’s film. As happened on the streets of Japanese cities, in Shin Gojira the people measure the radiation and share information on social media websites. Also, the bitter portrait of the government and the news resembles real life: the officials, under the burden of bureaucracy, are unable to cooperate and the transmitted meetings are filled with clichés and jargon[34]. The nuclear debate in the newest Gojira film is concluded with optimism: even though severe damage was done to the metropolis and uncountable deaths resulted from the officials’ reluctance, the monster is finally defeated. It turns into a concrete monument, remaining in the heart of the city as a testament to the victims of the tragedy.

It is also interesting yet surprising that the appearance of a monster in post-Fukushima narration can be found in Takashi Murakami’s film Mememe no kurage (Jellyfish Eye, 2013). The director’s debut, although kept in the light comedy tone, raises a question that was overlooked in other productions: how can children’s trauma after the catastrophe be minimized? Even though the tragedy that hit Japanese society is not explicitly named, the viewer realizes that the young Masashi Kusakabe’s (Takuto Sueoka) father died because of a catastrophe somehow related to nuclear power. Together with his mother, the youngster moves to a rural area—escaping both the damaged environment and the painful memories. However, soon it turns out that the children in the village are obsessed with a smartphone app that allows them to control fantastic (animated) pet monsters and organize ‘dog fights’ between the creatures. Here, the director uses comedy to tell a story about mysterious scientists who study how to control catastrophic forces by manipulating students’ emotions[35]. The pets, called F.R.I.E.N.D.S., are vessels that transmit the feelings of their little masters to the control centre. The fact that the children put a lot of energy into the game leads to the birth of a huge monster that tries to destroy the area.

The film was negatively reviewed and the ending was considered naive; it was also dismissed for its camera work and ragged special effects[36]. It was also observed that the coming-of-age story mixed with philosophical themes of fighting with trauma, evil, and self-limitations was incomprehensible for younger viewers and too infantile for adults[37]. However, Murakami’s film resembles his artistic pursuits: as a contemporary painter and sculptor, he is recognized for combining high art with pop-cultural aesthetics[38], which is also visible in the visual style and plot of his debut. The author tried to introduce a fresh style of talking about the Fukushima catastrophe—a remedy for the children’s trauma hidden under a layer of family cinema. Even though it was too soon to combine the painful memories with cute animated characters, Murakami’s film remains a unique and thus creative and brave way of presenting the catastrophe in Japanese cinema.

 

From the Western point of view

 

Fukushima-related narrations and the nuclear technology debate since 2011 have appeared not only in Japanese cinema. A critical comment on the catastrophe also comes from Western directors, among who should be mentioned Alain de Halleux’s Welcome to Fukushima (2013), Doris Dörrie’s Grüße aus Fukushima (Fukushima, My Love, 2016) or Matteo Gagliardi’s Fukushima: A Nuclear Story (2015). Through their works, these filmmakers from abroad share their compassion and feelings of being greatly moved by the tragic events. It is worth mentioning here that Doris Dörrie, the author of Kirschblüten – Hanami (Cherry Blossoms, 2008), was motivated by the fact that she felt a strong connection with the Japanese nation. She visited Fukushima right after the tragic events and almost anthropologically gathered the testimonies of the victims, which she later used in constructing the plot of her film. Dörrie’s Fukushima revolves around the problem of mutual understanding between Western and Japanese culture, which was also a central subject in Kirschblüten…. In the post-Fukushima narrative, the relation that emerges between a young German woman, Maria (Rosalie Thomass), and the elderly geisha, Satomi (Kaori Momoi), casts new light on the collective experience of an entire generation of Japanese people who suffered the catastrophe and the fear of radiation[39]. When the women protagonists by chance move in together to the Satomi’s partly destroyed house in the closed Zone, a subtle bond develops between them. Depicting Maria’s struggle to understand a different culture while trying to be helpful in rebuilding the retired geisha’s life, the director aimed to emphasize how difficult it is for foreigners to cope with unfamiliar traditions. In one of the interviews, Dörrie admits that her main purpose was to answer the question: Can the Westerner, who does not understand Eastern mentality and culture, in any way help Japanese people?[40] Even though the narrative revolves around the post-catastrophe trauma, the central part of the film is the relations, based on the author’s autobiographical references, between women symbolizing disparate cultural backgrounds.

Documentary insights can also be found in the films presenting the catastrophe from the Western point of view. Here it is worth mentioning the pictures by Alain de Halleux and Matteo Gagliardi, who combine their original footage with scientific explanations of the causes of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and personal commentaries. The first author visits the city of Minamisōma, situated 25 kilometres from the reactor, in order to present the everyday struggle of the population of that area. Many of the inhabitants want to be evacuated, while others wish to stay in their homeland and rebuild the city; this results in increasing conflict within the community. Moreover, the Tepco company, which is financially responsible for compensation, refuses to pay their fines; this forces the victims to search for funds globally[41]. The author uses the contrasting Eastern characters of a Zen master and a samurai as a metaphor of the two attitudes towards the rebuilding of a new social order after the tragedy. From this perspective, the victim can choose the course of action in Halleux’s film: he can either accept his fate and stay in his furusato, or fight for a better future for the next generations. The purpose of Halleux’s film was to present the problem to international viewers to encourage financial support from the worldwide community.

However, while the Belgian director restrains himself to the presentation of interviews with victims that were mostly recorded two years after the incident, it is Gagliardi who demonstrates a greater diversity of cinematic techniques. In his film, this Italian filmmaker combines footage recorded when the events started with animated sequences, fragments of TV programs, and experts’ commentaries. Gagliardi balances the need to remain objective against the personal emotions and assessment of the journalist Pio d’Emilia, who experienced the fear of being in Japan during the catastrophe. The Italian Sky TV reporter decided to leave Tokyo the day the earthquake struck and move to the areas affected by the tsunami with the intention of being the first foreign observer to document the tragedy[42]. Except for an unreleased interview with the former Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, which casts new light on the government’s actions[43], Gagliardi’s film also offers a unique approach to the understanding of the viewer’s perception. The animated manga-style sequences are used to make the material more comprehensible and visually attractive.

Taking into consideration the examples presented above, it can be observed that a post-Fukushima current also appeared in the West and these foreign filmmakers have added new insights into the discourse about nuclear power. The narrations provided by Western filmmakers could also be starting points for further academic research, such as comparisons of films by authors from distinct cultural backgrounds, analysis of the approach to nuclear energy, as well as the techniques and genres chosen to cover the issue.

 

Conclusion

 

The nuclear power debate that returned after the Fukushima catastrophe has not faded in film-making. Even though the Japanese films concerning the issue seem to be more appreciated abroad, filmmakers such as Takashi Murakami and Hiroyuki Kawai consider deliberating on the problem to be part of their artistic missions. Possible answers to the questions of whether the Japanese nation should rely on nuclear energy in the future are presented by the directors in documentary or family cinema form, thus aiming to give the viewer a way to understand the complex causes, results, and political issues related to the tragedy. Others, such as Sion Sono and Nao Kubota, try to show the problems of particular members of the traumatized society to a wider audience and, as Doris Dörrie has done in the West, focus on the emotions accompanying the loss of the homeland. What is more, monster films such as the aforementioned Shin Gojira, also play a key role in presenting the problem on the screen, albeit in symbolic form. Therefore, no matter the motivation of the individual artists, it should be emphasised that there are many voices and sides in the discussion about nuclear energy. In this case, films help to express the points of view of the directors and communicate their findings to a wider audience.

As Małgorzata Sadowska observes, Fukushima deprived the Japanese people of the illusion they could use to think about atomic energy. Since 2011, it has no longer been possible to recognize atomic energy as simply bad (the bomb) or good (the power plant), as it was the latter that brought about annihilation[44]. For the people who survived the catastrophe, as well as those who observed it on TV screens abroad, cinema can become not only a source of information (in the case of the documentary productions), but also a medium that helps in understanding the influence of the catastrophe on the inhabitants of Japan.

 

References

 

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Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, http://www.cnic.jp/english/?p=3424, date accessed 16 April 2017.

Cinergie.be, http://www.cinergie.be/webzine/welcome_to_fukushima_d_alain_de_halleux, date accessed 4.06.2017.

Deamer David, Deleuze, Japanese Cinema, and the Atom Bomb: The Spectre of Impossibility, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014).

Eckersall Peter, “Performance, Mourning and the Long View of Nuclear Space,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 7:2 (2015).

Fukushima A Nuclear Story [official website], http://www.nuclearstory.com/, date accessed 4.06.2017.

Geilhorn Barbara, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, Fukushima and the Arts: Negotiating Nuclear Disaster, (London: Routledge, 2017).

InteriaFilm, http://film.interia.pl/wywiady/news-doris-dorrie-hold-dla-kobiet-fukushimy,nId,2347171, date accessed 5 June 2017.

Loska Krzysztof, “Tożsamość traumatyczna w filmach o bombie atomowej” [Traumatic identity in the films about the atomic bombing], in Poetyka filmu japońskiego [The Poetics of the Japanese Film], ed. Idem. (Kraków: Rabid, 2009), pp. 349 – 375.

Mikuriya Takashi, Sengo ga owari, saigo ga hajimaru [Sengo era ends, saigo era starts] (Tokyo: Chikura Shobō, 2012).

Miyamoto Yuki, “Gendered Bodies in Tokusatsu: Monsters and Aliens as the Atomic Bomb Victims,” The Journal of Popular Culture 49:5 (2016), pp. 1086 – 1106.

Nuclear Japan Official Site, http://www.nihontogenpatsu.com/english, date accessed 18 April 2017.

Nornes Abé Mark, Japanese Documentary Film: The Meiji Era Through Hiroshima, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

Perrine Toni A., Film and the Nuclear Age: Representing Cultural Anxiety, (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).

Sadowska Małgorzata, “Fukushima, moja miłość” [Fukushima, My Love], Kino 2: 2017, p. 79.

The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/life_and_entertainment/2016/08/07/1-japans-latest-godzilla-movie-draws-on-1954-original-fukushima-nuclear-disaster.html, date accessed 18 April 2017.

The Hollywood Reporter, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/land-hope-film-review-406354, date accessed 7 April 2017.

The Hollywood Reporter: Jellyfish Eyes, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/jellyfish-eyes-mememe-no-kurage-727224, date accessed 19 April 2017.

The Japan Times, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/04/12/national/flamboyant-lawyer-kawai-fighting-fukushima-victims/#.WPyZEcakJhE, date accessed 5 April 2017.

The Japan Times: Culture, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2014/03/06/films/film-reviews/ieji-homeland/#.WQeCrsakJhE, date accessed 9 April 2017.

The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/15/movies/review-jellyfish-eyes-a-childrens-film-from-takashi-murakami.html?&_r=1, date accessed 21 April 2017.

Yoneyama Lisa, Hiroshima Traces: Time, Space, and the Dialectics of Memory, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

Variety, http://variety.com/2014/film/asia/berlin-film-review-homeland-1201109899/, date accessed 19 April 2017.

 

Filmography

Fukushima: A Nuclear Story (2015, Matteo Gagliardi)

Gojira [Godzilla] (1954, Ishiro Honda)

Grüße aus Fukushima [Fukushima, My Love] (2016, Doris Dörrie)

Kibō no kuni [The Land of Hope] (2012, Sion Sono)

Leji [Homeland] (2014, Nao Kubota)

Mememe no kurage [Jellyfish Eye] (2013, Takashi Murakami)

Nuclear Japan (2014, Hiroyuki Kawai)

Shin Gojira [New Godzilla] (2016, Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi)

The Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1946, Ito Sueo)

Welcome to Fukushima (2013, Alain de Halleux)

[1] Geilhorn Barbara, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, Fukushima and the Arts: Negotiating Nuclear Disaster, (London: Routledge, 2017), p. 2 – 3.

[2] Geilhorn Barbara, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, p. 3.

[3] Deamer David, Deleuze, Japanese Cinema, and the Atom Bomb: The Spectre of Impossibility, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 31.

[4] See: Broderick Mick (ed) Hibakusha Cinema : Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Nuclear Image in Japanese Film, (London, New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).

[5] Deamer David, p. 31.

[6] Loska Krzysztof, “Tożsamość traumatyczna w filmach o bombie atomowej” [Traumatic identity in the films about the atomic bombing], in Poetyka filmu japońskiego [The Poetics of the Japanese Film], ed. Idem. (Kraków: Rabid, 2009), p. 352 – 353.

[7] Geilhorn Barbara, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, p. 3.

[8] Mikuriya Takashi, Sengo ga owari, saigo ga hajimaru [Sengo era ends, saigo era starts], (Tokyo: Chikura Shobō, 2012).

[9] Geilhorn Barbara, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, p. 3.

[10] Geilhorn Barbara, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, p. 10.

[11] Eckersall Peter, “Performance, Mourning and the Long View of Nuclear Space,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 7:2 (2015), p. 4.

[12] Eckersall Peter, p. 6.

[13] Eckersall Peter, p. 6.

[14] Eckersall Peter, p. 6.

[15] Nuclear Japan Official Site, http://www.nihontogenpatsu.com/english, date accessed 18 April 2017.

[16] Nuclear Japan Official Site.

[17] Nuclear Japan Official Site.

[18] Nuclear Japan Official Site.

[19] Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, http://www.cnic.jp/english/?p=3424, date accessed 16 April 2017.

[20] Nuclear Japan Official Site.

[21] Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center.

[22] Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center.

[23] Shōshimin-eiga is a Japanese film and TV genre which aims at depicting of the everyday existence of the working class people.

[24] See: The Japan Times: Culture, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2014/03/06/films/film-reviews/ieji-homeland/#.WQeCrsakJhE, date accessed 9 April 2017. As it can be observed, Sono’s film was mostly appreciated by the foreign critiques, because the Japanese ones stated that it was too soon to for a fictional treatment of the national tragedy.

[25] The Hollywood Reporter, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/land-hope-film-review-406354, date accessed 7 April 2017.

[26] Variety, http://variety.com/2014/film/asia/berlin-film-review-homeland-1201109899/, date accessed 19 April 2017.

[27] Variety.

[28] Variety.

[29] Variety.

[30] Perrine Toni A., Film and the Nuclear Age: Representing Cultural Anxiety, (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), p. 77.

[31] Perrine Toni A, p. 77.

[32] Perrine Toni A., p. 84.

[33] The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/life_and_entertainment/2016/08/07/1-japans-latest-godzilla-movie-draws-on-1954-original-fukushima-nuclear-disaster.html, date accessed 18 April 2017.

[34] The Columbus Dispatch.

[35] The Hollywood Reporter: Jellyfish Eyes, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/jellyfish-eyes-mememe-no-kurage-727224, date accessed 19 April 2017.

[36] See: The review written by Roberta Smith, a co-chief and critic of the NY Times. The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/15/movies/review-jellyfish-eyes-a-childrens-film-from-takashi-murakami.html?&_r=1, date accessed 21 April 2017.

[37] The New York Times.

[38] Takashi Murakami’s profile on Artnet: Artnet, http://www.artnet.com/artists/takashi-murakami/, date accessed 17 April 2017.

[39] Sadowska Małgorzata, “Fukushima, moja miłość” [Fukushima, My Love], Kino 2:2017, p. 79.

[40] InteriaFilm, http://film.interia.pl/wywiady/news-doris-dorrie-hold-dla-kobiet-fukushimy,nId,2347171, date accessed 5 June 2017. The interview with Doris Dörrie was conducted by Piotr Czerkawski during the 68th Berlin International Film Festival in 2017.

[41] To read more about Halleux’s film, see: Cinergie.be, http://www.cinergie.be/webzine/welcome_to_fukushima_d_alain_de_halleux, date accessed 4.06.2017.

[42] See: Fukushima A Nuclear Story [official website], http://www.nuclearstory.com/, date accessed 4.06.2017.

[43] Fukushima A Nuclear Story. In the interview Naoto Kan admits that Japan avoided a bigger catastrophe not because of the planned government actions but thanks to sheer luck.

[44] Sadowska Małgorzata, p. 79.

War rape in the face of heroic narrative. The case of Polish cinema

Magdalena Podsiadło-Kwiecień

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 132-149.

 

Magdalena Podsiadło-Kwiecień

Jagiellonian University

 

 

War rape in the face of heroic narrative.

The case of Polish cinema

 

Abstract

War rape seals the status of women as passive victims and excludes them from heroic narratives. Despite women’s suffering and their active resistance against the invaders, film representations reduce their subjectivity through a narrative of shame based on silence, exclusion, or the removal of women from the real course of events, all of which dominate in Polish cinema. Phenomena that are highlighted in the text—talking about rape on one’s own terms, using it as self-defence, bearing resulting offspring, active resistance or creating an approving community—may become a way to the empowerment of heroines and reformulation of the traditional symbolic field.

 

Key words: rape, abject, Polish cinema, oral history, women

 

 

 

Piotr Zwierzchowski, in his book on heroic death, writes that “the death of a hero is decidedly a male motive. This is no different in contemporary cinema; it is men who are awarded the right to be heroes and perish in a way full of pathos. The final moments of Thelma and Louise are among scarce exceptions confirming the rule”.[1] On the one hand, it seems highly unfair that the author—in his over 200-page-long deliberations dedicated to heroic deaths—acknowledged just one film with female protagonists. On the other, the disproportion between male and female representation signals difficulty in associating heroic narrative with female experience.

Even in wartime narratives in Polish cinema, which are seemingly predestined to discuss heroism, the presence of women is troublesome, although “the participation of women in resistance against invaders was much more significant here than in the West”.[2] Natalia Jarska points out that, in most cases, the female experience does not appear in dominating narratives on war. Even if women are mentioned, these stories are stereotyped and their true experiences often left untold.[3] Especially resistant to historical narrative are experiences related to gender, the effect of which is the tendency—both among witnesses and researchers—to bypass the gender category, supposedly to guarantee the universal image of wartime events. “The symbolic allocation and social evaluation of both features («personal» to women; «objective» to men) is not random”[4] and, as a result, leads to the bypassing of the specifically female experience.

However, it is impossible to attribute rape—the most gender-determined form of wartime violence[5]—solely to the personal sphere, even from the perspective of traditional historical narratives focused on events from the battlefield. On the one hand, rape touches the private realm, while on the other, it is a manner of conducting military operations. “Rape cannot be understood as «just» a deplorable side-effect of war provoked by soldiers’ sexual frustration. Rape is, literally, a weapon of war”.[6] Hence, according to researchers, it is not only sexual violence, but also sexualized violence, for which satisfying one’s desire is neither the key nor the sole goal.[7]

Treating rape as a tool of war does not mean, however, that this traumatic women’s experience finds its place among heroic narratives. Generally sexual violence reinforces the division into active aggressors symbolically annexing new territories through women, and passive victims colonized by the invaders. Moreover, as noticed by Yana Hashamova: “the predominant Western scholarship on war rapes explores the victimisation of women”.[8] Marzena Sokołowska-Paryż adds that the reflection of academics corresponds to attempts at remembering rape victims by artists. Examples of artwork analysed by her are representations that show “the woman’s suffering visually subjugated by male aggression. The victim [is] completely dominated by [a] towering soldier figure”.[9] This method of placing emphasis shows women as passive victims of violence and thus excludes them from heroic narratives usually dominated by active battle.

Perceiving rape as a weapon, however, allows us to focus on its double-edged character. Naturally, this does not signify analogous revenge that female protagonists could take on their oppressors, but it means rape as a tool for protecting your loved ones or yourself. In most cases, film representations do not present women as passive victims devoid of agency, but as active subjects who, in a critical moment, attempt to fight and defend themselves with the means available to civilians and women. Just a glance at the film representations of war rape in Polish cinema allows us to allege that most female protagonists—due to the lack of other means of conducting war—use rape as a way of doing battle. In the films How to be loved (1962, dir. Wojciech Jerzy Has), The Columbuses (1970, dir. Janusz Morgenstern), The Ring with a Crowned Eagle (1992, dir. Andrzej Wajda), Sekal has to die (1998, dir. Vladimír Michálek), Deserter’s Gold (1998, dir. Janusz Majewski), Joanna (2010, dir. Feliks Falk), Rose (2011, dir. Wojciech Smarzowski), Manhunt (2012, dir. Marcin Krzyształowicz), and Life Taken [Zerwany kłos] (2016, dir. Witold Ludwig), the female protagonists not only fight to save their own lives but act much more heroically—they attempt to save others by scarifying themselves. In this manner, they protect their daughter (Rose), a Jewish girl (Joanna), a loved one (How to be loved, The Ring with a Crowned Eagle, Deserter’s Gold, The Columbuses), a sister (Manhunt), their family (Sekal has to die), their father (Life Taken). The female protagonists decide that the rape to which they consent is a lesser tragedy than the death of a loved one.

Paradoxically, however, the raped women, by the very fact of using rape as a tool of battle or survival, do not fulfil the principle desired in the traditional historical narrative of the “ideal Other”, or a victim as a passive subject whose “role comes down to actually being a suffering victim. The system will take care of her and make sure she remains such a victim”.[10] The female protagonist who does not accept full victimisation—not only by the oppressor but also by the dominating national narrative—chooses her own salvation or that of her loved ones above chastity, and does not fulfil the role of the “good Other”. In traditional patriotic narratives, this type of sexualized agency disagrees with the status of the unblemished victim and requires further interventions to render it again a symbol of the suffering subject. The acceptance of rape as a form of salvation is problematic in the Polish context as it contradicts the postulate of chastity. Agnieszka Morstin-Popławska mentions this when writing about forced prostitution related to rape presented in A Year of the Quiet Sun (1984) by Krzysztof Zanussi. The researcher shows that, in common opinion, “women chose work in the puffs willingly, and were not victims”,[11] hence they were undeserving of compassion. Bożena Karwowska writes about this phenomenon in a similar way when describing female camp testimonies. The authors of recollections negatively mark all sexual behaviour and expect prisoners to behave in a way incompatible with the inhumane camp conditions in which, according to them, “women should remain modest and possess a sense of shame”.[12]

Using sexuality as a weapon brings to mind the figure of the biblical Judith, “the heroic liberator of the non-heroic oppressed”,[13] whose horrendous nature was the result of a scandal consisting in the merger of such contradictions as traditionally female attributes and the ability to commit murder. However, the raped protagonists do not murder their enemies like Judith but, similarly to her, use their sexuality as a weapon. Meanwhile, as Małgorzata Czermińska argues: “in the tradition stemming from Polish romantic thinking, the victim is morally and not cognitively privileged”.[14] Thus, does the female protagonist consenting to rape remain a morally privileged victim in this dominant model of thinking about history?

The impossibility of experiencing rape, surviving, and simultaneously remaining a dignified victim is presented ostentatiously in the 2016 film Life Taken, which is dedicated to the blessed Karolina Kózkówna and is clearly addressed to a Catholic audience. In 1914, a Red Army soldier murdered 16-year-old Karolina during a rape attempt. After her death, the girl was announced a martyr, she was venerated and later pronounced blessed. The fictional story compares the fate of Karolina with the story of her pregnant neighbour Teresa, who was excluded from the community precisely because of rape. She is simultaneously the victim of a Red Army soldier and of her co-residents who persecute her and consider her to be a slut, as proven by her pregnancy. The film, whiling aiming to show the magnanimity of Karolina leaning over the victim, accidentally reveals an irreconcilable dichotomy. The title protagonist was blessed because she kept her “virgin’s purity”, defending it desperately until death. Teresa is condemned because she survived the rape, which means that she was not sufficiently determined in her resistance. Hence, the film excludes the innocence of a rape victim, especially one who survived, thus sentencing her to ostracism.

This manner of thinking about sexual violence may be related to the difference between the contemporary understanding of shame and guilt. “Shame […] pertains to a trait or feature of the person, whereas guilt pertains to an act”,[15] hence only the latter is subject to punishment. “In other times and places, things were not so: religious minorities, heretics, and people with «deviant sexuality» were punished by public shaming without a conviction for any criminal act”.[16] Even though Teresa’s behaviour can hardly be considered a crime, she is punished by public shaming, from which the film distances itself only partially.

Even though not all images of film rape bear such a clear-cut nature, most of them in fact become a story about shame which does not correspond with the heroic narration. “The narrative of the dignified victim and the narrative of shame owing to the victim’s condition are contradictory, their co-existence is almost impossible since they cancel one another out”.[17] Shame characterized by Hanna Gosk refers to complicity, which in this case is reserved for the rape victim as such who experienced it and survived. The female protagonists who use rape as a survival strategy place life above the chastity of victims, thus rendering them accomplices. The elimination of shame as a feature and not an act may take place solely through death, which in turn means absence, thus excluding the possibility of redefining the traditional heroic narrative. Hence, paradoxically, instead of becoming a testimony to heroism, film depictions of rape are a sign of its impossibility both in film diegesis and in social awareness. On the one hand, they show the renouncement of ethical norms and, on the other, incompatibility with traditional historical narratives.

 

Oral history

 

Ewa Domańska, when analysing the status of a victim who escapes the role of the “ideal Other”, shows that the victim resists victimisation when she has a chance to speak for herself.[18] Owing to their actions as well as to their survivor status, the raped protagonists do not give in to total victimisation, which at least potentially allows them to tell their story.[19] Bożena Karwowska, when writing about the figures of the victim and the survivor, indicates that only the latter has a chance to speak. The author adds that “This is also related to the complex passivity of the victim manifesting itself, for example, in her inability to (rationalize and) verbalize the experience, and thus to the fact that the victim remains mute. Regaining a voice is a survivalist gesture and thus the victim never speaks; only the survivor can speak”.[20] By remaining alive, the protagonists have a chance to speak about their experience and build a type of diegetic oral history, which—as Paul Thompson puts it—“can be used to change the focus of history itself and open up new areas of inquiry. [Oral history] can give back to the people who made and experienced history, through their own words, a central place”.[21] Ordinary citizens are called on as witnesses, various positions are presented, and this is a way to tell stories outside of dominant historical discourse. “Witnesses can now also be called from the under-classes, the unprivileged, and the defeated. It provides a more realistic and fair reconstruction of the past, a challenge to the established account”.[22] This perspective makes it possible, inter alia, to hear women’s voices and stories concerning their specific experience.

Activity based on speaking about one’s experiences restores agency and dignity to the films’ protagonists, and sometimes helps transform traditional historical narratives. Felicja from How to be loved attempts to speak, but does not do so publicly. When answering a question about wartime asked by a random co-traveller to Paris, Felicja involuntarily turns to banality—an easy lie—as if used to the fact that her testimony is usually questioned, as has indeed been the case. First, her friend did not believe her, then the underground movement, then the post-war peer tribunal, and finally “those who considered her a whore”, as disclosed to her with full cruelty by Rawicz, whom she had saved. Meanwhile, the man encountered while travelling does not hesitate to speak directly about the defeats suffered. Teresa is also a film survivor—the raped protagonist of Life Taken. The piece begins and ends with her story, which the protagonist—the witness of Karolina’s holiness—tells (which is important) in a locked house. It would seem that this is a woman’s voice about a woman, presenting the common experiences of both protagonists. Nothing could be further from the truth. Her story is followed directly by a commentary—the words of a supra-narrator—explaining how a simple girl like Karolina Kózkówna became the Church’s blessed, revered by many followers. There is no more overwhelming contrast than this between the raped Teresa, who tells her story alone, enclosed within the four walls of her house, and Karolina, who “saved her virginity” and became blessed and praised by the official voice of the Church. Teresa not only does not speak of her own traumatic experience but—similarly to Felicja from How to be loved–—is subject to trial by the community, which questions her version of events relating to the rape.

A kind of a female film story is also the voice of the protagonist of The Gateway of Europe (1999), a film by Jerzy Wójcik that is based on the autobiographical recollections of Zofia Wańkiewiczówna.[23] The protagonist, Zosia, keeps a journal in which she records the events related to her service in a military hospital during WWI. The motive of rape was added to the film by the director, which helps to deprive the protagonists of the status of soldiers for the benefit of the image of victims.[24] What seems significant, however, is the choice of a protagonist who would experience rape. The division of between the silent victim (Ira) and the one who gives testimony by writing it down (Zosia) is maintained by the director. The raped one is depicted as a passive victim, and the activity that is writing does not correspond with her status. Zosia, who is appointed the heroine of this story, must remain pure.

The remaining protagonists remain silent. The mother from the series The House (1980–2000, dir. Jan Łomnicki), who lives with her adult son, the fruit of rape, does the same. Mietek Pocięgło knows about his origins but hides this information, along with his mother, from his uncle. Joanna (the title protagonist of the film by Feliks Falk) also remains silent, accused of intimate relations with a German, and condemned by the community to which she belonged. Her loved ones will never learn that the rape on the protagonist was the price for saving a Jewish child. The discretion, which was to protect the family from the consequences of hiding a Jewish girl, is replaced by shame, excluding the protagonist from both the family and the national community. It is important that it was not the rape itself, but the feeling of shame caused by the condemnation of the community with which Joanna identified that pushed the protagonist toward suicide.

The raped nuns from the Polish-French co-production titled The Innocents (Les Innocentes, 2016, dir. Anne Fontaine) also remain silent due to the trauma they experienced and the fear of social degradation. Maryśka, the only one to know about the rape of her sister, is forced into silence by the protagonists of God’s Lining (1997–1998). Anusia dies of diphtheria, but in her family’s memory she must remain untouched: good, profoundly religious, and pure. Immediately after the rape, Anusia forces her sister to remain silent precisely due to the expectations of the community, saying: “Say nothing to anyone or I will cut out your tongue”. Right after that she surprisingly abandons her role of victim by adding: “Don’t tremble like that. You won’t die from it”. Hence, what proves more important than the rape itself is the seemingly justified fear of its discovery by the family. When, following her sister’s death and against her will, Maryśka attempts to speak about the rape, she is told off by another sister, Józia: “You invented all of the dirty and disgusting story. Don’t breathe a word of this to our parents. She was pure and she died pure. Like a saint”.

The obligation to remain silent means that the experience of rape becomes neither a heroic narrative nor an alternative narrative in the face of traditional male depictions. Even when, in How to be loved or Life Taken, the protagonists speak for themselves, they do so in isolation, thus making it impossible to include these experiences in a shared narrative. Despite the support in Has’s film for the silent heroism of Felicja, this image also becomes a representation of secrecy and experience of shame, which in fact excludes a dignified victim. Even though the protagonists do not submit to passive victimisation—they battle and survive—they are finally punished for that three times: by the oppressor, by the film community, and by the inability to exist in the national heroic narrative. The silence seals their status as victims and thus repeats the gesture of the oppressor.

 

Children of war

 

A visible sign of the said silence is the lack of representation of the progeny originating from war rapes, survival prostitution, or even illegal relationships with the enemy. In its extensive comments on events related to the 20th century wars, Polish cinema very rarely tackled the subject of the consequences of forced sexual relations. This inability was visualized in the film The Innocents, in which the trace of rape in the form of pregnancy is erased by a prioress in subsequent acts of child murders, which represents in caricature the aforementioned principle that chastity is more important for society than human life. As argued by Yana Hashamova, maternity is not only the area in which the activity of raped women is revealed, but also a chance to overcome victim status by “taking control over their lives”,[25] hence the absence of this topic makes the objectification of victims easier.

Even though intimate relations between the invaders and the invaded were a part of everyday life during the war, according to Maren Roger: “predominantly German–French intimate war relations exist in Europe’s historical awareness”.[26] This topic has been particularly poorly elaborated by historians in reference to Poland, exacerbated by serious restrictions threatening both men and women in the case of breaching of the race-mixing ban. Polish women deciding on prostitution in order to survive risked more since, for such acts, “they could receive both serious punishment from the invaders and experience ostracism from compatriots”.[27] The effect is a lack of testimonies, historical research, and images dedicated to these types of relations and their consequences, i.e. war children.

Aside from the aforementioned series (The House), war children were presented in two films: the religious Life Taken and The Innocents, both of which are removed from the Polish context. In the first film, maternity is reduced to an almost surreal fantasy. Teresa, a raped single mother excluded from the community, watches a rosy, well-fed child playing in a plush illuminated room. The child born from rape was reduced to a pathetic poster promoting maternity without any regard for social context. The film avoids answering the question of social ostracism, the poverty of the protagonist, her loneliness (Teresa is an orphan), and the psychological consequences of the sexual violence she experienced. It confirms the isolation of the mother and child, showing the protagonist enclosed within the walls of the house. Even after Kozakówna’s intercession, Teresa (as she is impure) keeps at a certain distance from other mourners forming the funeral procession.

The Polish–French co-production The Innocents shows the progeny of rape whose identity, nevertheless, remains secret. The film is divided into the French perspective, i.e. represented by the main protagonist Mathilde Beaulieu, bravely fighting for the partial opening of the convent to the world to save the pregnant nuns and the children being born there. The protagonist risks her life and is close to rape, but is spared since this fact would not correspond with the heroic narrative reserved for her. The Polish perspective equals silent Polish nuns, who are ready to sacrifice their lives and the lives of their children in order to contain the shame within four walls. On the one hand, the film introduces themes absent in Polish cinema, such as war children; its title emphasizes the fundamental problem the victims struggle with, it supports life (not sexual purity) and, above all, it includes the children of nuns in the social tissue. The nuns are freed from the burden of shame with a trick: hiding the progeny of rape among war orphans taken in by the convent. In the final scene, the children, the nuns, and their families create an idyllic community, although once again it is at the price of silence. On the other hand, rape and its consequences in the form of maternity concern only Polish women, placing them on the side of silent victims. They are freed by an active French heroine from the Red Cross who, like the director, Anne Fontaine, breaks the silence. Thus, the film consolidates the stereotypical division of almost colonial character into the passive, submissive, silent, “raped” East, and the active, heroic West.

The lack of images of maternity resulting from rape stems from the tendency to eliminate the suffering of women from authentic history by taking away their specific future—the actual continuation of their lives—for the benefit of symbolic representations. This tendency corresponds with the phenomenon that Elżbieta Ostrowska wrote about when analysing the death of women on screen. The protagonists described by the author are removed, in film, “from the realm of historical experience into the realm of the mythic”.[28] The second reason for the reluctance to represent war children is the consolidation, through their presence, of abject relations. Julia Kristeva defines abject as something that “disturbs identity, system, and order that does not respect borders, positions, and rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite”.[29] In the war child, the line between what belongs to the national symbolic community and what threatens its identity becomes blurred. Moreover, “perverse interspace”[30] combines with the feminine, the woman’s body, fertilized by the enemy, which constitutes a threat to the symbolic order of the father.

The child remains a trace of abject contamination, and its status is emphasized by the conviction of inheriting the biological features of the enemy. Even though Mietek Pocięgło. the protagonist of The House series is an oppositionist dedicated to Poland, as a rape child from the era of the Warsaw Uprising he becomes an exceptionally talented Germanist as if he’d been genetically determined and inherited the linguistic competence of the unknown father in his DNA. The protagonist’s origins are in fact the reason for his inferiority complex; he considers himself a foundling even towards those whose fathers are communist dignitaries.

As Danish researchers note: “War rape aims to devalue the women and thus the wealth of the men. A precious object is turned into an abject”.[31] The authors point out that expelling the raped woman from the community becomes a necessity, for she threatens the order of the community she belonged to.[32] “He spoiled my woman” is what the protagonist of Rose says about his raped wife, on the one hand indicating the irreversible impurity attributed to the protagonist and, on the other, thinking of his raped wife as an object. The heroine becomes guilty twice: according to ethical principles (through the loss of sexual purity), and in relation to social norms (because she divided the community).

When defining “abject”, Kristeva refers to Lacan’s psychoanalysis and points out that it is precisely “on account of that Other, a space becomes demarcated, separating the abject from what will be a subject”.[33] As discussed above, the decision of the heroines to remain silent is an act of submitting to the requirements of Lacan’s Otherthe Law, the Name of the Father—and adopting an attitude that will remove the troublesome abject from the field of view. In the films discussed, the distracted observing gaze of the Big Other takes the form of constant control over the characters by “their own people”—by members of their community. Hiding in their homes, Joanna (Joanna) and Felicja (How to be loved) are continuously bothered not only by the Germans, but also by the gaze of their neighbours, family, representatives of underground organisations, and peer courts, which become an emanation of the power of the Other.

The recalled abject dimension was perversely emphasized in the film by Has, How to be loved. Felicja’s experience is juxtaposed with the heroic fate of the man encountered on her journey. During the war, as a pilot he flew high, as opposed to the “mundane” battle of Felicja who—as she claims—was not made to fly. Moreover, the contrast between sublimity and dirt is emphasized by the man’s profession: he is an epidemiologist, a specialist in the prevention of contagious diseases.

 

Erasing

 

Erasing offspring is solely a consequence or side effect of removing abject protagonists and cleansing the historical narrative. The disappearance has either a symbolic (in the form of silence or isolation) or physical dimension (death), which is also subject to the principle of absence since, according to Elżbieta Ostrowska, cinema avoids representations of women’s deaths on screen.[34] Joanna (Joanna) dissolves in the Tatra mist, where she will surely freeze to death. Biedronka (Warsaw ’44) and Niteczka (The Columbuses) die out of frame. Rose disappears: first she is moved to the private sphere where Tadeusz takes care of her, and later she dies.

The abject is expelled beyond the symbolic and social order that is responsible for identity and order and becomes subject to the law of the symbolic Other.[35] Its principles are reproduced through depictions and methods of describing historical events in which the given community recognizes itself. Rape, as an abject, while seeking its position in the symbolic order, becomes part of this order under two paradoxical conditions. The first of these corresponds to Lacan’s order of metonymy, i.e. striving to evade the forbidden object (abject) and multiply its depictions as if in its stead. The metonymy principle, which remains outside of symbolic depiction, corresponds to absence, concealment, and lack. Another mode of expression is transforming the unwanted object into a metaphor. In historical narratives, which are strongly subjected to a patriarchal dictate, this figure is responsible for the disempowerment of women and of the deprivation of their agency. They are thus limited to metaphors: instruments that humiliate the national community, means of the symbolic castration of its male representatives or, at best, symbols of the tortured homeland. For all these reasons, women are reduced in the symbolical order to the role of passive, disempowered victims.

The order of metonymy multiplies representations according to the principle of adding or speaking “instead of”, because “the Other (…) continues to resist the speaking subject, throws a spanner in its works”.[36] Metonymical multiplication characterizes Life Taken as it depicts the fates of two women of which only the suffering of one deserves holiness, while the other is isolated and stigmatized with shame. As Felicja from How to be loved says, the protagonists who have suffered trauma “hide behind the decorations” so their place can be taken by those who possess features more appropriate for the collective narrative. Rose saves her daughter from rape; she will marry Tadeusz at the altar and give herself into his care. Zosia from The Gateway of Europe remains pure, solely becoming a witness to Ira’s suffering. In Manhunt, the sexually abused Pestka, betrayer of the insurgents, saves her younger sister, a 16-year-old imprisoned by the Gestapo for distributing leaflets. According to Nancy Isenberg, “the creation of true womanhood is always contrasted to the countervailing notion of female vice: submission is contrasted to superiority, piety to heresy and irreligion, purity to pollution, and domesticity to disorderly public behaviour”.[37] Thus, the traumatized female body is replaced with one that guarantees the retention of national order and community.

The metonymical replacement also allows us to replace the image of the raped with the image of a suffering man or his heroic act. In Rose, the death of the protagonist and the rapes she experiences become the reason for Tadeusz’s suffering and stimulus to show his indomitable attitude. In Life Taken, despite the martyr’s death of Kózkówna and the rape of Teresa, it is the suffering of the blessed’s father that takes the central place in the film and is exposed in its final sequences. In The Columbuses, Niteczka sacrifices herself for the boy called Kolumb and, in order to keep him alive, pursues the rapist. After a montage cut, Kolumb, woken from delirium, crawls up the stairs to escape the basement in which Niteczka had hidden him. Instead of her suffering we have a scene reminiscent of the path to Golgotha, at the end of which the protagonist finds the girl’s dead body. The rape scene (or rather its suggestion) in Warsaw ’44 has a similar structure. Following the scene in which a repugnant pervert, a member of the Dirlewanger brigade, inspects Biedronka from head to toe, there is a cut to the part dedicated to Stefan’s escape across the destroyed city and his dramatic reaction to the girl’s death. The story ends with the vision of the boy (who likely survived) recalling the image of the already dead protagonist. We can also find similar metonymical theft in The Ring with a Crowned Eagle, in which the rape of Wiśka leads to the death of one of her defenders. Instead of the protagonist’s story, we are presented the story of the impact of her sacrifice and indomitability on her beloved, while she herself appears as Marcin’s vision and a prick of conscience. In Sekal has to die, despite the film’s criticism of the degeneration of the patriarchal system, it is the suffering of Sekal, who is in love with Agnieszka, that is exposed—not the suffering of the girl who is raped upon his orders behind closed doors.

 

Metaphor

 

The figure of the metaphor, consisting in intensification and juxtaposition of sense, includes the female protagonists in the symbolic order, i.e. the traditional historical narrative. They are reduced to a symbol; they disappear in the allegory taken from religious repertoire. According to Hans Mayer, “Theological allegoresis and allegorical meaning relegate history. (…) Allegorisation means the annihilation of the individual”.[38] Protagonists subjected to metaphysical transgression and religious purification are transformed into religious allegory (The Gateway of Europe, Joanna), or the desexualized figure of a mother (The Ring with a Crowned Eagle). In Joanna, the protagonist actively fights for survival, but her sublimity is ensured by the final scene (stylized as the Assumption)[39] in which the protagonist becomes a victim—silent, hounded, disappearing into the whiteness of the clouds. Ira from The Gateway of Europe is returned to her friends on a horse after the rape, clothed in a red robe. On the one hand, the red of the coat reminds us of a courtesan’s clothes, on the other, of the scarlet coat of Christ insulted by Jews.[40] In both films, the protagonists are reduced to victims and disarmed, but in the religious context their images hide a certain contradiction: apart from her sublimity, Joanna is also a suicide, and Ira’s naked breast becomes the source of her shame and degradation.

The same religious context is also offered to raped protagonists by purification through desexualisation and transformation in the allegory of maternity. This principle works, among others, in The Ring with a Crowned Eagle, Life Taken, or The Columbuses, as often noted by researchers analysing the presence of women in historical narratives.[41] The escape from sexuality, however, makes it impossible to deliberate upon sexual violence and pushes it into the sphere of silence.

At the same time, however, the films discussed here present a feminine version of heroism that, in spite of the aforementioned operations, does not merely realize the victim model. At the centre of the cited stories are women who are heroic, active, and who resist the enemy, marking their presence in the historical narrative. This aspect is often overlooked due to the aforementioned strategies that downgrade female protagonists as part of the community story. Analysing the masochism of female protagonists (and potential female viewers) that dominates in film melodramas, Linda Williams pointed out that it is possible to interpret films in this genre oppositely to the victim pattern inscribed in them. According to the researcher, the pathos contained in the films does not merely lead to identification with the victim and her masochism, but is also an encouragement to “a complex negotiation between emotion and thought”.[42] War narratives with women in lead roles also welcome critical reception rather than simply identifying oneself with the position of a victim. The resistance that the female protagonists of traditional historical stories put up in spite of everything may end up forming an introduction to their taking a place in the heroic narrative, provided that the symbolic field of these stories is reformulated.

 

Without shame

 

In one of the scenes from How to be loved, the German officer shows the café employees a wanted notice which threatens anybody hiding a fugitive with the death penalty. Special words addressed to Felicja are “I would like to emphasize that, according to what is written here, you are also a person”. This short exchange underscores the relationship between subjectivity and agency. As much as the protagonist maintains her subjectivity, the context in which she has to act brings her—as she says—respect in her eyes only.

The analysed films rarely present a semblance of community which would also enable privileges from the creators of collective memory. In The Gateway of Europe, it is the group of sympathetic nuns who wash their raped friend together. We can perceive this simply as a symbolic ritual, or as an emphatic community that is unhindered by shame. In The Innocents, the women create a support group with various opinions and life goals, which—as the film suggests—allows them to abandon their traumatic experience and find acceptance in the group. Also, Felicja appeals to the community, reaching a wide audience each week through her radio program. She works on social awareness, correcting on her own the radio drama scripts by referring to her personal experiences. Instead of condemning an illegitimate child (as in the script), she points to the common nature of such events. Another voice addressed to the public is the memoirs of Ola Watowa concerning her exile to Kazakhstan during WWII, which were adapted by Robert Gliński in All That Really Matters… (1992).

Surpassing the story of shame is the condition for heroic narrative and hence the need for the creation of an alternative collective memory based on an accepting community which would award heroines instead of seeking religious redemption for them. Thus, the victim status would not degrade female protagonists and would not mark them with shame. In the Polish symbolic field, a raped woman is subject to very strong victimisation; hence, it is impossible to avoid analytical thought focused on this particular aspect. At the same time, it is worth paying attention to the elements that give empowerment and agency back to the victims: using rape as self-defence or with the intention of saving a loved one, active participation in the battle, talking about the rape on their own terms, bearing offspring, creating an accepting and empathic community, or even the status of the abject, which undermines the dominant symbolic narrative. All these aspects fail to meet the criteria that traditional historical stories require of women, hence the problem with their expression in the aforementioned depictions. In spite of victimising and disempowering film strategies, the presence of the abovementioned motifs—even if only partial—may show the direction for future depictions. Leaving the sphere of privacy, referring to the authenticity of experience, or accepting agency free from punishment: all are a path toward appreciating the specifically female experience. The process of co-creating the story of the past, in which sexual violence would not degrade its victims, is a long one because it assumes the evolution of all actors involved in the undertaking, which is involved in building a collective memory.

 

References

 

Czermińska Małgorzata, “O dwuznaczności sytuacji ofiary” / “On the ambiguity of the victim’s situation”, in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością. Polski dyskurs postzależnościowy – konteksty i perspektywy badawcze / Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past. Polish post-dependence discourse – research contexts and perspectives, ed. Ryszard Nycz, (Kraków: Universitas) (2011).

Diken Bülent, Laustsen Carsten Bagge, “Becoming Abject: Rape as a Weapon of War”, Body & Society 1, vol 11 (2005).

Domańska Ewa, “O poznawczym uprzywilejowaniu ofiary (uwagi metodologiczne)” / “On cognitive privileges of the victim (methodological remarks)”, in: (Nie)obecność: pominięcia i przemilczenia w narracjach XX wieku / Absence: omissions and concealments in 20th-century narratives, ed. Hanna Gosk, (Warszawa: Dom Wydawniczy Elipsa) (2008).

Dybel Paweł, Urwane Ścieżki. Przybyszewski-Freud-Lacan / Broken Paths. Przybyszewski-Freud-Lacan, (Kraków: Universitas) (2000).

Gosk Hanna, “(Nie)obecność opowieści o wstydzie w narracji losu polskiego” / “The absence of the story of shame in the narrative of Polish fate”, in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością… /  Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past. Polish post-dependence discourse – research contexts and perspectives, ed. Ryszard Nycz, (Kraków: Universitas) (2011).

Hashamova Yana, “War Rape: (Re)defining Motherhood, Fatherhood and Nationhood”, in: Embracing Arms: Cultural Representation of Slavic and Balkan Women in War, ed. Helena Goscilo, (New York: Central European University Press) (2012).

Isenberg Nancy, “Second Thoughts on Gender and Women’s History”, American Studies 1, vol. 36 (1995).

Jarska Natalia, “Women and Men at War. A Gender Perspective on World War II and its Aftermath in Central and Eastern Europe, ed. Maren Röger, Ruth Leiserowitzn (review)”, Pamięć i Sprawiedliwość. Pismo naukowe poświęcone historii najnowszej 2 (2014).

Karwowska Bożena, “«Kult ofiary» w oczach polskich pisarek emigrantek a «kult ocaleńca» w refleksji krytycznej na temat dyskursów wyzwoleńczych” / “«The cult of the victim» seen by Polish migrant female writers and «the cult of the survivor» in critical reflection on liberation discourses” in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością… /   Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past. Polish post-dependence discourse – research contexts and perspectives, ed. Ryszard Nycz, (Kraków: Universitas) (2011).

Karwowska Bożena, “Zatarte sensy prozy łagrowej: Seweryny Szmaglewskiej «Dymy nad Birkenau» wtedy i dziś” / “The blurred senses of labour camp prose: Seweryna Szmaglewska «Smoke over Birkenau» then and now”, in: (Nie)obecność: pominięcia i przemilczenia w narracjach XX wieku / Absence: omissions and concealments in 20th-century narratives, ed. Hanna Gosk, (Warszawa: Dom Wydawniczy Elipsa) (2008).

Kristeva Julia, Powers of horror. An essay of abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez, (New York: Columbia University Press) (1982)

Laplanche Jean, Pontalis J.-B., Słownik psychoanalizy / Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, trans. Ewa Modzelewska, Ewa Wojciechowska, (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Szkolne i Pedagogiczne) (1996).

Mazierska Ewa, Ostrowska Elżbieta, Women in Polish Cinema, (New York: Berghahn Books) (2006).

Mayer Hans, Odmieńcy / Outsiders, trans. Anna Kryczyńska,  (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Literackie Muza) (2005).

Morstin Agnieszka, “Mocne filmy i głębokie kompleksy. Róża Wojtka Smarzowskiego wobec Jak być kochaną Wojciecha J. Hasa” / „Strong Films and Deep Complexes. Rose by Wojtek Smarzowski compared with How to be loved by Wojciech J. Has”, Kwartalnik Filmowy 77-78 (2012).

Morstin-Popławska Agnieszka, “Ziemie odzyskana – życia utracone. O Roku spokojnego słońca Krzysztofa Zanussiego” / “Reclaimed land – lost life. On  A Year of the Quiet Sun by Krzysztof Zanussi”, in: Kino polskie wobec II wojny światowej / Polish cinema and WWII, ed. Piotr Zwierzchowski, Daria Mazur, Mariusz Guzek, (Bydgoszcz: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Kazimierza Wielkiego) (2011).

Nussbaum Martha C., Hiding from Humanity. Disgust, Shame, and the Law, (Princeton: Princeton University Press) (2004).

Ostrowska Elżbieta, “Invisible Deaths: Polish Cinema’s Representation of Women in World War II”, in: Embracing Arms: Cultural Representation of Slavic and Balkan Women in War, ed. Helena Goscilo, (New York: Central European University Press) (2012).

Ostrowska-Chmura Elżbieta, “Polka – dumny przedmiot pożądania” / “Pole – a proud object of desire”, in: Ciało i seksualność w kinie polskim / Sexuality and the Body in Polish Cinema, ed. Sebastian Jagielski, Agnieszka Morstin-Popławska, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2009).

Röger Maren, “(Nie)codzienność podczas niemieckiej okupacji w zachodniej i wschodniej Europie: prostytucja, stosunki intymne i «dzieci wojny» we Francji, Belgii i w Polsce” / „(Not)everyday life during German occupation in Western and Eastern Europe: prostitution, intimate relations and “war children” in France, Belgium and Poland”, trans. Katarzyna Chimiak, in: Okupowana Europa. Podobieństwa i różnice / Occupied Europe. Similarities and differences, ed. Waldemar Grabowski, (Warszawa: IPN) (2014).

Sokołowska-Paryż Marzena, “War Rape: Trauma and the Ethics of Representation”, in: Traumatic Memories of the Second World War and After, ed. Peter Leese, Jason Crouthamel, (New York: Springer International Publishing) (2016).

Thompson Paul, The Voice of the Past. Oral History, (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (1988).

Zwierzchowski Piotr, Spektakl i ideologia. Szkice o filmowych wyobrażeniach śmierci heroicznej / Spectacle and ideology. Sketches on film conceptions of heroic death, (Kraków: Rabid) (2006).

Williams Linda, “Melodrama Revisited”, in: Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory, ed. N. Browne, (Berkeley: University of California Press) (1998).

 

[1] Piotr Zwierzchowski, Spektakl i ideologia. Szkice o filmowych wyobrażeniach śmierci heroicznej / Spectacle and ideology. Sketches on film conceptions of heroic death, (Kraków: Rabid) (2006), p. 184.

[2] Natalia Jarska, “Women and Men at War. A Gender Perspective on World War II and its Aftermath in Central and Eastern Europe, ed. Maren Röger, Ruth Leiserowitzn (review)”, Pamięć i Sprawiedliwość. Pismo naukowe poświęcone historii najnowszej 2  (2014), p. 505.

[3] Ibid., p. 510

[4] Bożena Karwowska,  “Zatarte sensy prozy łagrowej: Seweryny Szmaglewskiej «Dymy nad Birkenau» wtedy i dziś” / “The blurred senses of labour camp prose: Seweryna Szmaglewska «Smoke over Birkenau» then and now”, in: (Nie)obecność: pominięcia i przemilczenia w narracjach XX wieku / Absence: omissions and concealments in 20th-century narratives, ed. Hanna Gosk, (Warszawa: Dom Wydawniczy Elipsa) (2008), p. 253.

[5] We rarely encounter war images that present the rape of men (Kornblumenblau, 1988, dir. Leszek Wosiewicz). In Polish cinema, we can indicate homosexual or heterosexual survival prostitution (Kornblumenblau, 1988, dir. Leszek Wosiewicz) (Down Carrier, 1983, dir. Stefan Szlachtycz and Warsaw: Year5703, 1992, dir. Janusz Kijowski) that is related to this experience.

[6] Bülent Diken, Carsten Bagge Laustsen, “Becoming Abject: Rape as a Weapon of War”, Body & Society 1, vol 11 (2005), p. 112.

[7] Natalia Jarska, op. cit., p. 506.

[8] Yana Hashamova, “War Rape: (Re)defining Motherhood, Fatherhood and Nationhood”, in: Embracing Arms: Cultural Representation of Slavic and Balkan Women in War, ed. Helena Goscilo, (New York: Central European University Press) (2012), p. 235.

[9] Marzena Sokołowska-Paryż, “War Rape: Trauma and the Ethics of Representation”, in: Traumatic Memories of the Second World War and After, ed. Peter Leese, Jason Crouthamel, (New York: Springer International Publishing) (2016), p. 223.

[10] Ewa Domańska, “O poznawczym uprzywilejowaniu ofiary (uwagi metodologiczne)” / “On cognitive privileges of the victim (methodological remarks)”, in: (Nie)obecność: pominięcia i przemilczenia w narracjach XX wieku / Absence: omissions and concealments in 20th-century narratives, op. cit., p. 32.

[11] Agnieszka Morstin-Popławska, “Ziemie odzyskana – życia utracone. O Roku spokojnego słońca Krzysztofa Zanussiego” / “Reclaimed land – lost life. On A Year of the Quiet Sun by Krzysztof Zanussi”, in: Kino polskie wobec II wojny światowej / Polish cinema and WWII, ed. Piotr Zwierzchowski, Daria Mazur, Mariusz Guzek, (Bydgoszcz: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Kazimierza Wielkiego) (2011), p. 223.

[12] Bożena Karwowska, “Zatarte sensy prozy łagrowej…” / “The blurred senses of labour camp prose…”, op. cit., p. 263.

[13] Hans Mayer, Outsiders, trans. Anna Kryczyńska,  (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Literackie Muza) (2005), p. 75.

[14] Małgorzata Czermińska, “O dwuznaczności sytuacji ofiary” / “On the ambiguity of the victim’s situation”, in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością. Polski dyskurs postzależnościowy – konteksty i perspektywy badawcze / Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past. Polish post-dependence discourse – research contexts and perspectives, ed. Ryszard Nycz, (Kraków: Universitas) (2011), p. 94.

[15] Martha C. Nussbaum, Hiding from Humanity. Disgust, Shame, and the Law, (Princeton: Princeton University Press) (2004), p. 229.

[16] Ibid., p. 176-177.

[17] Hanna Gosk, “(Nie)obecność opowieści o wstydzie w narracji losu polskiego” / “The absence of the story of shame in the narrative of Polish fate”, in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością… / Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past…, op. cit., p. 90.

[18] Ewa Domańska, op. cit., p. 24.

[19] Agnieszka Morstin compares Rose by Wojciech Smarzowski with How to be loved by Wojciech J. Has; she emphasizes the role of the subjective narrative used in the latter film as a strategy for abandoning the victim status. See: Agnieszka Morstin, “Mocne filmy i głębokie kompleksy…” / “Strong Films and Deep Complexes. Rose by Wojtek Smarzowski compared with How to be loved by Wojciech J. Has”, Kwartalnik Filmowy 77-78 (2012), p. 206.

[20] Bożena Karwowska, “«Kult ofiary» w oczach polskich pisarek emigrantek a «kult ocaleńca» w refleksji krytycznej na temat dyskursów wyzwoleńczych” / “«The cult of the victim» seen by Polish migrant female writers and «the cult of the survivor» in critical reflection on liberation discourses” in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością… / Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past…, op. cit. p. 327.

[21] Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past. Oral History, (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (1988), p. 26.

[22] Ibid., p. 28.

[23] The recollections of Zofia Wańkowiczówna were used by her grandson, Melchior Wańkowicz, to create the short story titled Hospital in Cichinicze. Based on this story, Jerzy Wójcik made the film The Gateway of Europe.

[24] Elżbieta Ostrowska writes in detail about the adaptive changes and femininity under the rule of nationalist ideology (Elżbieta Ostrowska-Chmura, “Polka – dumny przedmiot pożądania” / “Pole – a proud object of desire”, in: Ciało i seksualność w kinie polskim / Sexuality and the Body in Polish Cinema, ed. Sebastian Jagielski, Agnieszka Morstin-Popławska, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2009), p. 139-153).

[25] Yana Hashamova, op. cit., p. 235.

[26] Maren Roger, “(Nie)codzienność podczas niemieckiej okupacji w zachodniej i wschodniej Europie: prostytucja, stosunki intymne i «dzieci wojny» we Francji, Belgii i w Polsce” / „(Not)everyday life during German occupation in Western and Eastern Europe: prostitution, intimate relations and “war children” in France, Belgium and Poland”, trans. Katarzyna Chimiak, in: Okupowana Europa. Podobieństwa i różnice / Occupied Europe. Similarities and differences, ed. Waldemar Grabowski, (Warszawa: IPN) (2014), p. 77.

[27] Ibid., p. 87.

[28] Elżbieta Ostrowska, “Invisible Deaths: Polish Cinema’s Representation of Women in World War II”, in: Embracing Arms…, op cit., p. 56.

[29] Julia Kristeva, Powers of horror. An essay of abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez, (New York: Columbia University Press) (1982), p. 4.

[30] Ibid., p. 16.

[31] Bülent Diken, Carsten Bagge Laustsen, op. cit., p. 117.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Julia Kristeva, op. cit., p. 10.

[34] See Elżbieta Ostrowska, “Invisible Deaths…”, op. cit., p. 30.

[35] Jean Laplanche, J.-B. Pontalis, Słownik psychoanalizy / Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, trans. Ewa Modzelewska, Ewa Wojciechowska, (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Szkolne i Pedagogiczne) (1996), p. 317.

[36]  Paweł Dybel, Urwane Ścieżki. Przybyszewski-Freud-Lacan / Broken Paths. Przybyszewski-Freud-Lacan, (Kraków: Universitas) (2000), p. 268.

[37] Nancy Isenberg, “Second Thoughts on Gender and Women’s History”, American Studies 1, vol. 36 (1995), p. 99.

[38] Hans Mayer, op. cit., p. 74 and 77.

[39] The vertical direction can be found also in such films as: The Ring with a Crowned Eagle, The Columbuses, Life Taken.

[40] Elżbieta Ostrowska describes this scene as “a feminine allegory of Poland”. See: Elżbieta Ostrowska-Chmura, „Polka – dumny przedmiot…” / „Pole – a proud object…”, op. cit., p. 148.

[41] See Ewa Mazierska, Elżbieta Ostrowska, Women in Polish Cinema, (New York: Berghahn Books) (2006), p. 15-54.

[42] Linda Williams, “Melodrama Revisited”, in: Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory, ed. N. Browne, (Berkeley: University of California Press) (1998), p. 49.

Eat like a Republican and you won’t get AIDS – a conversation with Barbara Hammer

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 150-160.

 

Andrzej Pitrus

Jagiellonian University

 

 

Eat like a Republican and you won’t get AIDS

– a conversation with Barbara Hammer

 

 

Andrzej Pitrus: In 2009 I had the honor to speak to Jonas Mekas. Many people consider him the father of American avant-garde. Do you agree?

Barbara Hammer: I don’t agree. Should I tell you why?

Yes, sure.

I think Jonas Mekas did a lot to contribute to avant-garde film in the United States and internationally, but in terms of American avant-garde, I think we have to look to Maya Deren, and even before – to James Sibley Watson, his Fall of the House of Usher in 1928. His Lot in Sodom was shown,—I was shocked to read this—in Times Square in 1933 without any censorship at all.

Before Mekas there were many American experimental filmmakers, but he was a person  promoted their works. Of course I asked Jonas: “Do you feel more Lithuanian or American?” He answered “No, I’m not American, I’m from New York. When I go outside the city, I’m a foreigner again.”

I also asked him for his definition of experimental film and he said: “There’s no such thing! Scientists make experiments, I don’t really believe that there’s something like experimental film”. It was a difficult conversation in a way. I wonder if you agree with him?

I definitely think there’s something like experimental film. In Sanctus (1990), which is composed of moving x-rays of a human body that Dr. James Sibley Watson showed in the 50s, my experiment was to try to put a halo around the body, the skeletons, and to use secondary colors, like orange, lavender, turquoise, not red, blue and yellow. I wanted a subtle celebration of the bones and organs with these muted colors. If you look inside the interior of the body, which is mostly water, and see organs floating around, it seems very quiet and meditative. I wanted to celebrate the body, not the way we usually see it. That was an experiment, I had to do many trials, and fail, and try again, to get everything the way I wanted it… So I think there is experimental film, yes.

I was quite ‘disappointed’ with his answer, because what I do for living is teach experimental film. Should I quit my job?

Mekas replaced this idea with a notion of ‘cinema of the authors’. He said, “I’m an author, I’m a person, who, in a way, uses a camera like a pen”.

He is speaking for his own kind of cinema. He doesn’t see his work as experimental. After all, I don’t know what the word is in English… ” a writer of images”.

How do you see yourself in the tradition of the American avant-garde? In your early career you made a film on Stan Brakhage. Unfortunately I haven’t seen it. Then, you made another film about his wife, so I wonder if Brakhage is important for you and in which way?

Thank you for that question. I was very drawn to international film. When I was just 30 years old, I saw Bergman’s movie with subtitles and I thought, “Oh, here’s intellectual cinema”. Then, I went to Cinematheque in San Francisco and I saw Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man (1961-1964), in which he walks up a mountain to cut down a tree. It’s more than 60 minutes long, I think, and it changed my world view. When I left the cinema theatre, I saw the street around me, the lights, the trees growing, the pavement differently. That was fascinating to me. I also was taking a class where we saw everything Brakhage made up until then. An early film dedicated to Brakhage is The Song of a Clinking Cup (1972). It’s not ever been transferred from 8mm, so there’s no way you could probably see it. I’ve never shown it.

Yes, it is very hard to find.

Jane Brakhage was my thesis film, and it only exists in 16mm. We are writing some grants to get money for digitizers so it can be made available. Another film that hasn’t been released is an interview I did with her parents asking about her relationship with Stan, as well as herself of course, and this exists as a video transferred to DVD, but it hasn’t been edited, so I want to go back and work on it. I think I will call it Jane Brakhage, too or Jane Brankhage Two.

Speaking about Brakhage… Maya Deren, who’s certainly important for you, once said that his film about his baby being born was too much. I wonder if you agree with it?

This is amazing, because Window Water Baby Moving (1959) is exactly why I made Jane Brakhage, but I never knew Maya Deren had any commentary about it. Where did she say that?

I am not sure, but I have found these words of Brakhage himself: ‘It was Maya Deren’s contention that the film was a blasphemy… because it permitted men to see what they’re not supposed to see’. 

In Window Water Baby Moving he shows childbirth in a very explicit way.  And it was made in the late 50s when it wasn’t that common not only to share images of childbirth on film, but also for a father to participate in it.

We can thank him for that film and for another, when he went to the morgue to capture The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971). I really objected to that birth film, especially after I met Jane Brakhage, because he shows her as an earth goddess: you see her in a bathtub with her pregnant belly and she’s celebrated as if she was on a pedestal, as if she was extraordinary in terms of mythology. So I decided I wanted to meet her. We invited Stan and Jane to the San Francisco State University, where I was a graduate student. She was so not a goddess; she was a very practical person. She collected seeds from trees in San Francisco when we were walking to the school, and she was going to plant them and see if they would grow. I made my thesis film on her and I went to Colorado, high up in the mountains in Rollinsville, and I found the most amazing woman. She wrote an alphabet of dog language. She could play on her recorder songs to the birds and they would answer her. She put out the laundry and then opened her hand without any food in it and birds landed on it. She took a walk through the snow—I was there in January—and her donkey and goats, besides her dogs, followed us on the walk. She was an extraordinary woman, who was abused in a way by Stan Brakhage.  He talked all day, she had to sit there and listen to him.

And also she had to be in his films!

And she didn’t get credit! Who shot him when he was cutting down the tree? It was Jane Brakhage, she told me.

There was a problem with his second wife, who didn’t want to be filmed. So he started making non-camera films, painting and scratching, and once he said that this was because his second wife didn’t really want to be shown, especially giving birth or having sex with him…

Well, I think he was being clever, because he did make Mothlight (1964) a year before which is a cameraless film though not hand painted or scratched; it’s a wonderful film. He takes moths and takes their wings and puts them on celluloid—16mm film—and then has it re-photographed in a lab, so you are seeing moths ‘flying’, bringing reality into projection in a way nobody had done before.

We’ve just watched Dyketactics (1974). It was made when the approach to explicit sex on the screen changed. On one hand, there’s your experimental film, and on the other there’s Deep Throat (1972), a mainstream porn flick and a feature film at the same time. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the sex in Dyketactics is said to be staged, so there’s no pleasure involved. How it is to stage a sex scene?

I think it’s wonderful to perform… In my opinion, when you’re shooting sex, it’s always staged, it’s always a performance. In terms of shooting sex without performance I guess you could put a camera on the wall and let it run for a week, and maybe you would forget it. But I think there’s pleasure in performance and there can be pleasure in a stage set, but you’re very aware of the camera being there, and besides, with the Bolex you only get 19 feet, so it’s going to stop. You can giggle and then wind it again. Anyway, I’m in the film and I’m directing it, so I know it was staged, I know it was pleasurable. I had the idea that the best shot in the film is the most intimate. The Bolex can run by itself, so you wind it and you put it between the two bodies and you just take your hand away. It shoots the scene of the two women pulling their hands up along the body. You have three-dimensionality, depth, sensuality, hand touching. If I may interject, my cinema is about connecting touch and sight. It was perfect to make the screen a sexual haptic experience, so I hope the audience feel in their bodies what they see with their eyes. My research shows that we all touch as infants before we see. For two months your eyes don’t focus. That’s why I have 110 images in these four minutes, and every image has a sense of touch in it.

Dyketactics was certainly a breakthrough and probably the first arthouse film in which an explicit lesbian sex scene is shown. But obviously, before that there were many pornographic films with both heterosexual and homosexual scenes. This was a very important and interesting moment, because in the 70s porn films went mainstream, and at the same time, there were also people who wanted to use pornography in a different way. Do you believe it is possible to use pornography in a decent, proper way and make some kind of value out of it?

When you say “a proper way”, do you mean for pleasure, for sexual arousal?

Actually no… Mainstream pornography is an exploitation of mostly female bodies and female sexuality made for men’s pleasure. But there were feminists who wanted to redefine pornography. I’m asking this question, because your film is certainly not pornography in a proper sense, but it is as explicit as some well-known, soft-core pornography films. The borderline is really obscure.

This is a fun question. We could probably talk about it for hours. I have no objection to people being stimulated in whatever way they want: visually, texturally, with their imagination or with the real thing, but I think I was very concerned that my work would not be possible to voyeur. So when you come to some other films, like Nitrate Kisses (1992), when you have four different couples making love throughout the feature documentary, I make sure that I interrupt the film. There’s the rupture, not only to show the loss of gay history, which was my intention, but also to say that this film was not made for sexual pleasure and stimulation, although it’s ok with me if you are stimulated. The whole film is about censorship of queer history, but when I looked at my own community I had to ask: what are we censoring? We’re censoring the sexual practices of old women—we never see them on the screen—or black and white couples, or young women who shave their heads and tattoo their bodies. We’re censoring sadomasochistic sex practices—this was at the time of the sex wars in the feminist community. I wanted to say: “hey, we’re not holier than you,  we have our own censorship”.

I really enjoyed your Menses (1974), because it’s so affirmative. In many films or feminist performances the problem of menstruation was shown as a kind of a curse. I don’t really know much about it, I wish I could…

I encourage students and filmmakers to make work that is gender specific.  For example, many times when I’m teaching I have young Caucasian men in my class… I haven’t seen a film of a wet dream yet! There are different expressions that our gendered bodies have, so I’m happy to tell you about menstruation.

The girls who are buying massive amounts of tampax and stuff… It is funny and affirmative. This is a kind of radical happening, but like nothing else on the subject.

I made that film because I had seen Walt Disney films. When we were children, the girls were separated from the boys to see films about menstruation. It was all about flowers, it wasn’t at all about the experience of dripping blood between your legs. There are some serious points in Menses. For instance, I researched menstruation in history. I had a slumber party and I shared my research with the young women who are in the film, and one of my sources was from the Roman author Pliny, who said that if a woman is menstruating and she touches a pregnant horse, its milk will go sour. Historically, women have been banned in different cultures during menstruation: you have to go to a house outside the village. That the impetus plus my own personal history with my mother telling me about menstruation—which she didn’t—that made me make that film.

Another film made in the 70s, Superdyke (1975), is also funny. It shows girls attacking institutions and taking over. But I wonder if experimental or avant-garde cinema is the best ‘weapon’ for an activist? Once a German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder said that he had realized the audience he wanted to address really enjoyed melodramas and Hollywood film rather than his revolutionary works. So, in a way, his avant-garde and experimental cinema made very little sense. People he wanted to reach preferred mainstream culture. You make experimental films, and you are probably seen as an activist…

I’m functioning as a visual artist.  I can make what I want if I’m self-funding my films. I think I made my films out of my own pocket for 15 years at least. So I have to be giving myself pleasure, I have to be doing what I want for the reasons that I have, and they don’t necessarily have anything to do with activism. My audience is the same as Fassbinder’s: they want a narrative, they want a lesbian happy ending. In the 70s or the 80s, the queer audience wasn’t used to experimental film any more than the straight audience. I can’t say that my films were always well attended. Sometimes they were, when my name became known or if there were a celebration and we could dance afterwards. The times were different then. The thing is, Fassbinder isn’t alive today, and I am. So I’m wondering about his change of direction. You see what I mean? If we don’t do what really pleases us, maybe we get depressed and choose an ending.

What killed him was drugs and alcohol…

But we can ask – why the drugs and alcohol?

In Women I Love (1976) you used slightly different imagery. In the early films you were explicit, and I think at that time it could be quite shocking to some people. Then, in Women I Love you opt for Georgia O’Keefe-style imagery, more metaphorical and poetical: fruits and vegetables evoking sexual organs.

You could say that the film Women I Love was in 1976, just two years after Dyketactics, and then in ‘93 I’m showing explicit sexuality again. In History Lessons in 2000 I’m showing pornography of lesbians made by men. I don’t think there’s some adverse reaction that I was having toward sexual expression. I was interested in animation, and also these were six or seven of my lovers that I had no intention of making a film about. When I started, I was just shooting our relationship without intention to put it in a film for others.  Then it seemed to me on one rainy day, when there was nothing to do but make a film, that each woman could represent a different fruit or vegetable. I only had that material