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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.

 

References

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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.

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

Falconer, Kenneth, Fractal Geometry: Mathematical Foundations and Applications (3rd ed.), (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons) (2014).

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

James Gleick, Chaos, (London: Vintage) (1998).

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

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

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.

Douglas Hofstadter, I Am a Strange Loop, (New York: Basic Books) (2007).

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.

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

JackSepticEye, “BLOW YOUR MIND | Everything #1”, Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GeJvh212pEQ date accessed 1 September 2017.

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Max Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe, (London: Penguin) (2015).

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.

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.

 

 

[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)

Zrzut_07 2018-07-29 00.46.05

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

Download the Article

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.

 

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Tucker Lavernius, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

Tyler, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

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.

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).

Willjaf, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

WoDota, “TerrorBlade’s Revenge”, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fr3lrxg-2mA, date accessed 14 December 2015.

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

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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.

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.

 

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Silverstein Ken, “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.

Susca Margot A., “Why We Still Fight: Adolescents, America’s Army, and the Government-Gaming Nexus”, Global Media Journal, 12 (2012), p. 1–16.

Terkel Studs, The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two (New York: Ballantine Books) (1984).

Voorhees Gerald, “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: Continnum) (2012), p. 89–111.

Wetta Frank J., Novelli Martin A., “Now a Major Motion Picture: War Films and Hollywood’s New Patriotism”, The Journal of Military History 67:3 (2003), pp. 861–882.

White Geoffrey M., “National Subjects: September 11 and Pearl Harbor”, American Ethnologist, 31:3 (2004), pp. 293–310.

 

 

[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.

 

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.

Assange Julian et al., Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet, (New York–London: OR Books) (2012).

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.

Clarke Richard A., Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It, (New York: HarperCollins) (2010).

Critical Art Ensemble, Electronic Civil Disobedience & Other Unpopular Ideas, www.critical-art.net/books/ecd, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

CULT OF THE DEAD COW, The Hacktivismo FAQ, http://www.cultdeadcow.com/cDc_files/HacktivismoFAQ.html, date accessed: 22 July 2017.

Doctorow Cory, “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.

Tor Ekeland, “Hacker Madness”, Limn 8 (2017), https://limn.it/hacker-madness/, date accessed: 22 July 2017.

Exposing the Invisible, https://exposingtheinvisible.org/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

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.

Ashley Gorham, “The Political Meaning of Hacktivism”, Limn 8 (2017), https://limn.it/the-political-meaning-of-hacktivism/, date accessed: 22 July 2017.

Greenberg Andy, “Hacker claims feds hit him with 44 felonies when he refused to be an FBI spy”, Wired, https://www.wired.com/2015/02/hacker-claims-feds-hit-44-felonies-refused-fbi-spy/, date accessed: 8 April 2017.

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.

Tim Jordan, Activism! Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Society, (London: Reaktion Books) (2002).

Tim Jordan, Hacking: Digital Media and Technological Determinism, (Cambridge–Malden: Polity Press) (2008).

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.

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.

Mullin Joe, “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.

Nakashima Ellen, Warrick Joby, “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.

Nayar Pramod K., An Introduction to New Media and Cybercultures, (Malden–Oxford Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell) (2010).

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.

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.

Douglas Thomas, Hacker Culture, (Minneapolis–London: University of Minnesota Press) (2002).

“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.

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.

Table of Contents 2016 vol.1 no.2

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2

Table of Contents  2016 vol.1 no.2

Transnational Perspectives on Film and Media

 

Transnational Turn in Film Studies

Krzysztof Loska

“Let everybody love me”. The transnational body of Elżbieta Czyżewska

Sebastian Jagielski

Reading ABC. An experiment

Andrzej Pitrus

Rinko Kikuchi in Space: Transnational Mexican Directors’ Global Gaze

Jane Hanley

Clint Eastwoods’s Letters from Iwo Jima as a transnational film

Łukasz A. Plesnar

Depictions of Post-9/11 South Asian Racial Profiling in Indian Cinema

Kaja Łuczyńska

Postcolonial adaptations of classic British literature

Bartłomiej Nowak

Transnational Bodies of Yogis: A Flow from Analogue Photography to Social Media

Bilge Gölge

Slow Expansion. Neomodernism as a Postnational Tendency in Contemporary Cinema

Miłosz Stelmach

Mexican Minimalist Cinema: Articulating the (Trans)national

Bolesław Racięski

Welcome to BabaKiueria! Australian anniversaries and cultural forms of resistance

Rafał Nahirny

 

Varia

 

An artist as a figure between industry, technology, and imagination. Some remarks on Portret artysty jako inżyniera. Twórczość Edwarda Ihnatowicza by Joanna Walewska

Anna Nacher

Vampires, zombies, and phantoms – histories of horror stories. Review

Magdalena Zdrodowska

Images embedded in reality

Mateusz Zimnoch

 

Transnational Turn in Film Studies (Editorial)

Krzysztof Loska

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 1-7.

Krzysztof Loska

Jagiellonian University

 

Transnational Turn in Film Studies (Editorial)

 

Contemporary researchers emphasize the widespread use of “transnational” in humanistic discourse; some even speak of the “transnational turn”, or a kind of theoretical reorientation in the debate on the nature of global links. In contrast to the paradigm shift, the turn, as understood by Doris Bachmann-Medick, involves recognizing methodological pluralism, going beyond the limits, while at the same time transforming the earlier concepts and accepting the contingency of knowledge, which means embracing the fact that there are many possible ways of looking at the same object[1].

On the other hand, Mette Hjort has noted a growing tendency for excessive and uncritical use of the concept of transnational “as a largely self-evident qualifier requiring only minimal conceptual clarification”[2]. The idea of transnationalism plays an important role in the social sciences; I do not intend, however, to refer to sociological or economic theories, as in this area the idea of “transnational” functions primarily as a specific modification of the concept of globalization (as Steven Vertovec convincingly states in his book). I would rather focus on film studies that introduced such a category, namely Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu’s research of Chinese cinema and that of Andrew Higson in relation to British cinema[3].

In the latter case, the aim was to undermine a dominant perspective in film studies and to understand the limitations of “tendency to focus only on those films that narrate the nation as just a finite, limited space, inhabited by a tightly coherent and unified community, closed off to other identities besides national identities”[4]. Higson’s concept had two basic weaknesses: firstly, the author focused on the relationship between Hollywood and British cinema; secondly, the idea of transnational was considered primarily in terms of production, distribution, and reception, completely overlooking the existence of diasporic and postcolonial themes, which became important components of transnational turn.

Higson’s proposal was the starting point for Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden, who in the introduction to the anthology titled Transnational Cinema, wrote that „a key to transnationalism is the recognition of the decline of national sovereignty as a regular force in global coexistence, (…) dissolution of any stable connection between a film’s place of production and/or setting and the nationality of its makers and performers”[5]. However, Ezra and Rowden went much further, and placed the concept of transnationalism in other contexts associated with migration and the functioning of the modern diasporas. At the same time, they understood why it was so important to take into account the relationship between global and local dimensions, and the postnational version of the imagined community, in which one’s identity is suspended between the different spaces.

The issues of migration and development of contemporary diasporas play a leading role in the so-called accented cinema. The notion, introduced by Hamid Naficy, refers to transnational films made by migrants or political refugees, who describe the experience of living in a host country, trying to cope with loss, a state of being torn apart, and being homesick. Naficy’s concept is by no means limited to a set of particular themes or the ethnic origin of filmmakers, but seeks a common denominator linking the various works in terms of style or narrative. It indicates the privileged function of landscapes, the importance of multilingualism in the dialogue, voice-over narration, and the use of road movie conventions[6].

Diasporic films are most frequently made outside the mainstream cinema, as they are independent productions in which the artists put an emphasis on a personal aspect of the stories being told through the use of epistolary narration (which is common e.g. in the films by Atom Egoyan, Chantal Akerman, and Ann Hui). The main theme is usually the search for identity that transcends national and cultural boundaries, the construction of certain images of home, and showing the problematic nature of such representations in the context of nostalgia.

“Transnational cinema has the potential to both reveal the diasporic experience and challenge the privileged site of the national as the space in which cultural identity and imagined communities are formed”[7]. Diasporic cinema may be „defined as transnational in the sense that it brings into question how fixed ideas of a national film culture are constantly being transformed by the presence of protagonists (and indeed film-makers) who have a presence within the nation, even if they exist on its margins, but find their origins quite clearly beyond it”[8].

We discover that the concept of a nation as a coherent entity gradually gives way to hybridity and transculturality, which seem to be the categories that best describe the essence of modern life, based on the free movement of people, goods and services, porosity of contemporary borders, and the interpenetration of cultural influences. Hybridity should not be understood as the abolition of contradictions, erasing of the differences or unification, because “it is not a third term that resolves the tension between two cultures, or two scenes of the book, in a dialectical play of recognition”[9].

Modern theorists highlight the link between the concept of hybridity and such related terms as mestizaje or métissage, because all of them reject the idea of a coherent and unified culture expressed by organicistic metaphors. A hybrid subject exists at the frontiers, meeting points, or at the crossroads of different cultures. Sometimes hybridization is associated with the process of borrowing and exchange, thanks to which it undermines the process of thinking in terms of simple binary oppositions.

The formation of a hybrid identity is a symptom of cultural transformation, the result of the instability of existing categories; however, it does not always involve the colonial experience. On the contrary, it is more often linked with different forms of movement and migration that help build transnational culture. In this way, it is possible to make a significant shift in emphasis from the study of the subjugated ones who lived in former colonies toward the analysis of diasporic communities operating in European countries. Thanks to this shift, one may also notice the links between discontinuity, rupture, and rootlessness that characterize contemporary immigrants, as well as see similar processes of deterritorialization and the expropriation of cultural heritage in postcolonial countries.

The latest research clearly shows that the concept of transnationality cannot merely concern the issues of co-production, global distribution, and reception; on the other hand, it should include political and social factors that enable a better understanding of contemporary cinema and the surrounding world. Perhaps that is why Will Higbee, when searching for a less ambiguous term, suggested the concept of transvergence to describe the diasporic and postcolonial cinema, in order to leave behind “potentially problematic contemporary notions of globalization”[10]. In his understanding, transvergence cinema is connected with instability, lack of continuity and consistency, and involves undermining of such dichotomies as home/exile, centre/periphery, self/other.

Another solution helping to overcome the problems resulting from the excessive use of the concept of transnationality may be the one offered by Wolfgang Welsch, who uses the concept of transculturality: an idea inspired by the writings of Fernando Ortiz. The Cuban anthropologist in his book on the cultivation of tobacco and sugar used the word “transculturality” to describe the processes occurring in the colonial countries, in an effort to explain the impact of migration on the formation of a culture[11]. This concept allows one to go beyond the understanding of the national culture as a closed and separate entity, and uncover relationships between seemingly distant areas by revealing the benefits of the process in which many possible ways of life are merged together.

“It is, I think, the advantage of the transculturality concept over competing concepts that it explains uniformization and intermixing processes on one side and the emergence of new diversity on the other side at the same time and by means of the same formula”[12]. Therefore, transculturality means life in suspension, moving on the margins, coming to terms with casualness and instability. „Transness describes a moment of in-betweeness, a liminal status that may represent a point in process of transformation from one category to another”[13]. The concept of transculturality is not based on binary oppositions, but consists in combining the elements and crossings: „transcultural identities comprehend a cosmopolitan side, but also a side of local affiliation (…) It promotes not separation, but exchange and interaction”[14].

The prefix trans-, which is borrowed from Latin, indicates crossing the borders and going beyond; that is why the papers collected in this issue of our magazine suggest that a transnational approach involves accepting methodological pluralism and seeking the links between the phenomena that were previously regarded as separate. Adopting this perspective allows one to look at the seemingly distant concepts and to go beyond the national paradigm in reflection on media.

One should mention that although in the past Polish cinema was considered primarily in the national perspective, the last few years have brought the publication of several papers on its transnational character. This fact was emphasized by Ewa Mazierska and Michael Goddard, who claimed that it “has always been, in a sense, transnational, thanks to the strong presence of Polish directors on the international scene; [which unfortunately] is barely reflected in the studies of transnational or world cinema”[15]. This is, for example, the perspective taken by Sebastian Jagielski in his essay, in which he analyses the on-screen images of Elżbieta Czyżewska.

Most of the presented papers, however, concern world cinema, with a special emphasis on the relations between East and West: Jane Hanley analyses performances of Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi in two transnational films: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006) and Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013). The author’s principal aim is to characterize the changing images of Asian people in Hollywood cinema and the possibility of cross-cultural communication.

Łukasz Plesnar, when choosing two movies produced by Clint Eastwood in 2006 (Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima), focuses on the question of stereotypical images of the Japanese in American films and stresses the attempts of going beyond such a simplified image. “[Letters from Iwo Jima] is the only American combat movie made from a Japanese point of view and the only one in which the author tries to understand and show respect to old Japanese customs and the contemporary contradiction of Japanese ego”. Kaja Łuczyńska, in turn, examines a shift in the image of race and ethnicity after 9/11, when focusing on screen images of South Asian in New York (2009, Kabir Khan), My Name Is Khan (2010, Karan Johar), and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012, Mira Nair).

Bartłomiej Nowak and Bilge Golge, respectively, offer interesting views of the relations between East and West. The former studies how contemporary film adaptations relate to literary texts, and how certain adaptations expand the boundaries of the original readership and audience by including new locations and contexts. Nowak stresses a hybrid dimension of some films based on Jane Austen’s books as they are transferred in the context of Indian culture, while Bilge Golge analyses representations of yoga practices in Western media.

Aesthetics and film theory play an essential role in the texts presented in the final part of the magazine. Miłosz Stelmach starts from the theoretical findings of András Bálint Kovács, John Orr, and Rafał Syska, and characterizes the neomodern film as a transnational phenomenon. The paper by Bolesław Racięski offers a peculiar development of these proposals, showing how the creators of contemporary Mexican cinema use the minimalist approach to express ideas about the local social and cultural issues, whereby linking transnational narrative strategies of neomodern cinema with national history and mythology. In his analysis of BabaKiueria, Rafał Nahirny uses the postcolonial perspective to describe the process of taking control over their own image by the indigenous people of Australia.

Numerous authors study the phenomenon of transnational in the context of identity and include both aesthetic and political aspects. The researchers are convinced that it is necessary to go beyond a Eurocentric perspective and overcome the limitations stemming from the opposition between a national and transnational point of view. What is more, it is crucial to see the links between the local and the global aspects, and to embrace a transcultural exchange. Following the assumptions of Will Higbee and Song Hwee Lim, we should accept that „in the study of films, a critical transnationalism does not ghettoize transnational film-making in interstitial and marginal spaces, but rather interrogates how these film-making activities negotiate with the national on all levels: from cultural policy to financial sources, from the multiculturalism of difference to how it reconfigures a nation’s image of itself”[16].

References

 

Bachmann-Medick Doris, Cultural Turns. New Orientations in the Study of Culture, translate by Adam Blauhut, (Berlin and Boston: Walter de Gruyter) (2016).

Bhabha Homi K., The Location of Culture, (New York: Routledge) (1994).

Clark Christopher, „Transculturation, Transe Sexuality, and Turkish Germany: Kutluğ Ataman’s Lola und Bilidikid”, German Life and Letters 59:4 (2006)

Ezra Elizabeth, Rowden Terry, Transnational Cinema: The Film Reader, (New York: Routledge) (2006).

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).

Higbee Will and Lim Song Hwee, „Concepts of Transnational Cinema: Towards a Critical Transnationalism in Film Studies”, Transnational Cinemas 1:1 (2010).

Andrew Higson, „The limiting imagination of national cinema”, in: Cinema and Nation, ed. Mette Hjort and Scott Mackenzie (London and New York: Routledge) (2000).

Hjort Mette, „On the Plurality of Cinematic Transnationalism”, in World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives, ed. Nataša Ďurovičová and Kathleen Newman (London and New York: Routledge) (2010).

Lu Sheldon Hsiao-peng, „Historical Introduction. Chinese Cinemas (1896-1996) and Transnational Film Studies”, in Transnational Chinese Cinemas: Identity, Nationhood, Gender, ed. Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press) (1997).

Mazierska Ewa, Goddard Michael, Polish Cinema in a Transnational Context, (Rochester: University of Rochester Press) (2014).

Naficy Hamid, An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking, (Princeton: Princeton University Press) (2001).

Vertovec Steven, Transnationalism (London and New York: Routledge) (2009).

Welsch Wolfgang, „Transculturality: The Puzzling Form of Cultures Today”, in Spaces of Cultures: City, Nation, World, ed.  Mike Featherstone and Scott Lash (London: SAGE (1999).

Notes

[1] Doris Bachmann-Medick, Cultural Turns. New Orientations in the Study of Culture, translate by Adam Blauhut, (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter) (2016), p.11-12.

[2] Mette Hjort, „On the Plurality of Cinematic Transnationalism”, in World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives, ed. Nataša Ďurovičová and Kathleen Newman (London and New York: Routledge) (2010), p. 13.

[3] Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu, „Historical Introduction. Chinese Cinemas (1896-1996) and Transnational Film Studies”, in: Transnational Chinese Cinemas: Identity, Nationhood, Gender, ed. Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press) (1997), p. 1-31. Andrew Higson, „The limiting imagination of national cinema”, in: Cinema and Nation, ed. Mette Hjort and Scott Mackenzie (London and New York: Routledge) (2000), p. 57-68.

[4] Andrew Higson, p. 60.

[5] Elizabeth Ezra, ‎Terry Rowden, Transnational Cinema: The Film Reader, (New York: Routledge) (2006), p. 1.

[6] Hamid Naficy, An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking, (Princeton: Princeton University Press) (2001), p. 24-26.

[7] Will Higbee, Song Hwee Lim, „Concepts of Transnational Cinema: Towards a Critical Transnationalism in Film Studies”, Transnational Cinemas 1:1 (2010), p. 11.

[8] Ibid., s. 11.

[9] Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, (New York: Routledge) (1994), p. 162.

[10] Will Higbee, „Beyond the (Trans)national: Toward a Cinema of Transvergence in Postcolonial and Diasporic Francophone Cinema(s)”, Studies in French Cinema 7:2 (2007), p. 80.

[11] Wolfgang Welsch, „Transculturality: The Puzzling Form of Cultures Today”, in Spaces of Cultures: City, Nation, World, ed. Mike Featherstone and Scott Lash, (London: SAGE) (1999), pp. 194-213.

[12] Ibid., p. 204.

[13] Christopher Clark, „Transculturation, Transe Sexuality, and Turkish Germany: Kutluğ Ataman’s Lola und Bilidikid”, German Life and Letters 59:4 (2006), p. 558.

[14] Welsch, p. 205.

[15] Ewa Mazierska, Michael Goddard, Introduction. Polish Cinema beyond Polish Borders, in Polish Cinema in a Transnational Context, (Rochester: University of Rochester Press) (2014), p. 9.

[16] Will Higbee, Song Hwee Lim, „Concepts of Transnational Cinema: Towards a Critical Transnationalism in Film Studies”, Transnational Cinemas 1:1 (2010), p. 18.

“Let everybody love me”. The transnational body of Elżbieta Czyżewska

Sebastian Jagielski

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 8-22.

Sebastian Jagielski

Jagiellonian University

 

“Let everybody love me”. The transnational body of Elżbieta Czyżewska[i]

 

Abstract

The ways to create a star personality in the Polish People’s Republic are closer to the strategy of creating stars in the Soviet cinema, where the star had to function as an power engine, as an incentive to action, than to the Hollywood system (star system). It is well illustrated by the career of Elżbieta Czyżewska: not only was she the most fascinating actress of her generation but she was also quickly transformed into a star. Czyżewska’s body used as a screen on which first the (socialist) desires and then (socialist) fears were projected, was placed – almost from the beginning of her career – in transnational contexts. She crossed borders not only on the screen: in 1965 Czyżewska married The New York Times correspondent, David Halberstam, and left for New York, or rather was forced to leave. The star’s previously ideal body suddenly appeared to be – not for “strangers” but for “us,” not outside the national community but inside it – a transgressive (since openly transnational) anti-body. This article explores (1) the phenomenon of a star in the Polish People’s Republic (“socialist star system”), (2) transgressions of Czyżewska in the West, (3) and, above all, their Polish reception.

Key words: Polish cinema, Elżbieta Czyżewska, communism, transnational, stardom, body, affect

In the state-owned film industry of communist Poland, expressing the dominating ideology was more important than fulfilment of audiences’ expectations. It was not pleasure that was important, but the educational goal; not entertainment but social involvement. Hence, it comes as no surprise that the authorities in the Polish People’s Republic were not interested in the creation of stars.[1] Even more so, since in the official discourse such a phenomenon was associated with the “degenerated” bourgeois West. Hence, there was no place for Hollywood-style stars, but there was for socialist ones (especially in the 60s, when the authorities decided to use the persuasive power of film genres for their own purposes). Their image was not supposed to be—as in the Hollywood “star system”—based on the relation to the market (star system as the sale of goods), but—as in the Soviet Union—on the relation to communist ideology. It was the stars (and film genres) that proved at the time to be the most effective carrier of ideology, especially as the public longed for somebody exceptional and unique. The socialist stars—even though just like Western ones, they shaped the behaviour of Poles, told them how to dress, behave and be—did not exist in the “blue firmament”, but “fraternised” with people, ate at milk bars, and met people in village clubs.[2]

Elżbieta Czyżewska fulfilled these contradictory expectations of the public and authorities with bravado. Not only was she the most fascinating actress of her generation (“she was visible. (…)”, Andrzej Kostenko used to say, “in our [actors’ – SJ] environment one could feel her peculiarity”[3]), but she was also quickly transformed into a star (“the only actress after the war who in such a short time achieved so much”[4], said Leon Łochowski). In the years 1960-1966, she never left the set, appearing in a few films per year and performing in theatre and TV. Everybody wanted to work with her: directors of the auteur (Wojciech J. Has, Tadeusz Konwicki, Jerzy Skolimowski) and popular (Stanisław Bareja, Tadeusz Chmielewski, Stanisław Lenartowicz) cinema. The audience loved her: in a poll by Express Wieczorny for the most popular TV actor, she won the Silver Mask twice, in 1963 and 1964, and the Golden Mask in 1965. It seems, however, that Czyżewska’s fairy-tale career did not come from nowhere. On one hand, talent, bravado, “go get it” energy, charisma and authenticity, and on the other, the embodiment of the “socialist” star type. The latter was defined—as in the Soviet Union—by social and national identity and opposition towards “bourgeois” Western identity.[5] Neither the decadent, eccentric, and sexy Kalina Jędrusik, nor the aristocratic and supercilious Beata Tyszkiewicz, and not even the delicate and mysterious Ewa Krzyżewska could have been promoted as “socialist stars”. Czyżewska, whose beauty and background were emphasised as proletariat and Slavic, was to become the ideal embodiment of the “socialist object of desire”. Czyżewska’s body—used as a screen on which first the (socialist) desires and then (socialist) fears were projected—was placed almost from the beginning of her career in transnational contexts.[6] On one hand, it was the body of a lively Soviet woman soldier (Gdzie jest generał?/Where is the General?, 1963, Tadeusz Chmielewski), on the other, a Jew in love (Niekochana/Unloved, 1965, Janusz Nasfeter), a body for a Soviet pilot (Przerwany lot/Interrupted Flight, 1964, Leonard Buczkowski), an Italian (Giuseppe w Warszawie/Giuseppe in Warsaw, 1964, Stanisław Lenartowicz), and an Australian (but of Polish decent (Żona dla Australijczyka/Wife for an Australian, 1963, Stanisław Bareja)). Czyżewska, however, crossed borders not only on the screen: in 1965, she married The New York Times correspondent, David Halberstam, and left for New York, or rather was forced to leave. The star’s previously ideal body suddenly appeared to be not for “strangers”, but for “us”, not outside the national community but inside it: a transgressive (since openly transnational) anti-body. It is true that the corporeality of transnational stars can sometimes be defined as foreign, since it causes fascination and/or fear, but these are the emotions we usually deal with—unlike in Czyżewska’s case—outside the countries of their origin.[7]

“A modern girl”

Encouraged by the success of the contest for the lead actress in the comedy Ewa chce spać/Ewa wants to sleep (1957, Tadeusz Chmielewski), in 1958 the magazine Film, together with Zespół Autorów Filmowych, announced the action Beautiful girls to the screens, aimed, as critics at the time claimed, at fulfilling the shortage of young and beautiful girls on Polish screens.[8] When the filmmakers and journalists were looking for the Polish Brigitte Bardot, a popular teenager magazine Filipinka conducted a survey among its readers: Are you a modern girl? According to Małgorzata Fidelis this image reflects the “attempts to define the national and socialist identities in the post-war Polish society” and to “build a positive image of modernity in the communist version”.[9] The genesis of the image of the “modern girl”[10] promoted by the media and officially supported by the party activists, similarly to the calls for a uniquely Polish film star, may be found in the political thaw that was accompanied to some extent by the social thaw.[11] Elżbieta Czyżewska was the result of this search. Aspiring “modern girls”, Filipinka readers—who in this figure saw a young woman who preferred foreign travel to marriage, listened to rock’n’roll and was up to date with the fashion trends[12]—could identify with the disobedient, dynamic, sarcastic and ironic girls played by Czyżewska. Young Poles took her roles—Hanka from Wife for an Australian, Marysia from Giuseppe in Warsaw, or Joanna from Małżeństwo z rozsądku/The Marriage of Convenience (1966, Stanisław Bareja)—as their dream self-portrait. In fact, however, the star image of Czyżewska, which the girls copied so willingly, was full of contradictions. It could not have been any other way since they were trying to merge communist propaganda with the influence of Western pop culture. This “magical synthesis” of opposite values, on the one hand, reinforced and consolidated the system, and on the other undermined and destabilised it.[13]

Czyżewska’s enthusiasm and charm were used to create the ideal “socialist object of desire”. This image was set to serve the ideology in two ways: firstly, they tried unsuccessfully to transform Czyżewska into a Soviet-style star; secondly, she embodied Polish-Soviet love when acting in Polish-Soviet romances. According to Oksana Bulgakova, female stars such as Lyubov Orlova in the Soviet Union “were burdened with the promotion of behaviours appropriate for men” (“crosswise identification”).[14] Female characters were considered both a visual attraction, the object of glances, and the active “ideal ego”. The splendour and charm typical of female characters in classical Hollywood cinema were in the Soviet cinema transformed into activity and social optimism, and sexual energy, as in classical sublimation, was translated to work. “Not being either a pin-up star, or Madonna, the star has to function as an energy engine, a stimulus to act”.[15] By analogy, Marysia from Giuseppe in Warsaw, a resistance activist for whom the Cause will stop at nothing, is unlike her brother Staszek, who does not care about the war at all. Both he and Giuseppe, a fugitive from the Italian army, are very good in the kitchen while the girl bravely fights the German enemy. Thus, both female and male spectators could identify with Czyżewska’s brave characters. As Iwona Kurz wrote, Czyżewska’s characters—Marysia from Giuseppe in Warsaw, Marusia from Where is the General? and Hanka from Wife for an Australian—fulfil the romantic model of “knight-lover who places his homeland above love”; however, this model in the new political situation was to serve the socialist education.[16]

Some films with Czyżewska that praised Polish-Soviet love by merging the national and sexual discourses had a propaganda function. In the melodrama Interrupted Flight, which is set in two periods, during WWII and 17 years later, her character, Urszula, falls in love with a Soviet pilot, Vovka, whom she gives a medallion—a valuable token of Polish national mythology. This prop becomes a symbolic confirmation of the friendly relations between the Poles and the Soviets. However, this friendship is clearly streaked by Polish inferiority: the educated and handsome Russian is an elegant pilot while “Sokół”, whom Urszula marries after the war, is a neglected postman-alcoholic who for years has hidden from his wife the letters from Vovka. The superiority of the Russians and the inferiority of the Poles are also visible in the comedy Where is the General?, in which the Pole is impulsive, carefree and likes to booze, while the Soviet female soldier, Marusia, is charming, hardworking and reliable. Even though the Pole calls her a “witch” and “gendarme worse than Hitler”, she will still love him. The film ends with their long kiss, which is observed with enthusiasm by the soldiers of both friendly armies.[17] It could seem that the Polish-Soviet alliance was written on the actress’s body.

Importantly, Marysia from Giuseppe in Warsaw, Marusia from Where is the General?, and Hanka from Wife for an Australian do not resemble the female “machines full of energy and optimism” from the Soviet films or Polish socialist realistic films. Paradoxically, they are closer to Doris Day’s “girls from the neighbourhood” who eagerly fulfil their duties. First, they fight the “parasites” in order to fall in love with them finally. For example in the film by Bareja, a rich Pole from Australia comes back home to buy a wife. However, Hanka, who he falls in love with, kidnaps, and holds prisoner in a villa (seen by Poles as a consumerist heaven), not only is not an easy trophy (intelligent, ironic, rational), but convinces the prodigal son to stay in Poland after the marriage. Initially, like Day’s characters, she is unsentimental and factual but later falls prey to the advances of the “erotically obsessed” “parasite”. She throws away the costume of the Mazowsze Group where she sings and transforms into a chic dame from a “bourgeois” film: low-cut fitted dress, white gloves, high heels, and a flower in her hair.

According to Miriam Hansen, the popularity of American cinema on foreign (Soviet) ground was not about “what these films showed, what they brought into optical consciousness, as it were, but the way they opened up hitherto unperceived modes of sensory perception and experience”[18]. The comedies with Czyżewska, these escapist and compensatory fantasies, proved to be so attractive for audiences not only because they offered an antidote to the sombreness of the period of “little stabilisation”, but also because they showed new energy, new corporeality and sensuality, provided guidelines how to be modern in the modernising (socialist) reality. Her girls recalled the emancipating “new woman” from the 30s, in the West symbolising “the deepest fears related to modernity”.[19] Marysia, Hanka, or Joanna from The Marriage of Convenience will initially find their emancipation as “modern women” in tight blouses and short skirts, in activity and freedom (mixing of sexual roles), in playing with their corporeality and sexuality. Marysia, in order to get the Italian’s gun, will not hesitate to use her sex appeal; hence, she is taken for a prostitute, first by Giuseppe and then by the Germans.

However, the authorities’ support for the image of “the queen of the 60s”[20]—to recall the words of Andrzej Łapicki—falls to pieces when Elżbieta Czyżewska marries an “American with a Pulitzer”. In April 1965, Halberstam published in The New York Times a text about common and state-supported anti-Semitism in Poland. A few months later the same newspaper published his article about Poland as an “exceptionally pro-Western” nation, about alienated Polish society and the communist party which “even 20 years after the war, when it was established in the country by the triumphant Red Army, is weak internally”.[21] The reactions were quick to come: texts condemning Halberstam first appeared in Kultura, Zycie Warszawy, Trybuna Ludu, and Stolica, and at the beginning of 1966 he was placed on the list of restricted persons. After her husband left, Czyżewska was questioned and continuously followed. In the end, the authorities decided that her stay in the country “was impossible”[22], even when she decided to divorce the journalist. In 1968, in order to act in Wszystko na sprzedaż/Everything for Sale (1968, Andrzej Wajda), Czyżewska came from the United States and became a victim of an anti-Semitic witch-hunt even before filming started.

In the press she was attacked as a “traitor” (“(…) why does our outstanding Polish actress betray our crucial, Polish interest?”[23]), as the wife of a “Jewish imperialist”, wife of the author of “horrible lampoons about our country” who “slandered (…) our nation”. Moreover, in April 1968 Włodzimierz Stępiński published an open letter to Andrzej Wajda in Walka Młodych demanding Czyżewska’s removal from his film.[24] “Disgusting” texts by Halberstam caused Halberstam himself to become “disgusting” and he later infected his wife, since what is “disgusting” is sticky and viscid.[25] Sara Ahmed argued, “to name something as disgusting (…) is a performative. (…) But to say something is disgusting is still to «make something»; it generates a set of effects, which then adhere as a disgusting object”.[26] Since the actress was called a “traitor” and was associated with what is “disgusting” (for the “Polish nation”), she had to recognise her social definition: “recognise her place in the position of subordination”.[27] It was precisely the refusal to accept this position of subordination from which Elka from Everything for Sale was born, a film in which Czyżewska—benefiting from the protection of the film’s fiction—“is” herself.

In Wajda’s film the actress acts like never before. She is hysterical, theatrical and at the same time authentic. As in the legendary scene of the dance at the banquet, in which she bites her lower lip and continues in lonely abandon. The director saw this dynamic dance at a Warsaw party—the dance being her “protest against the entire company—and decided to include it in his film.[28] This dance is a protest and “the intention of the protest is (…) «to disturb the spectacle» played, metaphorically speaking, on the main scene, to introduce to the field of vision the new performative language which disturbs and damages the previous one”.[29] Czyżewska’s performance, being an act of disobedience and insubordination, an act of freedom, can be seen as a narrative excess. It is delivered for the public gathered at a banquet (and in the screening room). The director emphasises the performance, on the one hand, by recording envious glances, faces and grimaces from the drawing room, and on the other, by using zooms—popular at the time—thanks to which the actress’s face can suddenly get closer (desire) and move away equally fast (rejection). The movement of the lens reflects something from the group’s reaction to Czyżewska’s unreserved expression: they revel in the fascinating and exciting images (“she looked great (…), at the time between the West [and] Poland there was a precipice, it came like from another world”[30]), and at the same time isolate, mock, exclude and stigmatise. Wajda’s film, obviously, does not mention “Halberstam’s case”, thanks to which the audience’s entire attention focuses on the film and theatre circles, since Czyżewska was ostracised long before she left Poland. As one Security Service informer reports, already in mid-1965 “in theatre all actors and employees surrounded her with a wall of condemnation. They do not speak about her otherwise than «this bitch»”.[31] Just as if Halberstam was merely a pretext for revenge for the fact that “she overshadowed (…) other actresses”.[32] Andrzej Wajda let her take symbolic revenge in his film. At dawn, a drunk and jolly elite goes on a carousel started by Elka. With satisfaction, she watches as the “artists” shout, curse, and then freeze like dummies. They become living corpses.

Due to the smear campaign in the press, even before the end of filming Everything for Sale, Czyżewska received a warrant to leave Poland immediately. What is more, at the airport she had to undergo a humiliating body search. She was treated as (transnational) waste expelled by the national body, excluded beyond its borders. She symbolised everything that in the period of the “March events” proved to be politically most suspected: she married an American of Jewish origin, thus becoming part of the anti-Zionist and anti-American obsessive propaganda of 1968. She also became suspicious as a symbol of a “modern girl”, which at the time had become politically involved, associated with the consumerist culture of the capitalist West (“the era of bust ended, (…) of bust according to Lollobrigida’s standards”, wrote a critic in Walka Młodych[33]). It is important that the attack on Czyżewska in Walka Młodych was preceded by the publication of the text Who we do not want to be, which mocked the Beautiful girls to the screens action and condemned the promoters of the “modern girl” notion. “Slowly, the criticism of misunderstood modernity”, wrote Małgorzata Fidelis, “transforms into an attack on intellectual and artistic elites which allegedly were responsible for the promotion of Western trends among the young”.[34] From here, it is only one step to the so-called anti-Zionist campaign since “similarly to the supporters of the modern girl, also the Polish Jews—the alleged Zionists plotting against the socialist Poland—were slandered (…) as agents of Western imperialism”.[35] In the image of the “modern girl”, nobody looked any more for what was socialist, but what was foreign and threatening for the socialist reality (consumerism and sex).

However, this no longer referred to Czyżewska. “Our” girl, who not long ago had embodied Polish-Soviet love, chose the West, “a Western imperialist”. We are dealing here with the “erotic betrayal of authority”. The authority seems to be a jealous lover who punishes the faithless for infidelity. It comes as no surprise when we realise what role the stars played in the Soviet Union where “the relation between the stars and authority were a part of the traditional patriarchal model”. Tatyana Okunevskaya and Zoya Fyodorova were sent to camps for flirting with foreigners. After the screening of Volga-Volga (1938), Stalin was to warn Grigori Aleksandrov, the director and husband of Orlova, “he will lose his head if anything happens to these legs”.[36] The legs of Orlova, of course. Jean Baudrillard in Seduction asks, “Is one only seeking to avenge the spell that the other exercises over you?”[37] Elżbieta Czyżewska had to pay for flirting with authority and the audience; the latter is always happy to watch the falls of those who charmed it.

The loss of aura

The American stage of Elżbieta Czyżewska’s career became sexualised and associated with destrudo. In the 60s, she offered the will to live, refreshing irony, and distance; however, since the 80s she has been associated solely with general decline, defeat, decomposition, and weakness. First, excess (of energy, talent, and success); later, a lack (of energy, talent, success). Her body—damaged by alcohol and drugs—is transformed both by the actress and by the audience of her shows into body-scandal, body-excess. Two memories illustrate this diagnosis well.

(1) In a documentary about Czyżewska, Aktorka/Actress (2015, Kinga Dębska, Maria Konwicka), Adam Holender describes an event that took place when she was still married to Halberstam: during a lavish party taking place at their house the actress “undressed completely in the kitchen and ran through the crowd of friends. Everybody was speechless. Everybody understood it since it was at the time in Vogue, but nobody knew that something like this could happen in a living room. David really enjoyed it”. From Holender’s perspective, we are not dealing with a non-conformist performance, but indecent albeit interesting excess. Excluded from acting, Czyżewska transforms her life in transgressive theatre; however, the living room—especially from a Polish perspective—is not an appropriate place to stage (and undress) oneself.

(2) The memories from the time when Czyżewska was already divorced are even more marked with sexuality on the one hand, and bourgeois indignation on the other:

She did things (…)—said Dorota Stalińska who met Czyżewska on set of Debiutantka/Debutante (1981, dir. Barbara Sass)—unworthy of a woman, actress, artist. Everybody froze with fear. And it was like this was what she wanted. She wanted to be the centre of attention at any price. Passionately stripping her wrinkled body in public (…). I was terribly embarrassed by this behaviour (…)[38].

Stalińska speaks about Czyżewska’s old “wrinkled” body even though the actress was only 43 at the time. The recollections of her compatriots about Czyżewska on emigration share one thing: embarrassment.[39] Shame is the reaction to her exhibitionism, her open corporeality. As in the scene from the banquet of Debutante: drunk architect Maria (played by Czyżewska) gives herself to a random man before the guests and Ewa, who is embarrassed for the woman, tries to separate them, causing Maria’s hysterical spasms and aggression. Monika Talarczyk-Gubała noticed that this scene resembles Elka’s rebellious dance from Everything for Sale (in Sass’s film, as in Wajda’s, the actress dances in the presence of the Master, played again by Andrzej Łapicki). That dynamic and rebellious performance, however, contained freedom and resistance, while here in the author’s opinion we are dealing only with “embarrassing masochism”. Wajda watched Elżbieta with admiration while Sass’s look is cold, ruthless, without a shadow of compassion.[40] It seems that this look is only full of sadistic satisfaction derived from exposing a female body, distorted in hysterical spasm, for public view (spectators during the banquet and in the screening room). However, Czyżewska’s performances in life and in the cinema cannot be easily frozen. Ignoring one’s embarrassment embarrasses the spectators (Holender, Stalińska, Ewa, the character in Debutante), imposing on the embarrassed woman the position of subordination (lascivious lunatic, alcoholic ending up in gutter, vulgar hysteric, etc.). Czyżewska’s performances might be an attempt to reverse the traumatising mechanisms of embarrassment. They may also be an attempt to turn the shame into power. As in the masturbation-related episode of the popular series Sex and the City (1999, Daniel Algrant), where Czyżewska played the role of a sexologist in her 60s lecturing by the sweat of her brow on the secrets of tantric sex, she masturbates her husband and the emancipated New Yorkers dutifully take notes.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank, when analysing the works of Silvan Tomkins, noted that there is no shame and disgust without a positive, pleasant affection:

these affects produce bodily knowledges: disgust, as when spitting out bad-tasting food, recognizes the difference between inside and outside the body and what should and should not be let in; shame as precarious hyperreflexivity of the surface of the body can turn one inside out—or outside in.[41]

The affection of disgust and shame that were a reaction to Czyżewska’s transnational body emphasise the closeness of the body that was rejected, “vomited”. According to Sara Ahmed, vomiting “involves expelling something that has already been digested, and hence incorporated into the body of the one who feels disgust”.[42] This mechanism characterises well the encounters between her compatriots and Czyżewska in New York: from closeness to distance. What was close becomes problematic, unsafe, disgusting. Hence, one has to move away. As did Janusz Głowacki after the Broadway success of the play Hunting Cockroaches on which he worked with Czyżewska; Agnieszka Osiecka after publication of White Blouse inspired by her letters; Joanna Pacuła and—a moment later—Yurek Bogayevicz.

Nobody doubted that the title character of Anna (1987) by Bogayevicz “was” Elżbieta Czyżewska. Neither the film’s scriptwriter, Agnieszka Holland, the actress’s friends (“the main character is exactly like Elżbieta”[43]), the author of The Real “Anna”: The Truth Behind the Hit Film, nor Czyżewska herself admitted that the director “stole her life”.[44] The actress told Bogayevicz the story of her meeting with Joanna Pacuła, and he promised her that she would play the lead role in the film based on this story. Czyżewska was probably hoping to repeat and expand the strategy from Everything for Sale: again, she would be herself before the camera. The director, however, quickly backed out of his promise, casting Sally Kirkland as the main character who won the Golden Globe for this role and an Oscar nomination.[45] She plays the former greatest star of the communist Czechoslovakia, Anna, who played in almost all films produced there. However, in New York, where she went—or in fact, like Czyżewska, was forced to go in 1968—nobody remembers her former successes. This situation is quickly noticed by a young Czechoslovakian actress, Krystyna, who goes there without money or a place to stay, but with Anna’s photos from the times of her greatness. The latter, living in a tenement house in Manhattan and playing episodes on Broadway, takes the girl in and helps her find her way in this new reality. Krystyna quickly becomes successful, “borrowing” Anna’s dramatic life story (childhood in orphanage, political reasons for emigration, etc.) as well as her boyfriend.[46]

The film mostly seems important due to one short, surprising, and disturbing scene. After Krystyna’s “betrayal”, the disappointed and frustrated Anna appears in the cinema in mourning clothes: a black scarf on her head and dark glasses hiding her tearful eyes. In the cinema, the atmosphere is quite different: they are just showing a comedy with Anna in the lead (a black and white film that seems to be stylised on Where is the General?). The woman confronts her own reflection, as if she were looking in the mirror, and she cannot take her eyes off the screen. The location of the projector, audience and screen, the darkness in the screening room and the stream of moving images cause the spectator to fall “into a trance-like state”[47]. Anna is enchanted by what she sees. She identifies with her own (lost) reflection, and this is a source of narcissistic pleasure. “She dissolves” in the image because this image allows her to retrieve her own subjectivity which was taken from her, appropriated by another actress. The body of Anna-the-spectator that is reflected on screen (idealised) gives a settling sense of calm and safety; however, this affective moment does not last long. From the state of illusion—a narcissistic trance caused by the soothing images—the protagonist is woken by the sight of her huge face (close-up) eaten by fire. The narration freezes, and we, the spectators, watch the frightened face of the actress and her celluloid, disappearing copy. Especially disturbing is a brief—as from a horror film—close-up of the actress’s silent scream, as if she were already dead.[48] This is the moment of the dramatic crack: Anna, who is still looking for mirror reflections, her own doppelgangers (Krystyna being one, the one who managed to escape), thought she had found herself again in the cinema (narcissistic satisfaction). However, the reflection on the screen appears to be a phantom, an apparition that disappears at the same time, thereby revealing the emptiness.

“At the height of her success in Poland the actress stopped being «Elżbieta Czyżewska»”, wrote a critic in Film.[49] Bogayevicz aptly caught what was the essence of her American period: the loss of star aura and the refusal to accept it, already indicated in Everything for Sale. The greatest star of the Polish cinema of the 60s says directly to the camera, “Why nobody loves me? (…) Let everybody love me”. In Wajda’s film, however, we see the star’s splendour, but in Bogayevicz’s only despair. In the both nostalgic and sadistic cinema scene from Anna there is, on one hand, satisfaction, pleasure, and happiness stemming from peregrinations on time lost, and on the other, pain, alienation, lack, and loss. Unfortunately, no magical process of finding oneself, coming back to oneself, is going to take place here. The actress’s celluloid face consumed by fire symbolises the end of her star aura, and the close-up of her silent scream helps to “arrest time’s flow on the edge of its waterfall’s onrush to trauma”.[50] Richard Dyer, in analysing Judy Garland’s loss of glamour that constituted her image, noted that this loss means defeat, primarily in playing one’s sexual role, in the field of femininity.[51] For that reason, perhaps, Elżbieta Czyżewska “needed to feel a star [so much]. She had to know that she had been a star in Poland”[52], even though in her own country—as a journalist of The New York Times wrote after her death—she was not welcome.[53] The national body transformed into a transnational one, which does not accept the position of subordination imposed on it by its compatriots, becomes disgusting in order to become expelled beyond the borders of the national community. Thus, the transnational body becomes marked as anti-body even though—or maybe because—not long ago it was worshipped and loved.

Translated by Amalia Woźna

References

 

Ahmed Sara, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2004).

Baudrillard Jean, Seduction, trans. Brian Singer, (Montréal: New World Perspectives) (1990).

Bratu Hansen Miriam, “The mass production of the senses: classical cinema as vernacular modernism”, in: Reinventing Film Studies, ed. Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams (London: Arnold) (2000).

Bulgakova Oksana, “Gwiazdy i władza” / “Stars and authority”, trans. Tadeusz Szczepański, Kwartalnik Filmowy 49-50 (2005).

Butler Judith, Excitable Speech. A Politics of the Performative, (New York-London: Routledge) (1997).

Coates Paul, Screening the Face, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan) (2012).

Cybulski Zbigniew, “W stronę gwiazd” / “Towards the stars”, interview by Stanisław Janicki, Kino 1 (1966).

Demidowicz Krzysztof, “Elżbieta Czyżewska: kochana niekochana” / “Elżbieta Czyżewska: loved unloved”, Film 6 (2001).

Dyer Richard, Heavenly Bodies. Film Stars and Society, (London-New York: Routledge) (2004).

Dyer Richard, Stars, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (1998).

Elsaesser Thomas, Hagener Malte, Film Theory. An Introduction through the senses, (New York-London: Routledge) (2010).

Ezra Elizabeth, Terry Rowden, “General Introduction: What is Transnational Cinema?”, in: Transnational Cinema: The Film Reader, ed. Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden (New York: Routledge) (2006).

Fidelis Małgorzata, “Czy jesteś nowoczesną dziewczyną? Młode Polki a kultura konsumpcyjna w latach 60.” / “Are You a Modern Girl? Consumer Culture and Young Women in 1960s Poland”, trans. Anna Rogulska, Teksty Drugie 2 (2015).

Gańczak Filip, Filmowcy w matni bezpieki / The filmmakers in the snare of the Security Service, (Warszawa: Prószyński i S-ka) (2011).

Higbee Will, Song Hwee Lim, „Concepts of Transnational Cinema: Towards a Critical Transnationalism in Film Studies”, Transnational Cinemas 1:1 (2010).

Hopkins Ellen, “The Real Anna: The Truth Behind the Hit Film”, New York Magazine 4.01.1988.

Hudson Dale, “Just Play Yourself, «Maggie Cheung»: Irma Vep, Rethinking Transnational Stardom and Unthinking National Cinemas”, Screen 47:2 (2006).

Komendołowicz Iza, Elka, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie) (2012).

Kosofsky Sedgwick Eve, Adam Frank, „Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins”, in: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling. Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, (Durham-London: Duke University Press) (2003).

Kurz Iwona, “Między chrztem a samospaleniem. «Teatra polskie» drugiej połowy lat sześćdziesiątych” / “Between baptism and self-immolation. «Polish theatres» of the second half of the sixties”, Didaskalia 126 (2015).

Kurz Iwona, Twarze w tłumie. Wizerunki bohaterów wyobraźni zbiorowej w kulturze polskiej lat 1955-1969 / Faces in the crowd. Images of the collective imagination protagonists in the Polish culture of 1955-1959, (Warszawa: Świat Literacki) (2005).

Mazierska Ewa, “Train to Hollywood: Polish Actresses in Foreign Films”, in: Polish Cinema in a Transnational Context, ed. Ewa Mazierska and Michael Goddard (Rochester-New York: University of Rochester Press) (2014).

McHugh Kathleen, „The World and the Soup: Historicizing Media Feminisms in Transnational Contexts”, Camera Obscura 24: 3 (2009).

Negra Diane, Off-White Hollywood. American Culture and Ethnic Female Stardom, (London-New York: Routledge) (2001).

Skwara Anita, “Film Stars Do Not Shine in the Sky Over Poland. The Absence of Popular Cinema in Poland”, in: Popular European Cinema, ed. Richard Dyer and Ginette Vincendeau (London: Routledge) (1992).

Stępiński Włodzimierz, “Do reżysera Andrzeja Wajdy list otwarty” / “An open letter to the director Andrzej Wajda”, Kwartalnik Filmowy 6 (1994).

Szarłat Aleksandra, Celebryci z tamtych lat. Prywatne życie wielkich gwiazd PRL-u / Celebrities of the past. Private lives of great stars in PPR, (Kraków: Znak) (2014).

Talarczyk-Gubała Monika, Wszystko o Ewie. Filmy Barbary Sass a kino kobiet w drugiej połowie XX wieku / All about Eve. Barbara Sass’s films and women’s cinema in the 2nd half of the XX century, (Szczecin: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Uniwersytetu Szczecińskiego) (2013).

Wajda Andrzej, Autobiografia. Kino i reszta świata / Autobiography. Cinema and the rest of the world, (Kraków: Znak) (2013).

Weber Bruce, “Elzbieta Czyzewska, Polish Actress Unwelcome in Her Own Country, Diesat 72”, The New York Times 10.06.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/18/arts/18czyz.html?_r=0,dateaccessed: 21 March 2016.

Notes

[1] See Anita Skwara, “Film Stars Do Not Shine in the Sky Over Poland. The Absence of Popular Cinema in Poland”, in: Popular European Cinema, ed. Richard Dyer and Ginette Vincendeau (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 220-231; Iwona Kurz, Twarze w tłumie. Wizerunki bohaterów wyobraźni zbiorowej w kulturze polskiej lat 1955-1969 / Faces in the crowd. Images of the collective imagination protagonists in the Polish culture of 1955-1959, (Warszawa: Świat Literacki) (2005); Ewa Mazierska, “Train to Hollywood: Polish Actresses in Foreign Films”, in: Polish Cinema in a Transnational Context, ed. Ewa Mazierska and Michael Goddard (Rochester-New York: University of Rochester Press, 2014), pp. 153-173.

[2] Zbigniew Cybulski, “W stronę gwiazd” / “Towards the stars”, interview by Stanisław Janicki, Kino 1 (1966), p. 47.

[3] Iza Komendołowicz, Elka, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie) (2012), p. 149.

[4] Ibidem, p. 87.

[5] Oksana Bulgakova, “Gwiazdy i władza” / “Stars and authority”, trans. Tadeusz Szczepański, Kwartalnik Filmowy 49-50 (2005), p. 49.

[6] Elizabeth Ezra, Terry Rowden, “General Introduction: What is Transnational Cinema?”, in: Transnational Cinema: The Film Reader, ed. Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden (New York: Routledge, 2006); Kathleen McHugh, „The World and the Soup: Historicizing Media Feminisms in Transnational Contexts”, Camera Obscura 24: 3 (2009), pp. 111-151; Will Higbee, Song Hwee Lim, „Concepts of Transnational Cinema: Towards a Critical Transnationalism in Film Studies”, Transnational Cinemas 1:1 (2010), pp. 7-21.

[7] Diane Negra, Off-White Hollywood. American Culture and Ethnic Female Stardom, (London-New York: Routledge) (2001), pp. 55-83; Dale Hudson, “Just Play Yourself, «Maggie Cheung»: Irma Vep, Rethinking Transnational Stardom and Unthinking National Cinemas”, Screen 47:2 (2006), pp. 213-232.

[8] Iwona Kurz, Twarze w tłumie…, pp. 119-126.

[9] Małgorzata Fidelis, “Czy jesteś nowoczesną dziewczyną? Młode Polki a kultura konsumpcyjna w latach 60.” / “Are You a Modern Girl? Consumer Culture and Young Women in 1960s Poland”, trans. Anna Rogulska, Teksty Drugie 2 (2015), p. 306, 321.

[10] According to Iwona Kurz, the term “girl” was commonly used in everyday speech in the 50s. This word drove out the more popular terms as “miss” or “friend” (Iwona Kurz, Twarze w tłumie…, p. 125).

[11] Ibidem, p. 119.

[12] Małgorzata Fidelis, pp. 303-306.

[13] Richard Dyer wrote about the Hollywood “star system” that the star images recalling the social meanings and values reveal, solve, integrate or disguise the ideological contradictions present in a given society and culture (Richard Dyer, Stars, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (1998), pp. 20-32).

[14] Oksana Bulgakova, p. 47.

[15] Ibidem, p. 56.

[16] Iwona Kurz, Twarze w tłumie …, p. 139, 142.

[17] Allegedly Elżbieta Czyżewska was ashamed to have appeared in this film (Iza Komendołowicz, p. 143).

[18] Miriam Bratu Hansen, “The mass production of the senses: classical cinema as vernacular modernism”, in: Reinventing Film Studies, ed. Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams (London: Arnold, 2000), p. 344.

[19] Małgorzata Fidelis, p. 321.

[20] Iza Komendołowicz, p. 30.

[21] Filip Gańczak, Filmowcy w matni bezpieki / The filmmakers in the snare of the Security Service, (Warszawa: Prószyński i S-ka) (2011), p. 75.

[22] Ibidem, p. 88.

[23] Aleksandra Szarłat, Celebryci z tamtych lat. Prywatne życie wielkich gwiazd PRL-u / Celebrities of the past. Private lives of great stars in PPR, (Kraków: Znak) (2014), p. 272.

[24] Włodzimierz Stępiński, “Do reżysera Andrzeja Wajdy list otwarty” / “An open letter to the director Andrzej Wajda”, Kwartalnik Filmowy 6 (1994), p. 225 (Walka Młodych 14.04.1968, p. 1, 10).

[25] According to Sara Ahmed “it is not that an object we might encounter is inherently disgusting; rather, an object becomes disgusting through its contact with other objects that have already, as it were, been designated as disgusting before the encounter has taken place” (Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2004), p. 87).

[26] Ibidem, p. 93.

[27] “We do things with language, produce effects with language, (…). Language is (…) both «what» we do (…), the act and its consequences” (Judith Butler, Excitable Speech. A Politics of the Performative, (New York-London: Routledge) (1997), p. 8).

[28] Andrzej Wajda, Autobiografia. Kino i reszta świata / Autobiography. Cinema and the rest of the world, (Kraków: Znak) (2013), p. 119.

[29] Iwona Kurz, “Między chrztem a samospaleniem. «Teatra polskie» drugiej połowy lat sześćdziesiątych” /  “Between baptism and self-immolation. «Polish theatres» of the second half of the sixties”, Didaskalia 126 (2015), p. 4.

[30] Iza Komendołowicz, pp. 222-223.

[31] Filip Gańczak, p. 63.

[32] Ibidem, s. 71.

[33] “Jakimi nie chcemy być” / “What we do not want to be”, Walka Młodych 28.01.1968, p. 8. Quoted after: Małgorzata Fidelis, p. 318.

[34] Małgorzata Fidelis, p. 318.

[35] Ibidem.

[36] Oksana Bulgakova, p. 56.

[37] Jean Baudrillard, Seduction, trans. Brian Singer, (Montréal: New World Perspectives) (1990), p. 124.

[38] Iza Komendołowicz, p. 235.

[39] Meryl Streep who – as a student – performed with her in Demons directed by Andrzej Wajda sees a completely different shade of Czyżewska’s excesses: “this creature [Czyżewska] seemed to me the most fascinating woman I have ever met. She had this European style that I have not known since I grew up in New Jersey. This was femininity aware of itself, truly seductive (…), a style unknown to women in the 70s.” (soundtrack from the film Actress).

[40] Monika Talarczyk-Gubała, Wszystko o Ewie. Filmy Barbary Sass a kino kobiet w drugiej połowie XX wieku / All about Eve. Barbara Sass’s films and women’s cinema in the 2nd half of the XX century, (Szczecin: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Uniwersytetu Szczecińskiego) (2013), pp. 193-198.

[41] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Adam Frank, „Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins”, in: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling. Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, (Durham-London: Duke University Press) (2003), p. 116.

[42] Sara Ahmed, p. 94.

[43] Iza Komendołowicz, p. 198.

[44] Ellen Hopkins, “The Real Anna: The Truth Behind the Hit Film”, New York Magazine 4.01.1988, pp. 24-29.

[45] According to Agnieszka Holland, Czyżewska herself was the reason why “this film could not have been done with her.” She behaved like Anna, she was self-destructive, aggressive, plunging into an alcohol delirium, as if aware that “the film was stealing her life” (Iza Komendołowicz, p. 269).

[46] Joanna Pacuła already in 1983, i.e. only one year after coming to New York played the lead role – thanks to Roman Polański’s recommendation – in Gorky Park (1983, Michael Apted) for which she was nominated for the Golden Globe. Those who witnessed the meeting between these two actresses claim that “Elżbieta was jealous, mainly because Pacuła was young, very energetic and quickly successful” (Ibidem, p. 198).

[47] Thomas Elsaesser, Malte Hagener, Film Theory. An Introduction through the senses, (New York-London: Routledge) (2010), p. 68.

[48] Paul Coates wrote about the relation between the close-up and suffering: “[…] the close-up, whose most common form picks out the face, isolates as suffering does” (Paul Coates, Screening the Face, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan) (2012), p. 46).

[49] Krzysztof Demidowicz, “Elżbieta Czyżewska: kochana niekochana” / “Elżbieta Czyżewska: loved unloved”, Film 6 (2001), p. 93.

[50] P. Coates, p. 52.

[51] Richard Dyer, Heavenly Bodies. Film Stars and Society, (London-New York: Routledge) (2004), p. 163.

[52] Statement of Kinga Dębska comes from the materials promoting the documentary she co-directed: “Actress”. The premiere of the film “Actress” (documentary about Elżbieta Czyżewska), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLPPAMFyBNM,dateaccessed 21 March 2016.

[53] Bruce Weber, “Elzbieta Czyzewska, Polish Actress Unwelcome in Her Own Country, Diesat 72”, The New York Times 10.06.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/18/arts/18czyz.html?_r=0,dateaccessed: 21 March 2016.

[i] The paper was delivered during the international conference Polish cinema as a transnational cinema organised by the Department of the History of Polish Cinema at the Institute of Audiovisual Arts of Jagiellonian University (Kraków, 26-28 November 2015). The article in its extended version will be published in the volume edited by Magdalena Podsiadło and Sebastian Jagielski (Universitas 2017).

Sebastian Jagielski is an assistant professor of Film Studies at the Institute of Audiovisual Arts at Jagiellonian University. He is the author of Maskarady męskości. Pragnienie homospołeczne w polskim kinie fabularnym/Masquerades of Masculinity. Homosocial Desire in Polish Cinema (Kraków, 2013), and co-editor of the volume Ciało i seksualność w kinie polskim/Body and Sexuality in Polish Cinema (Kraków, 2009). His papers have been published e.g. in Studies in European Cinema, Studies in Eastern European Cinema, and Kwartalnik Filmowy. His research focuses on Polish cinema, queer cultures, queer theory, affect film theory, and star studies.

 

Reading ABC. An experiment

Andrzej Pitrus

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 23-33.

Andrzej Pitrus

Jagiellonian University

 

Reading ABC. An experiment

 

Abstract

The article discusses an experiment with the participation of a group of foreign students, who visited Cracow in 2015. It is not a research study in a proper sense, although it was based on methods used in questionnaire and focus group research.   The purpose of the experiment was simple: to determine how young people with little or no knowledge about Polish history and culture are able to undestand a film focused on „being Polish”. A short documentary by Wojciech Wiszniwski was shown to two groups of students: the ones who had just arrived in Cracow, and the ones who had participated in several courses on Polish culture.

Key words: documentary, cultural competence, Polish cinema, Wojciech Wiszniewski

Study or experiment?

The inspiration for this short paper came from my teaching experience as a professor of film and media studies. For almost twenty years I have been working with foreign students, most of them from Europe (Erasmus and Erasmus Plus exchange students), but also from the United States, Canada, the Far East, and Australia. My first English-language experiences were occasional lectures and seminars on Polish cinema; a few years later I started my own regular course called “Contemporary Polish Film” (split into two parts, 45 teaching hours each). The course discussed Polish cinema after 1989, with an introduction to the most important post-war movements. Last year, another course was introduced: “Masters of Polish Cinema”.

The article is by no means a research study in a proper sense, although it is based on methods (mentioned later in references) used in questionnaire and focus group research. Instead, I present and discuss the outcome of an interesting experiment conducted with the participation of my foreign students. This experiment could encourage further research; however, in this form it only helps to formulate questions and possible research directions. The purpose of my experiment was simple. Working with foreign students in a natural way makes an academic teacher question the possible influence of their teachings. Does the cultural competence of foreigners substantially change in just a few months? Simple observation obviously suggests answers. Informal conversation with student also helps, but I wanted a more systematic approach in order to see what the outcome of my efforts really is.

Surprisingly, my experiment, which was designed as a kind of “test” for a possible long-term study, concluded with unexpected observations of a more general nature.

Participants of the experiment

I am fully aware that the group of people who took part in my experiment is not representative on a large scale[1]. Yet, I was only interested in examining a particular group of people representing foreign students willing to actively learn about Polish culture and participate in it for a period of time. To observe the change, I decided to choose a “micro-readings approach” and so-called time-series design with single intervention in multiple groups (in this case, two)[2] .

The majority of participants have no previous experience in film studies. Most of them study humanities or social sciences, with some rare exceptions. In recent years, only a maximum of 15% of students declared any kind of Polish background, and even less were able to speak Polish (B1 level or above). Occasionally, some Polish students interested in cinema (but not enrolled in film studies) join the group. The study was carried out with two groups of students. One of them consisted of 20 people who spent a semester in Poland and participated in several courses on Polish culture, including ‘Polish Contemporary Film’ (June 2015). The other was comprised of 23 students who had just arrived in Poland and signed up for a ‘Masters of Polish Cinema’ course (October 2015). Two different groups were chosen to comply with the research strategy mentioned above.

Background and previous experiences

The aim of the aforementioned courses is to introduce participants to Polish film in the broader context of national culture. During the classes, several movies are shown; all with an introduction and some with live commentaries. Moderated discussion always follows the screenings. We focus on topics, characters, political and social context, and only occasionally comment on style, film form, and genre. Students from different cultural backgrounds offer their opinions and interpretations of Polish movies. Some of them are truly original and exciting, as they are based on fresh and unencumbered approaches. For example, most of the political metaphors are not easy to apprehend, as students know very little or nothing about the recent history of Poland. Yet, most of the students do try to understand the movies they watch. Instead of trying to discover the intended meaning, they look for more universal aspects of the stories.

Juliusz Machulski’a Sexmission (Seksmisja, 1984) is a very good example of this creative ‘misunderstanding’. When the movie premiered in Poland, it was considered a metaphor for a totalitarian society, and as such was drastically censored. A state without men, in fact ruled by a disguised male dictator, stood for eighties’ Poland. For today’s foreign students, Machulski’s comedy has a different meaning. Most of the students agree that it is an antifeminist satire, and some of them see the movie as a critique of political correctness.

Subject of the experiment. Criteria for selection

The experiment had to be conducted in class (2 hours and 15 minutes). Thus, a short film had to be chosen for discussion and analysis. Its focus on a Polish-oriented subject was essential. I also opted for a film that communicates with images rather than words. Although alternatives certainly exist, after few discussions with my academic colleagues I decided to choose a film in which Polish identity is thoroughly discussed. The film is also very “dense”: with only 9 minutes of running time it encapsulates many references to Polish history, culture, and language (although there is almost no spoken dialogue, and very little off-screen commentary, which makes it even more challenging).

Both groups watched the same film: a short experimental documentary, ABC (Elementarz, 1976) by Wojciech Wiszniewski. The film is recognized[3] as one of the most outstanding achievements of Polish documentary and a major influence on a generation of younger filmmakers[4]. More information on Wiszniewski and his short can be found in the booklet with commentaries written by Mirosław Przylipiak[5] that accompanies the DVD edition of the work.

Method

Students received questionnaires (more detailed description follows), and afterwards participated in a focus group. For this part of the experiment, a so-called “creative approach”[6] was applied. During the discussion and while working with questionnaires, the participants are fully aware of the purpose of the experiment. This approach is based on a “brainstorming” effect, in which a group of people who are all interested in the subjects of the study tries to “solve” the problem together. The discussion in the focus group was obviously moderated.

The film was shown three times. After the first screening students received questionnaires, and all questions were explained. Then they watched the film again and answered questions from section A of the questionnaire. Section B referred to the third screening, during which the film was freeze-framed nine times, and students were asked to comment on what they saw on the screen.

Shown below is section A of the questionnaire with some comments in italics (not included in the original questionnaire) which refer to my instructions or tips given to the students during the experiment.

Your nationality:

Do you have any Polish ancestry (parents, grandparents)?

Do you speak Polish (at least B level)?

Describe briefly the main topic of Wojciech Wiszniewski’s „ABCs”

(no more than two sentences)

Students were asked to go beyond the story, and identify “deeper” and more general meanings of ‘ABC’.

Who are the people depicted in the portraits on the walls (beginning of the documentary)?

There are pictures of Polish kings hanging on a wall in a dark corridor.

How would you describe the people in the first part of the documentary (letters A – D)?

Who are they?

First letters of the alphabet are spoken by four different individuals in four different rooms.

What is the first sentence that Polish children learn?

The sentence “Ala ma kota” (Alice has a cat) can be seen briefly in a book.

What is the first sentence children learn in your country? Write it in your own language and translate it into English.

Katechizm polskiego dziecka by Władysław Bełza  (1900)

— Kto ty jesteś?              (Who are you?)
— Polak mały                  (A little Pole)
— Jaki znak twój?            (What is your emblem?)
— Orzeł biały                  (The white eagle)
— Gdzie ty mieszkasz?   (Where do you live?)
— Między swemi            (Among my people)
— W jakim kraju?            (In what land?)
— W polskiej ziemi.         (The Polish land)
Czem ta ziemia?       (What is this country?)
— Mą ojczyzną.             (My homeland)
— Czem zdobyta?                  (How did they fight for it?)
— Krwią i blizną.          (With their blood and scars)

— Czy ją kochasz?           (Do you love it?)
— Kocham szczerze.       (I love it dearly)
— A w co wierzysz?        (What do you believe in?)

— W Polskę wierzę!      (I believe in Poland)
— Coś ty dla niej?        
(Who are you for your country?)
— Wdzięczne dziecię    (A grateful child)
— Coś jej winien?         (What would you do for it?)
— Oddać życie.             (I would give my life)

Some parts of the poem (in bold above) were omitted in the documentary.

Could you explain why?

Fragments of the famous poem were used in “ABC”. They are recited line by line by a group of children.

Name characters and situations that you identify as typically Polish.

Section B refers to nine tableaux (titles come from the author, tableaux briefly explained in italics)

Picture

A picture by Artur Grottger from the series “Polonia” can be seen briefly. A scene from 1863 January Uprising is depicted.

Group of men

Group of Polish soldiers in uniforms in an informal situation.

Group of men, women, and children

Large, multi-generational family.

Two men in a room

A Christmas priest’s visit.

Women in a passageway

Countryside women selling food in a city.

Four men

Coal merchants.

Couple

Newlyweds. This tableau resembles traditional posed marriage photographs.

Three young people in white shirts

Members of the Youth Organisation in white shirts and red ties. A white eagle without a crown can be seen on the wall.

Two boys in the countryside

Two adolescent boys in a typically Polish countryside landscape with willow trees.

The outcome

After the questions had been answered, the students participated in a moderated discussion. Some of the problematic questions were explained, others were clarified by a lecturer. Students willingly participated in conversation.

Although there were a few persons with Polish background in the October group, only two were able to speak Polish. All students identified Wiszniewski’s documentary as strange, hermetic, and difficult. Almost all tried to indicate the main topic of ABC; only a few left this question with no answer. Ten people claimed that the documentary refers to the Polish system of education, with some noticing that the director criticises stereotypes. Eleven participants of the experiment discovered a more general meaning, saying that the main topic of the film was “Polish identity” or the “Polish way of life”.

Only one person (a student from Poland) was able to recognise the pictures in the opening sequence. Others answered, “I do not know” or tried to guess (key figures from Polish history, Józef Piłsudski[7], etc.). All foreigners had problems with questions requiring actual cultural competence; for example, nobody was able to indicate the famous ‘Ala ma kota’ phrase as one of the first sentences learned by children in Poland. On the other hand, most of the participants described characters from the first part of the film (persons declaiming letters A-D) as typically Polish. In an open question about typical Polish elements present in ABC, most of the students gave no relevant answer. Some of them referred to stereotypes that in most cases were not related to the film, while obvious elements (Polish symbols, colours, references to Polish history) were generally left unnoticed, with the exception of students with a Polish background and/or the ability to speak Polish. Most of the students tried to answer the question about Bełza’s poem. While some gave no relevant answer, others referred to the nationalistic tone of the omitted fragments.

Members of the October 2015 group had serious problems with section B of the questionnaire. Only four people (including a Polish student) tried to give answers that are more detailed, while others described characters in the tableau in a very casual way. In both cases, very rarely was the true context of the scene identified.

Wiszniewski’s ABC is an example of experimental documentary. Its meaning is inherently open and somehow blurred, even for those with proper cultural competence. Yet in discussion, students did not complain about its complex form. They enjoyed its episodic and associative structure, but in most cases were not able to identify the basic components that are usually quite self-evident for Polish audiences. I was not surprised with the answers, as many participants of the class had no previous contact with Polish culture. Some of them decided to come to Krakow because of a pre-existing interest in Polish issues; however, the majority had different reasons such as curiosity or low accommodation costs, while some considered Krakow an attractive hub to visit Central Europe.

The structure of the June 2015 group was similar: it contained one Polish student, three with Polish ancestry (but limited language skills), and one who spoke Polish fluently but had no Polish family whatsoever. Obviously, it was very interesting to see if just one semester in Poland was enough to overcome the barriers of cultural competence. The expectations were high and somewhat justified as students were active participants in academic life. Most of them had learned the basics of Polish and had contact with students from Jagiellonian University. They obviously attended other courses related to Polish history, politics, contemporary issues, culture, and participated in excursions and other educational events. After the course, all students had basic knowledge about post-war cinema in Poland. They also researched the subject individually to prepare a final project: an essay on a Polish film of their choice.

The outcome of the experiment with the June 2015 group was quite surprising. Again, students identified the overall meaning of the documentary as related either to the system of education, or ‘Polish identity’. Yet, this time only four persons claimed that the meaning is more general, while 15 tried to discuss the subject of education and its manipulative influence on the younger generation. Additionally, two of the persons who saw ABC as a metaphor of national identity gave very casual answers consisting of isolated words or very short phrases rather than sentences or entire paragraphs. In one case, the reason was poor command of English. In another, an unexplained lack of involvement from an English native speaker who usually gave only single words answers or very short sentences.

The interpretations provided by other students were in many cases quite complex, while answers to other questions were not significantly ‘better’ than the ones given by the members of the October 2015 group. Some of the students were able to identify more images properly, but their general competence was no different.

Where then do the differences in the general understanding of the film come from? It seems that they were biased by what students had learned during their stay in Poland. Many movies discussed in class were made before 1989, others often related to the communist regime. Obviously, they were often discussed in a political context. Students also learned that many institutions, which they considered as politically neutral, were in fact tools of oppression in communist Poland. This new knowledge was ‘used’ to interpret the film, which otherwise seemed hermetic. The process is called ‘confirmation bias’:

Creating and testing hypotheses represents a crucial feature not only of progress in science, but also in our daily lives in which we set up assumptions about reality and try to test them. However, the lay scientist stands accused of processing his or her hypotheses in such a way that he or she is biased to confirm them. “Confirmation bias” means that information is searched for, interpreted, and remembered in such a way that it systematically impedes the possibility that the hypothesis could be rejected—that is, it fosters the immunity of the hypothesis. Here, the issue is not the use of deceptive strategies to fake data, but forms of information processing that take place more or less unintentionally[8].

My discussions with Polish students show that for Poles, Wojciech Wiszniewski’s ABC does not really deal with education. Although I had no chance to conduct a similar experiment (no questionnaires were used, only moderated conversation), none of the Polish viewers saw the documentary as a metaphor of education, and especially manipulation. They all tended to interpret the film as an experimental essay about Polish icons, symbols, and stereotypes.

Falski’s “Elementarz” as a matrix of understanding

A famous learning aid by Marian Falski (Elementarz) that inspired the filmmaker was originally published in 1910 and is still available and sometimes used in education. Although it may be criticised for its conservative approach to family, social roles, etc., its author was able to introduce innovative[9] and highly effective methods of education. Falski did not focus on the structure of the language, but instead tried to employ natural cognitive preferences of children. He used images and simple words to teach them how to read and write. He also replaced printed letters with handwriting. Many of his innovations were revolutionary, at not only the beginning of the 20th century, but also many years later.

In a way, Wiszniewski employs Marian Falski’s ideas. He intended his documentary to be ‘read’ in an analytical manner, just like the words and simple sentences in ‘Elementarz’. The director also seems to go beyond words: the only linguistic components of the film are the letters of the alphabet and Bełza’s poem. Instead, he proposes a complex kaleidoscope of images: a visual aid supposed to teach us to ‘read’ Poland.

Foreign students who were still not able to identify all components tried to comprehend the text as such with their limited and fragmented knowledge of Poland and its institutions. The result was an ‘improper’ reading of the film, probably dissonant with the intention of the filmmaker. Although the ability to identify typically Polish characters, situations, and symbols was similar, there was one other important difference between both groups: members of the June 2015 group answered the questions in section B of the questionnaire in more complex and elaborate ways. The reason seems simple: for most of them (students who were not English native speakers), studying in Krakow was their first chance to use English in academic discussions. Not only did their linguistic skills improve, but they also became more confident and self-assured. I assume they also had more willingness to understand a text that seemed so demanding not only because they wanted to really apprehend the text itself, but to legitimise themselves as individuals participating in Polish culture. Their biased understanding of the text resulted from the limited ‘tools’ they could use in the process of interpretation:

 A true confirmation bias seems to occur primarily when the hypotheses tested are already established, or are motivationally supported. In general, we may say that the confirmation bias consists in favouring expectancy congruent information over incongruent information. This may happen in different ways: (a) memories congruent with the hypothesis are more likely to be accessed than memories that are incongruent with it; (b) undue weight is given to the importance of congruent information, possibly because of the concentration on the hypothesis, and the neglect of alternative explanations; (c) those sources with information that could reject the hypothesis are avoided, provided that the person knows a priori the opinion of the source.[10]

Conclusion

Let us try to ask some questions. Did the students really learn anything about Poland? Were their opinions and judgements about our country manipulated or falsified? Is it truly possible to understand the Other (in this case Poland and Poles)? Although the cultural competence of the June group was almost no different than that of the October group, I profoundly believe that those few months the young people from all over the world spent in Krakow make deep sense. My simple experiment proves the obvious: it is not possible to fully understand the Other after just a few months. Nevertheless, it also suggests that meeting the Other is equally valuable:

there is a zone of mutuality pre-predicatively given to ‘us’: we confront each other in a situation which then permits the exchange of ideas. My fellow man is encountered as ‘within hailing range’ or within ‘speaking distance’, as available for an intimate chat, as open to a face-to-face encounter. In all of these possibilities, the Other is taken as ‘confront-able’, as ‘hail-able’, as essentially capable of approaching me in closer and closer relationships. He is already in the world moving toward me. Horizons of proximity and distance undergird the possibility of our meeting. The Other who is friendly toward me is said to be easily ‘approachable’; the Other who is rather cold, difficult to relate to, is spoken of as being ‘distant’. The communicative zone involves avenues of withdrawal outward as well as engagement inward. To communicate is to be already involved in a world whose situations are built out of such eidetic possibilities[11].

When I presented my paper based on the experiment discussed in this article at a conference, I suddenly realised that it was more of a political statement than a proper academic address. I have recently returned from Neukölln, a borough of Berlin where people of 147 nations live. Were they Others, or was I the Other? I left for Berlin in early October 2015, and returned in late November 2015. Poland had changed dramatically[12].

I revised this article in Berlin again (November 2016). Berlin had also changed: struggling with a shift in public opinion, the refugee crisis, and more (than ever) support for radical political forces.

Will Poles and Europeans still be able to meet the Other, ‘misunderstand’ them, ‘misinterpret’ them in a world with no eidetic possibilities?

References

Biocca, Frank, Prabu David and Mark West, „Continuous Response Measurements (CRM). A Computerized Tool for Research on the Cognitive Processing of Communication Messages” , in Measuring Psychological Responses to Media Messages, ed. Annie Lang (New York and London: Routledge, 2014) pp. 15-64.

Glass, Gene V , Willson, Victor L., Gottman, John Mordechai, Design and Analysis of Time-series Experiments, (Charlotte: Information Age Publishing ) (2008).

Kuc, Kamila, Michael O’Prey, The Struggle for Form: Perspectives on Polish Avant-Garde Film 1916-1989, (New York: Columbia University Press) (2014).

Merton, Robert K. , Fiske, Marjorie, Kendall, Patricia L., The Focused Interview. A Manual of Problems and Procedures. (Glencoe: The Free Press) (1956).

Oswald, Margit E. , Stefan Grosjean, „Confirmation Bias”, in Cognitive Illusions. A Handbook on Fallacies and Biases inThinking, Judgement and Memory, ed. Rudiger F. Pohl, (Hove and New York: Psychology Press,  2004).

Strauss, Erwin W. Straus, Maurice Natanson, Henri Ey, Psychology and Philosophy, (New York: Springer Verlag) (1969).

Tes, Urszula, „Declaration of Immortality – Inspirations Derived from Creative Documentaries by Wojciech Wiszniewski”,  Images , vol. XV/no. 24 (2014), pp. 145-154.

Wroczyński, Ryszard, Marian Falski i reformy szkolne w Rzeczypospolitej, (Warszawa: PWN) (1988).

Notes

[1]The problem is discussed among others by: Frank Biocca, Prabu David and Mark West, Continuous Response Measurements (CRM). A Computerized Tool for Research on the Cognitive Processing of Communication Messages [in:] Annie Lang (ed.) Measuring Psychological Responses to Media Messages, New York and London: Routledge 2014, pp. 15-64.

[2] See: Glass, Gene V. Willson, Victor L., Gottman, John Mordechai, Design and Analysis of Time-series Experiments, Charlotte: Information Age Publishing 2008.

[3] See for example: Kamila Kuc, Michael O’Prey, The Struggle for Form: Perspectives on Polish Avant-Garde Film 1916-1989, Columbia University Press 2014, p. 78.

[4] See for example: Urszula Tes, Declaration of Immortality – Inspirations Derived from Creative Documentaries by Wojciech Wiszniewski, “Images” 2014, vol. XV/no. 24 Poznań 2014, pp. 145-154.

[5] Wojciech Wiszniewski in a series Polska Szkoła Dokumentu, Warszawa: Polskie Wydawnictwo Audiowizualne, 2007.

[6] Merton, Robert K. , Fiske, Marjorie, Kendall, Patricia L., The Focused Interview. A Manual of Problems and Procedures. The Free Press, Glencoe, Illinois 1956.

[7] Józef Piłsudski (05.12.1867 – 12.05.1935) was a Polish politician; first Marshal of Poland (since 1920), and actual leader (1926–35) of the Second Polish Republic.

[8] Margit E. Oswald, Stefan Grosjean, Confirmation Bias, [in:] Rudiger F. Pohl (ed.), Cognitive Illusions. A Handbook on Fallacies and Biases in Thinking, Judgement and Memory, Hove and New York: Psychology Press 2004, p. 79.

[9] See. for example: Ryszard Wroczyński, Marian Falski i reformy szkolne w Rzeczypospolitej, Warszawa: PWN 1988.

[10] Oswald and Grosjan, op.cit., p. 93.

[11] Erwin W. Straus, Maurice Natanson, Henri Ey, Psychology and Philosophy, New York: Springer Verlag 1969, p. 101.

[12] In October 2015, right wing populist party called “Prawo i Sprawiedliwość” won the elections. Since then the liberal course of Polish economy and politics has been systematically negated.

 

Andrzej Pitrus once used to be a Patagonian cougar. Yet, now he is a media and film professor hoping to restore his true identity. He teaches at Jagiellonian University. His articles and books focus on experimental cinema, media art, and video games. In 2015, his book on Bill Viola was published. Currently Andrzej Pitrus researches German contexts of Nam June Paik’s art. He does not smoke, plays bass guitar and drinks a little too much Primitivo.

 

Rinko Kikuchi in Space: Transnational Mexican Directors’ Global Gaze

Jane Hanley

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 34-50.

Jane Hanley

Macquarie University

 

Rinko Kikuchi in Space: Transnational Mexican Directors’ Global Gaze

 

Abstract

Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro are contemporaries and compatriots who have charted different paths in their careers as makers of major international releases. Between Babel’s realist network narrative and the science fiction spectacle of Pacific Rim, the actor Rinko Kikuchi offers one connecting thread which can provide us insight into different transnational visions of the global. Pacific Rim establishes the typical global stakes now a cliché in expensive blockbusters, which increasingly depend on international markets for profitability and cannot incorporate too much locally specific experience incomprehensible to non-U.S. audiences, however del Toro’s particular vision suggests a more complex reading of subjectivity in transnational space than the humanity vs. aliens plot may initially suggest. In this context, the figure of Kikuchi’s Mako Mori is arguably the central character in terms of the narrative despite the film apparently being framed around Charlie Hunnam’s Raleigh Becket. On the other hand, Kikuchi’s performance as Chieko Wataya in González Iñárritu’s Babel is at the centre of one story in the geographically dispersed but intersecting meditation on the relationship between the locally specific and global systems, with the Tokyo setting emphasising the alienation experienced by the character. Ultimately, Babel reproduces a sense of isolation whereas del Toro’s global aesthetic and speculative world-building underpin transgressive intersubjective, intercultural, human-machine and human-monster communions.

Key words: del Toro; Iñárritu; borders; alienation; liminality; science fiction film.

 

Introduction: Transnational Themes in Transnational Productions

 

Films which encompass transnational issues and endeavour to engage global audiences must necessarily situate themselves differently from films which cleave closely to a specific culture or subculture, co-located with the film’s projected audience. One aspect of this is the approach transnational films take to their central characters. How can their relationship to their environment be understood by different audiences, and how does this spectrum of legibility mesh with the thematic preoccupations of the film? Films provide one medium for exploring the way globalised experiences and connections produce contemporary subjectivities. This idea frames the interpretation of the characters played by Japanese actor Rinko Kikuchi in two quite different but related transnational films: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006) and Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013). Del Toro and 2015 Academy Award winner Iñárritu are two of the so-called Three Amigos, along with 2014 Academy Award winner Alfonso Cuarón.[1] (The awards are worth mentioning for the way popular reception and generic conventions frame characters for the audience.) The three directors are at the centre of a recent perceived boom in Latin American cinema, a construct related to select Spanish-language works finding an international audience. All three have also made successful well-financed English-language films, though quite distinct in terms of material and reception.

While the directors are important in each other’s careers and share the same cultural moment, speaking of their work as Mexican is to apply an artificial categorisation related to an outdated concept of nationally-based film production. Their cinematic works are quite distinctive, as Peter Hutchings has pointed out.[2] Their shared context is of interest however for the ways in which their professional trajectories are informed by both their origin and aesthetics, and how these inflect their portrayal of the global. All three have been acclaimed, but Cuarón and Iñárritu have been lauded for a higher degree of perceived seriousness. In comparison, Del Toro’s most lauded cinematic achievements are positioned in opposition to his supposedly more commercial works that explicitly belong to the genres of horror and science fiction, especially when these works are in English. Hutchings remarks on this fetishizing of non-English language films, noting that in del Toro’s Spanish Civil War films the specificity of Spanish history and memory anchors the content in a national cinema, making palatable categorisation easier.[3] Of course, this Spanishness is complicated, since both The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth engage more with displacement than with belonging.[4] The former in particular is informed by Mexico’s own reception of Spanish Civil War exiles, and was originally conceived as a Mexican Revolution narrative. Neither film tells a story bounded by a particular national moment; both break barriers between the real and unreal and between memory and imagination.[5] Audiences—especially international audiences with less awareness of the particular transnational features of both the Spanish Civil War itself and the ways it is represented in these films—can more easily fit the films into the Spanish national mould. In contrast, del Toro’s English-language films with their more recognisable genre elements supposedly ‘lack significant ex-generic referents to endow them with “cultural heft”‘.[6] Geek culture may rule the twenty-first century box office, but it convinces critics and juries only rarely. Yet both films fit into del Toro’s career trajectory in its fundamental unpredictability of genre and aesthetic. Del Toro is ‘the imperfect mimic, the perpetual outsider who imitates more or less successfully but who is also an awkward, troubling presence who moves back and forth across national borders and cultural distinctions without becoming assimilated’.[7] Davies similarly identifies all del Toro’s films as ‘gleefully impure’.[8] A breadth of influences mingle together, horror merges with art, refusing genre classification. Pacific Rim’s action science fiction grew out of cult monster movies, but the narrative structure, according to del Toro himself, is essentially of a sports film.[9]

Babel and Pacific Rim

Both Babel and Pacific Rim have a transnational crew and cast, notably in their significant focus on characters played by Japanese actor Rinko Kikuchi. This is not coincidental, since Kikuchi asked Iñárritu to put her in contact with del Toro to arrange an audition after hearing that del Toro was seeking a Japanese actor for a project.[10] Nor is she the only cast or crewmember the two films have in common, reflecting the ongoing cross-fertilisation in production conditions between the three Mexican contemporaries, drawing on their long acquaintance. In addition to these transnational material conditions, various features of the stories reflect an encompassing transnational vision of a sometimes confused sort. Many performances in both films require degrees of cross-cultural roleplaying, with Babel aiming for but sometimes missing greater verisimilitude, speaking to the challenges and potential compromises involved in putting together a work of this nature. Kikuchi contends with the least of this compared to other major cast members, as she is not performing a national origin different to her own in either film. Nevertheless, her characters in both films do still suppose forms of doubling in their positioning for a global audience both in terms of aesthetic and the pairing of language and culture.

In Babel Kikuchi plays Chieko Wataya, an adolescent girl with deafness. Her performance therefore is sub-national but still cross-cultural in her portrayal of a teenager in the Japanese deaf community. Chieko is the main character in one of the four interlocking stories of the network narrative. The film switches between Morocco, Japan, the U.S. and Mexico via the plot device of the accidental shooting of a U.S. tourist (played by Australian Cate Blanchett).  Chieko’s story is the most narratively disconnected from the other three, which all pivot around the family of the U.S. couple at the core of the film whose story is the only one that reaches traditional resolution. The Japan sequences are designed to serve the film’s central themes of miscommunication and the capacity or incapacity to overcome differences via empathy. These resonances, as encoded via Chieko’s grief after her mother’s death, her general feeling of alienation, and her use of minority language (Japanese Sign Language), are only connected to the rest of the plot itself through the contrivance of her father having left in Morocco the gun involved in the shooting.

Pacific Rim is a typically explosive CGI-heavy action/sci-fi blockbuster featuring pilots of giant robot-suits (jaegers) defending Earth from invading monsters (kaiju). It was explicitly conceived and designed in tribute to mecha (the robot-suits) and tokusatsu/kaiju or monster-based Japanese cultural products. The film’s aesthetic deliberately references the effect created by such films’ live action performances in monster suits, despite relying heavily on current technology to generate the action.[11] This aesthetic and narrative DNA is obviously significant for the film’s engagement with Japanese culture and the portrayal of Rinko Kikuchi’s character Mako Mori, the only Japanese character with a substantial presence in the film. Mako is a pilot candidate for the jaegers, raised by military marshal Stacker Pentecost after losing her parents in a kaiju attack on Tokyo. The trauma occasioned by this event is the principle obstacle to Mako realizing her heroic role as a pilot via the ‘drift’, the film’s conceit of two or more pilots uniting telepathically via their memories in order to jointly control their jaegers. Both the presence of a significant female protagonist in an action-focused narrative and the exploration of linking or fusing with other people and with technology are common features in certain genres of manga and anime.[12]

Along with creating robot and monster designs that principally refer to existing popular texts, the places in which the narrative unfolds are similarly imaginary and play more on science fiction cityscapes than real contemporary cities. The shatterdome from which the Jaeger launch, the cinematic future city version of Hong Kong, and the Tokyo of Mako’s memories (informed by the Tokyo of the director’s memories of past kaiju-film urban destruction) are intertextual inventions. Future cinematic Hong Kong, in particular, where most of the action unfolds, is a purely imaginary space, the defining referents being other urban images from popular culture, even though in some instances they might imposed over real-life Hong Kong terrain. Humans do not traverse Pacific Rim Hong Kong and shape it with their bodies; it has been designed to be broken through and brought down by the destructive enormity of the kaiju. The fragments of the city respond to the future-imaginary of need and desire for both creators and audience. While Pacific Rim’s specific referents are from Japanese cultural products that achieved cult status outside Japan, the orientalising of the future has been normalised in Hollywood cinema since Blade Runner[13], and in some sense is what audiences expect from portrayals of the future. To better understand Chieko Wataya’s interaction with and situatedness within the much more realist aesthetic of the Toyko of Babel, it helps to frame this city, in contrast to Pacific Rim’s Hong Kong, as a Foucauldian heterotopia.[14] In the particular consideration of transnational cinema with varied audiences, it is useful to follow Raussert’s lead in extending Foucault’s concept via Massey’s exploration of place-as-process wherein places are discursively rather than geographically bound, existing ‘within consciousness rather than physical borders’.[15] This facilitates the application of the heterotopia not just to the theatre and the interaction of screen, experience, fictional space and real space, but also to the multiplicity of ways the spaces portrayed in film are experienced by both the characters and the audience.

Babel-Tokyo mirrors Tokyo-as-lived (with the mirror being one of Foucault’s examples, alongside the theatrical stage, both with obvious resonances for film). The cinematic reproduction of Tokyo, however, takes it out of specific time and place, and creates an unstable and constantly mutating function underscoring both the radical absence of Tokyo and the absence of the viewer themselves as they are transported into each other. Babel’s Tokyo has both intertextual referents and real referents, and a shifting significance both diegetically, for the inhabitants portrayed, and non-diegetically, for the film’s diverse viewers.

Asia as Global Space

The analysis of Chieko Wataya and Mako Mori draws together different critical threads. The first is the projection of global space in transnational films in relation to the Mexican directors’ trajectory. Deborah Shaw has extensively explored the function of the transnational in both the production and the reception of these directors’ work, noting that ‘culture is rarely, if ever, “pure” and that there is no neat distinction between “Western” and non-Western: transnational movements of people and ideas must be considered’; and that it is false to categorise films as ‘Latin American’.[16] If Mexico is having a moment, partially thanks to these three high profile directors, it is only understood as such by defining the cultural spectrum from an Anglo-American centre, since their work both in English and Spanish (or multiple languages, in this case) is understood in the Spanish-speaking world according to different definitions of mainstream film production. Shaw still sees value in contrasting directors and works that share production characteristics, even if only to highlight differences in intent and effect. It would be equally artificial to declare Pacific Rim and Babel incomparable because of their disparate apparent genres. Indeed, genres have provided as incomplete a set of working categories as national cinemas. It is productive to explore not only the divergences, but also the parallels of different kinds of cinematic space.

The second major critical thread is the analysis of Hollywood images of Asia and Asian people, drawing on Jane Park’s concept of oriental style, which reinforces Shaw’s assertion of the impossibility of a pure national or ethnic product. Cultural creation and reception are all fissures.[17] Park and Marchetti both describe the emergence of post-modern pastiche as a prevailing aesthetic mode for global blockbusters, in which Asia becomes, in Marchetti’s words, ‘an imaginary construct of past representations from other mass-mediated sources’.[18] Park makes the additional critique that the ironic mode of using racial signifiers detaches race from the history of power and actual inequality, drawing on Nakamura’s concept of cosmetic multiculturalism.[19] This charge can be levelled at Pacific Rim, but with caveats that become clear through further analysis of the film’s multicultural characters.

Some existing critical approaches to the representation of Asia, particularly Marchetti’s, start from a standpoint of considering films within the context of consumption by U.S. domestic audiences. The transition Park described in its early stages is now complete: contemporary mega-blockbusters have to make their money back in the international market. This market constraint can either further or limit creativity, and certainly produces interesting effects in terms of the varied legibility of character and space in different markets. This constraint applies even for Babel and other films at the art film end of mainstream Hollywood. Despite their more limited financial expectations, spaces in these films must nevertheless be intelligible to an extremely diverse projected audience.

In Babel, Iñárritu tries to tell a situated but global story, both accessible and inaccessible at the same time. It explores the limits of communication but allows multiple entry points for different audiences to engage with the narrative. The film pivots around a single temporal point (the shooting) that represents a crisis occasioned by and occasioning violence. The strategy is the same as in the director’s breakthrough Amores perros.[20] However, with connections between the different characters even more dispersed than in the class-variegated Mexican setting of the earlier film, the use of a dramatic pivot point is less effective. As a result of tensions between the thematic ambitions and projected global audience of the film, the images of Chieko and her movement through Tokyo are neither truly local nor disruptively specific. Shaw’s discussion of the global gaze agilely critiques Babel’s use of a tourist perspective in contrast to the art film signifiers of Carlos Reygadas’s Japón.[21] The tourist gaze provides an organizing function. Iñárritu and cinematographer Prieto’s production designer Brigitte Broch portrayed Tokyo through a pink-purple palette representing the ‘diluted blood of futuristic essence’ in contrast to Mexico’s primary red for ‘straightforward Mexican passion’, with the overall aesthetic distinctions between locations geared at enhancing, according to Prieto, ‘the experience of feeling like you are in different places geographically and emotionally’.[22] Tokyo is the now-cliché site of hyper-modernity (versus Mexico where emotions are supposedly unmediated). It is a prevailing image of that city, with the small benefit of partially disrupting the ‘classic Orientalist spectrum of progress’ which situated Asia in the past.[23] Shaw suggests that Babel’s Tokyo responds to the demands of the international art film genre and its intended audience via employment of ‘familiar and expected locations and types’, in which ‘Japan is hyper-modern, featuring the latest mobile phones, cool clubs, trendy cafés, and impressive neon-bright cityscapes’.[24] Early in the Japan sequences the film presents now-stereotypical elements of urban Japanese adolescence, such as pop music videos and arcade games.

Rinko Kikuchi’s Globalised Body

Chieko herself, and her frustrated desire for a human connection and a way to physically express her grief and guilt, partly embodies the alienation associated with technologized modernity and the failure of technology to replace human contact. She uses technological aids for the deaf to assist in interacting with her environment and communicating with people. However, here these aids do not symbolise the Asian future’s technological erosion of the human, but the character’s intimate reality, an important difference. In critiquing Babel’s reinforcement of global images of Japan, Chieko’s specific experience notably disrupts some established readings of spaces, because they are intermittently silenced as the film shifts into her sensory point-of-view. Hearing members of the audience are required to make a cognitive leap to understand the difference in Chieko’s experiences of space. She perceives only part of what the hearing viewers do. In that partial perception, non-Japanese hearing viewers may also approximate something of the partiality of their own comprehension and the spatial experiences that are opaque to those outside the deaf community.

It is also interesting to consider, following Isabel Santaolalla’s analysis of the figure of the mute woman in cinema, the connections between Chieko’s relationship to language, her physicality and her sexuality.[25] Then 25 year old Kikuchi plays a teen girl who seeks power or reconnection through sex. Babel reproduces, among other tropes, a sexualised schoolgirl as the natural vessel for situating ‘urban Japanese teenage angst’.[26] However, Chieko’s sexual agency is presented without any kind of erotic charge geared at viewers. It emerges from her feelings, initially mysterious to the viewer and only gradually revealed as her sexual gambits intermingle with other seemingly aberrant behaviours to present a panorama of performances of confusion, guilt and pain. Analyses suggesting Chieko’s character functions as a sexually available version of the classic Orientalised woman who cannot reply and is presented purely for scopophilic consumption are unconvincing. Her relationship to both language and sex is more complex. Santaolalla has outlined the close association in certain films of the normalisation (the achievement of communication, especially speech) of the mute woman with social and sexual control—even, often, sexual violence and rape.[27] At the same time, Santaolalla is careful to underline the complexity of the interrelationship between body and silence/language, allowing that both, together or apart, may offer sites of resistance and challenge. In a key moment in Babel after a flirtation is derailed by the boy’s realisation of her deafness, Chieko signs that the hearing ‘look at us like we’re monsters’, and describes her vulva as the ‘hairy monster’. Sex is an attempt to reframe her own position in the eyes of others, to challenge their assumptions, and transform her experience of her own monstrousness (her guilt over her mother’s death) into something active.

The complexity of the body-language relationship also links to the tongue’s role as the instrument of speech. Chieko does not have audible speech, but uses her hands, the instrument of touch. Her tongue, meanwhile, becomes an instrument of touch in ways that unsettle the expected pathways of communication: she licks her dentist, and later she sucks on the policeman Mamiya’s finger. The written word, which provides an alternative channel for language, is only semi-legible to viewers. It is ultimately completely obscured when her final note to Mamiya, tucked into his hand, is concealed from the audience, contents unknowable. Chieko’s physical, emotional, and auditory isolation is the ultimate form of sovereignty, but she is desperate to breach it, to connect, to be human.[28] Entanglement and messiness are pathways to community. However, ultimately Chieko does not achieve this horizontal community, and certainly not on the terms by which she sought it.

The positioning of women’s bodies as sites for performing power goes beyond the narrative to extradiegetic features. The Babel team explicitly marked futuristic Tokyo with a pink-purple palette and gave the actor purple streaks in her hair to match the colour design. Del Toro similarly marked Mako through blue and also gave Kikuchi blue streaks in her hair.[29] However, in Pacific Rim, the blue is Mako’s own grief and trauma, the ongoing influence of her memory of loss, whereas in Babel the purple is remote from Chieko’s individual trauma and merges the character with the city. If Chieko’s image stands in for the future metropolis, it is vital to consider Chieko’s physical relationship to inside and outside spaces. Bringing together the disruptive opacity of her silent experience of space and her positioning in tension with the stereotypical sexualized Japanese schoolgirl are her public and semi-public nudity and partial nudity, for example, as well the intersection between the audio and the visual, and Kikuchi’s performance oscillating between disruptive monstrousness and other forms that suggest the cultural encoding of speech and body.

Shaw has also noted that to be effective a text must recognise its own limitations and the impossibility of universalism.[30] Babel relies on emotion for audience empathy rather than interrogating the function of class in a global system in determining the range of possibilities for its characters and its viewers. Empathy for supposedly universal human emotions leaves the audience mournful, perhaps, but also helpless. This emotional universalism tends to undermine the estrangement provoked by the moments in which the character’s experience remains resolutely illegible to an “outsider” (hearing and non-Japanese in the case of Chieko) viewer. Death, grief, and familial love are legible, but they are not human experiences that provoke action out of solidarity. If Chieko finds some solace or connection at all, it is through the closeness of death in the film’s flirtation with suicide and, perhaps, the reestablishment of a family unit—order—in her father’s embrace.

Mako, in contrast, has a conventional hero narrative, as can be seen in her triumph over trauma and realization of vengeance for past losses. The film is at least equally Mako’s, and del Toro describes her story—and her childhood memory—as the film’s heart (Pacific Rim director’s commentary). The male protagonist Raleigh and his brother Yancy are the initial heroes. Raleigh is framed as an impetuous youth who audiences expect will be tempered through undergoing some drastic trial, based on conventional Hollywood narrative. Hunnam is a large white man to put on posters and do English voiceover during battles. While the story of the U.S. couple (Blanchett and Brad Pitt) clearly propels Babel, despite the prologue of Pacific Rim showing the backstory of Raleigh rather than Mako it is her story that anchors the film. After Yancy’s death and Raleigh’s departure from the program, we discover that the Beckets’ jaeger (Gypsy Danger) was drastically altered by Mako, who is also shown to have technical skills and jaeger-combat abilities surpassing those of any other pilot candidate. Mako adds to Gypsy Danger a massive sword, allowing her to enact a samurai’s revenge for the loss of her family and community as she thrusts it through the body of a kaiju in the climactic battle. In another move with shades of Babel—unexpected in a film positioned in the action blockbuster marketplace—Mako speaks mostly Japanese. Her farewell to Pentecost—sensei, aishitemasu—is untranslated.[31] The full significance of a moment easily milked for sentiment is restricted to a knowing audience.[32]

In contrast to Babel, in which a known figure—the Japanese schoolgirl—is both used to make Japan swiftly legible to global audiences and disrupted by Chieko’s relation to sexuality and to language, the character of Mako draws on types perhaps less familiar outside Japan. Del Toro said of Mako that ‘She’s not going to be a sex kitten, she’s not going to come out in cut-off shorts and a tank top, and it’s going to be a real earnestly drawn character’.[33] To the extent that the Mako-Raleigh relationship has any erotic component, it is in her gaze on his body. In contrast to the nudity Chieko uses as part of her arsenal of challenging behaviours, Mako Mori is very clothed throughout. ‘As a means to, even the substance of, a commutable persona, clothing as performance threatens to undercut the ideological fixity of the human subject’.[34] This performative element of the subject, however, is also read differently by different audiences. Chieko’s nudity and Mako’s clothing/armour link to the audience’s reading of their characters as Japanese, or more generically as Asian women.[35] Inside Japan, both characters correspond to or subvert particular aesthetic traditions (principally from manga), whereas outside Japan this intertextual reading may be less obvious. Images of Asian women outside Asia are less nuanced; they do not draw on the full spectrum of female figures from all areas of cultural production as is naturally the case inside Asia. Instead, racial and gendered characteristics are often linked together in reductive essentialism. Shingler has outlined the way this expectation requires Asian stars to vacillate between stereotypical and universal subjectivity.[36]  In terms of Asian women performing opposite white men, Marchetti described the way ‘interracial sexuality’ and the use (and generally domination) of Asian women to confirm the heterosexuality of the hero had become a part of the ‘stylistic mélange’ of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking.[37] Charlie Hunnam is an imposing physical presence in the film; however, his character’s relationship with Kikuchi’s does not unfold along these lines. He is intermittently shirtless and Mako—and the audience—look at him, but despite the film’s projection of a jocular macho environment among male jaeger pilots and support staff involving the casual objectification of women, Mako herself is not sexually objectified either by the camera or by any character, including Raleigh, within the film. This environment contributes rather to the locker room effect of the male-dominated sports world, with Mako seamlessly assuming the role of untested but talented rookie.

The two characters, rather than potential lovers, are mirrors, with matching and converging narratives. In the choreography and the mise-en-scène Raleigh and Mako, when appearing together, are framed as physical counterparts, in balance with each other.  At their first meeting, Mako awaits him on an airstrip at the Shatterdome, and the two look at each other, each holding a black umbrella. (Umbrellas are prominent visual and narrative elements in manga and anime, although the constant rain also triggers comparison to Blade Runner). This initial encounter is bookended by the final shot of the two together in the film, their heads inclined towards each other, foreheads touching, and bodies in compositional symmetry as they kneel atop a life raft at sea. Between these two framing images there are many other instances of the two characters physically mirroring each other as they converge.

Among the most significant of these are the hand-to-hand fight choreography, supposed to indicate their elite combat capabilities but also, more importantly, their combat compatibility, and the subsequent sequences of them piloting Gypsy Danger side by side, clamped into synchronised interfaces. There is a dual doubling at work, with each other and with the machine, taking to a new level science fiction’s fascination with the limits of the human and the appeal of the non-human, especially where the non-human serves as the human’s double.[38] While the first and last shots of the two together suggest their joined character arcs, the choreographed mirrored sequences support Pacific Rim’s central concept of the drift, the memory-based telepathy allowing two (or more) compatible pilots to jointly control their jaeger.

Isolation versus Fusion in the Global Gaze

The experience of the drift serves as a motif of communion in terms of contrast to the individual isolation and alienation of Babel, an important point of contrast for the two films’ presentation of globalised subjects. The fusion of characters in Pacific Rim, the ways in which they are relational and intermingled even in how they experience their memories of their own past selves, is a more challenging concept of subjectivity than that put forth in Babel, which ultimately reinforces the integrity of the individual self and the obstacles in the way of transcending our isolation. This difference is not that surprising considering their different genres, with Babel in the realist art-film vein taking emotion—emanating from the self and building on the specificity of individual experience—as its centre, whereas Pacific Rim, in the way of science fiction, engages with the limits of the human.[39] Both films use central characters—notably Kikuchi’s Mako and Chieko—to show aspects of the human response to trauma and our capacity to understand the emotional components of our reaction to external threats on a global scale.

In the context of thinking about the interconnection of threat and trauma, it is relevant to analyse the two films’ treatment of the security apparatus that is supposed to reinforce our sense of integrity against an external force. The connections between borders and enclosure and the relationship between security and exclusion in Babel are obvious, but there are several ways in which Pacific Rim‘s engagement with these concepts is more disruptive. Babel shows the profound incapacity to communicate or transcend barriers. Its representation of unequal power and its relationship to global networks has already received a great deal of critical attention, which its explicit engagement with the consequences of globalisation positively invites.[40] Pacific Rim, in contrast, has one very obvious critique of the politically-motivated folly of building a wall that cannot hold, and the central plot of coming together to face a common enemy is a simplistic cliché. To consider this cliché in the context of the critical question of global visions in contemporary transnational film, the coming together of diverse characters may represent ‘the apotheosis of the transnational qualities so often associated with del Toro, with the giant robots dependent on the support of a racially and ethnically mixed group of human beings who can interact very effectively across national differences’.[41] In practice, however, beyond these clear representations of two different immediate responses to outside threats, the ways that both bodily and cultural boundaries are represented in Pacific Rim is more interesting.

Park relates Morley and Robins’ ‘techno-orientalism’ and Hollywood’s use of Tokyo as the ‘quintessential postmodern metropolis’ in which Japanese people are machine-like, suggesting that the self-hatred of modernity is displaced onto Asia.[42] Fear of modernity as symbolised by alienation in techno-mediated Tokyo is perhaps evident in Babel. In Pacific Rim, however, the prevailing mode is technophilia. Walls are not the solution. Fusing with technology is the solution. Even fusing with and loving the enemy is the solution. Boundaries, which are comforting illusions, must be transgressed. This transgressive tendency is one of the benefits of the genre. ‘Borders and markers in the science fiction film are seen as extendable—and their contents as spilling over into each other, possibly merging’.[43] From the film’s beginning, we see that the jaeger is as much a fantasy protection as the giant coastal wall, for Yancy Beckett is ripped out of Gypsy Danger’s skull—and ripped out of Raleigh’s mind—with ease. It is clear from that moment that jaeger fighting kaiju, though the film’s primary spectacle, cannot offer a solution. Only fascination as a starting point for becoming/assuming the cloak of the kaiju can liberate humanity from its coming destruction. The jaeger alone is imperfect, incomplete and penetrable. Similarly, the human characters are imperfect, incomplete and penetrable. Mako herself loathes the kaiju. But as del Toro explains, the characters in Pacific Rim are limited types that are really all one character. The characters move through different positions in a series of dyads of love/hatred, fascination/fear, technophilia/xenophilia, reason/instinct, obedience/rebellion, and arrogance/self-sacrifice. These, however, must somehow be fused or collapsed together for humanity to overcome its obstacles.

This is not to overstate the case the film makes for fusion as a mechanism for overcoming the alienation of contemporary human subjectivity, as Pacific Rim remains a story essentially about violently expelling aliens. In Babel, crossing boundaries and understanding the other, while nearly impossible and accomplished only in extremis, allow empathy and communion. While the narrative spans the globe, however, the focus on the intimacy of individual experience as a source of empathy means an answer for the disconnection and miscommunication between people remains elusive. In Pacific Rim, empathy, communion and understanding the other facilitate destruction and exclusion; at least when the other is the monstrous alien. By focusing on the continuities in del Toro’s work, his ‘focus on liminal characters caught between worlds’, this destruction and exclusion is undermined.[44] If Pacific Rim has indeed been successful enough to trigger a Pacific Rim 2, it would be unsurprising to see greater complexity brought to this conclusion—the kaiju were pushed back and cut off, not annihilated, after all. A triumphalist representation of the sacrifice of the jaeger and their pilots for the greater good of a united humanity, given the venality and pettiness of the wider world hinted at in the film, is unlikely to remain the prevailing vision. In del Toro’s worlds, barriers, whether between races, genders, species, past and present, or reality and fantasy, are rarely allowed to stand.

References

Anker Elizabeth, “In the Shadowlands of Sovereignty: The Politics of Enclosure in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel”, University of Toronto Quarterly: A Canadian Journal of the Humanities 82:4 (2013).

Bâ Saer Maty, Higbee Will, “Moving away from a sense of cultures as pure spaces. An Interview with Deborah Shaw”, in De-Westernizing Film Studies, ed. Saer Maty Bâ and Will Higbee (London/NY: Routledge) (2012).

Carreno Victor “Travels and Borders in the Representation of the U.S.-Mexico Border: Cartographies in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel”, International Journal of the Arts in Society 4:4 (2009).

Davies Laurence, “Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos, or the Pleasures of Impurity”, in Gothic Science Fiction 1980-2010. ed. S. Wasson and E Alder (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press) (2011).

Foucault Michel, “Des espaces autres. Hétérotopies”, Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5 (1984).

Gilchrist Todd. “Comic-Con 2012: Pacific Rim‘s Rinko Kikuchi Says She Was Jealous of Co-Star Charlie Day”, 19 July 2012 http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/comic-con-2012-pacific-rim-rinko-kikuchi-charlie-day351981, date accessed 28 September 2015.

Hanley Jane, “The Walls Fall Down”, Studies in Spanish and Latin American Cinemas [Studies in Hispanic Cinemas] 4:1 (2007).

Hutchings Peter, “Adapt or Die: Mimicry and Evolution in Guillermo del Toro’s English-Language Films”, in The Transnational Fantasies of Guillermo del Toro ed. A. Davies, D. Shaw and D. Tierney (London: Palgrave Macmillan) (2014).

Jones Norma, “Review of Pacific Rim”, Film & History 44:1 (2014).

Kerr Paul, “Babel’s network narrative: packaging a globalized art cinema” Transnational Cinemas 1:1 (2010).

Kuhn Annette, Alien Zone (New York: Verso) (1990).

Kuhn Annette, The Power of the Image: Essays on Representation and Sexuality, (London: Routledge) (1985).

Locke Richard, “Globalization and its Discontents”, The American Scholar 76:2 (2007).

Lopez Aguirre Sergio, “En entrevista con la protagonista de Pacific Rim, recuerda su filmografía” Cinepremiere 9 July 2013, http://www.cinepremiere.com.mx/30555-rinko-kikuchi-habla-de-titanes-del-pacifico-babel-murakami-y-mas.html date accessed 17 March 2015.

Marchetti Gina, Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction, (Berkeley: University of California Press) (1993).

Park Jane, Yellow Future: Oriental Style in Hollywood Cinema, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (2010).

Raussert Wilfred, “Inter-American Border Discourses, Heterotopia, and Translocal Communities in Courtney Hunt’s Film Frozen River”, Norteamérica 6:1 (2011).

Santaolalla Isabel, “Bodyscapes of silence: The figure of the mute woman in the cinema”, Journal of Gender Studies 7:1 (1998).

Shaw Deborah, Contemporary Cinema of Latin America: Ten Key Films, (London: Continuum) (2003).

Shaw Deborah, “Babel and the Global Hollywood Gaze”, Situations 4:1 (2011).

Shaw Deborah, “(Trans)national images and cinematic spaces: The cases of Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también (2001) and Carlos Reygadas’ Japón (2002)”, Iberoamericana 11:44 (2011).

Shaw Deborah, The Three Amigos: The Transnational Filmmaking of Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Alfonso Cuarón, (Manchester: Manchester University Press) (2013).

Shingler Martin, Star Studies: A Critical Guide, (London: Palgrave Macmillan) (2012).

Sneider Jeff “Rodrigo Prieto, ‘Babel’”, Variety 3 January 2007, http://variety.com/2007/film/awards/rodrigo-prieto-babel-1117956612/, date accessed 15 September 2015.

Sobchack Vivian. 1990. The virginity of astronauts. In A. Kuhn (ed.) Alien Zone. New York: Verso.

Tamaki Saitō, Beautiful Fighting Girl transl. J. Keith Vincent and Dawn Lawson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (2011).

Telotte J.P. “The Doubles of Fantasy and the Space of Desire” Alien Zone ed. Annette Kuhn (New York: Verso) (1990).

Tierney Dolores, “Alejandro González Iñárritu: director without borders”, New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film 7:2 (2009).

Notes

[1] Cuarón, Iñárritu and del Toro are the surnames commonly employed to refer to these directors in the English-speaking world, and will be used throughout.

[2] Peter Hutchings, “Adapt or Die: Mimicry and Evolution in Guillermo del Toro’s English-Language Films”, in The Transnational Fantasies of Guillermo del Toro ed. A. Davies, D. Shaw and D. Tierney (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p.84.

[3] Peter Hutchings, p.85.

[4] The Devil’s Backbone (2001, Guillermo del Toro); Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, Guillermo del Toro).

[5] Jane Hanley, “The Walls Fall Down”, Studies in Spanish and Latin American Cinemas [Studies in Hispanic Cinemas] 4:1 (2007), pp.35-45.

[6] Peter Hutchings, p.86.

[7] Peter Hutchings, p.96.

[8] Laurence Davies, “Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos, or the Pleasures of Impurity” in Gothic Science Fiction 1980-2010 ed. S. Wasson & E Alder (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011), p.88.

[9] DVD director’s commentary.

[10] Sergio López Aguirre, “En entrevista con la protagonista de Pacific Rim, recuerda su filmografía” Cinepremiere 9 July 2013, http://www.cinepremiere.com.mx/30555-rinko-kikuchi-habla-de-titanes-del-pacifico-babel-murakami-y-mas.html date accessed 17 March 2015.

[11] Norma Jones, “Review of Pacific Rim”, Film & History 44:1 (2014), p.45.

[12] The most obvious mecha referent that might come to mind for non-Japanese audiences, Neon Genesis Evangelion, is, according to del Toro, not a direct influence on the aesthetic of Pacific Rim in the way that some earlier mechas are (DVD director’s commentary).

[13] Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott).

[14] Michel Foucault, “Des espaces autres. Hétérotopies.” Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5 (1984), pp.46-49. The heterotopia now routinely appears in film analysis.

[15] Wilfred Raussert, “Inter-American Border Discourses, Heterotopia, and Translocal Communities in Courtney Hunt’s Film Frozen River”, Norteamérica 6:1 (2011), p.23.

[16] Deborah Shaw in Saer Maty Bà and Will Higbee “Moving away from a sense of cultures as pure spaces. An Interview with Deborah Shaw.” De-Westernizing Film Studies (London/NY: Routledge, 2012), p.236; Deborah Shaw, Contemporary Cinema of Latin America: Ten Key Films (London: Continuum, 2003), p.5.

[17] Jane Park, Yellow Future: Oriental Style in Hollywood Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), p.199.

[18] Gina Marchetti, Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), p.202.

[19] Jane Park, p.xi.

[20] Amores perros (2000, Alejandro González Iñárritu).

[21] Deborah Shaw, “(Trans)national images and cinematic spaces: The cases of Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también (2001) and Carlos Reygadas’ Japón (2002)”, Iberoamericana 11:44 (2011), pp.117-131.

[22]Rodrigo Prieto in Jeff Sneider, Rodrigo Prieto, ‘Babel’. Variety 3 January 2007, http://variety.com/2007/film/awards/rodrigo-prieto-babel-1117956612/, date accessed 15 September 2015.

[23] Jane Park, p.5.

[24] Deborah Shaw, “Babel and the Global Hollywood Gaze”, Situations 4:1 (2011), p.21.

[25] Isabel Santaolalla “Bodyscapes of silence: The figure of the mute woman in the cinema” Journal of Gender Studies 7:1 (1998), pp.53-61.

[26] Paul Kerr, “Babel’s network narrative: packaging a globalized art cinema”, Transnational Cinemas 1:1 (2011), p.47.

[27] Santoallalla, pp.57-58.

[28] Elizabeth Anker, “In the Shadowlands of Sovereignty: The Politics of Enclosure in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel”, University of Toronto Quarterly: A Canadian Journal of the Humanities 82:4 (2013), pp.950-73.

[29] DVD director’s commentary.

[30] Shaw “Babel”, p.26.

[31] Jones p.46.

[32] Rinko Kikuchi does not herself consider being Japanese an essential part of her role in the film, citing instead the universalism of stories (in Todd Gilchrist, “Comic-Con 2012: Pacific Rim‘s Rinko Kikuchi Says She Was Jealous of Co-Star Charlie Day”, 19 July 2012, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/comic-con-2012-pacific-rim-rinko-kikuchi-charlie-day351981, date accessed 28 September 2015). The signs of nationality in the intercultural space of Pacific Rim are empty; it is interpersonal fusion that is important.

[33] DVD director’s commentary.

[34] Annette Kuhn, The Power of the Image: Essays on Representation and Sexuality. London: Routledge, 1985) p.54.

[35] The omnipresence of the schoolgirl needs little elaboration. For an exploration of female warrior types in manga and anime see Tamaki, Saitō, Beautiful Fighting Girl transl. by J. Keith Vincent & Dawn Lawson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011). These types are discussed mainly with reference to girls rather than women, but Tamaki’s analysis is still informative for understanding the aesthetic and narrative for the character of Mako Mori and the complexity of presenting her in a non-sexual way.

[36] Martin Shingler, Star Studies: A Critical Guide (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p.179.

[37] Gina Marchetti, p.203.

[38] Telotte suggested that the spectatorial fascination of the double in science fiction is a narcissistic impulse that may suppose the dissolution of the desire for the other. J.P. Telotte “The Doubles of Fantasy and the Space of Desire” in Alien Zone ed. Annette Kuhn (New York: Verso, 1990).

In Pacific Rim, however, doubles—Raleigh/Mako, Raleigh/ his brother, other drift-compatible pilots, scientist/alien, the two scientists, and of course pilot/jaeger—are unstable and multiply, suggesting the fluidity and possibility of transcending the limits of the individual self.

[39] A priori definitions of the genre are problematic, but Kuhn notes that effective science fiction films have often prompted critics to zero in on the way speculative fictions can interrogate the prevailing preoccupations of their moment. Annette Kuhn “Alien”, p10.

[40] For example, Dolores Tierney, “Alejandro González Iñárritu: director without borders. New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film 7:2 (2009) pp.101-117; Victor Carreno, “Travels and Borders in the Representation of the U.S.-Mexico Border: Cartographies in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel”, International Journal of the Arts in Society 4:4 (2011), pp.265-274; Richard Locke, “Globalization and its Discontents”, The American Scholar 76:2 (2007), pp.114-117, among others.

[41] Peter Hutchings, pp.95-96.

[42] Jane Park, pp.7-8.

[43] Vivian Sobchack, “The virginity of astronauts” in Alien Zone ed. Annette Kuhn (New York: Verso, 1990), p.113.

[44] Peter Hutchings, p.93.

Jane Hanley is Head of Spanish and Latin American Studies in the Department of International Studies: Languages and Cultures at Macquarie University, Sydney. Her current research project is on the influence of transnational mobility and networks and the representation of transnational experience in different popular genres. She is a member of the Editorial Committee of the Journal of Iberian and Latin American Research. Dr Hanley coordinates Macquarie University’s Spanish language courses as well teaching on topics related to travel and tourism, migration, past and present popular culture in Spain, and contemporary Mexico. Her research interests include travel writing, transnational cultural production, and gender in Spanish-language popular culture. She is also interested in curriculum design and implementation, student assessment and student experiences of learning, and is currently Director of Quality and Standards for the Department of International Studies.

Clint Eastwoods’s Letters from Iwo Jima as a transnational film

Łukasz A.Plesnar

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 51-67.

Łukasz A.Plesnar

Jagiellonian University

 

Clint Eastwoods’s Letters from Iwo Jima as a transnational film

Abstract

We may consider Letters from Iwo Jima as a typical transnational film. Its concept is based on Eastwood’s discovery of a General Kuribayashi’s book of letters and drawings, Picture Letters from Commander in Chief, collected and translated into English by Tsuyuko Yoshida (the original title: Gyokusa soshikikan no etegami). The script for Letters was written by a Japanese-American writer, Iris Yamashita, and Paul Haggis, Eastwood’s previous scripter. Despite having been produced by American companies (DreamWorks Pictures, Warner Bros Company, Malpaso Productions, and Ambling Entertainment), almost entire movie is in Japan.

The film functions as the second panel of the war diptych, being a twin to Flags of Our Fathers. Both movies depict the battle of Iwo Jima, but from the different perspectives: Flags from the American point of view, and the Letters from the Japanese one. Shooting his diptych, Eastwood decided to “show the two sides of a battle”, presenting the consequences of war on both sides. It was a feat that had never been attempted by any other filmmaker (except perhaps Lewis Milestone in All Quiet on the Western Front). Eastwood refutes the decades when the Americans demonied the Japanese, which began at the start of the war on Pacific. The director portraits the Japanese soldiers as “young and powerless and driven to madness or suicide” human beings, who are to be pitied, not hated. He tries to escape from stereotypical images of the Japanese society, Japanese soldiers, and Japanese culture, often presented in the American cinema. Main roles are cast with the Japanese while in the earlier Hollywood movies Japanese characters were generally performed by Chinese-Americans or Asian-Americans). This makes the film more authentic.

Letters was released in Japan and was commercially successful, receiving warm reception from critics and audiences. An English-dubbed version came out sixteen monts after its Japanese premiere.

Key words: transnational film, war movies, combat movies, representation, stereotypes, suicide, Japan, Clint Eastwood

Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, two movies produced by Clint Eastwood in 2006, are atypical and unusual works. “It was the first time a director made two films at the same time about the same event, which here is the battle over Iwo Jima in 1945”.[1] According to historians, this was one of the deadliest fights in the Pacific Campaign. Over the course of 36 days in February and March, the invasion forces of 110,000 Marines fought 22,000 entrenched Japanese infantrymen. Only 1,083 Japanese survived, while 6,821 Americans were killed and almost 20,000 wounded. The Imperial Army troops were commanded by General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, “a unique man, a man of great imagination, creativity and resourcefulness”[2], a soldier who went far beyond the traditional model of a Japanese officer, and who is one of the main characters of Letters from Iwo Jima.

Originally, Eastwood planned to make one film devoted to the battle of Iwo Jima: an adaptation of James Bradley’s book about six Marines raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi. However, while the director was working on Flags of Our Fathers, he discovered General Tadamichi Kuribayashi’s book of letters and drawings, Picture Letters from Commander in Chief, which had been published posthumously in Japanese in 1992 and then translated into English by Tsuyuko Yoshida.[3] It contained the General’s letters to his wife and children, including those written on Iwo Jima. “In the letters Eastwood found a Japanese voice”, Rikke Schubart writes. “He first considered adding a Japanese point of view to Flags, but then decided on making a second film instead. A film entirely dedicated to the Japanese point of view. And so, while doing post-production on Flags, Eastwood shot Letters from Iwo Jima in 32 days”.[4] Both Flags and Letters are independent movies, but at the same time, as Leo Braudy notes, “both are tremendously enriched by their juxtaposition and should be seen as a diptych”.[5]

Apart from many similarities, we can also notice numerous differences between Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Firstly, Flags was shot in English with American actors, while Letters, despite having been produced by American companies (DreamWorks Pictures, Warner Bros Company, Malpaso Productions, and Ambling Entertainment), was kept in Japanese and engaged Japanese actors. Secondly, Flags was a 75 million dollar blockbuster movie, while Letters cost only 15 million dollars. Thirdly, Flags was originally aimed at an international audience, while Letters was directed above all at Japanese moviegoers. It is significant that an English-dubbed version of the film came out sixteen months after its Japanese premiere. The participation of Japanese actors speaking subtitled dialogue led to certain confusions. American spectators regarded the movie as a Japanese production. On the other hand, Letters won the Japanese Academy Award for the best foreign language film, which was an obvious paradox.

Differences between both Eastwood’s movies are not limited to the aspect of production, but go much further, referring also to the content. We could say, quoting the statement of Aaron Gerow, that Flags is “about how to remember the war, giving a new view on an incident everyone knows”, while Letters is “about listening to those who fought it, trying to create a memory tableau of something most people, including the Japanese, know little about”. Flags is also an attempt to deconstruct the Hollywood genre of war and combat films, while Letters “appears more simply as an American effort to understand the complex human beings on the other side, to tell the world that they were brave too”.[6]

Apart from the circumstances of the production process, we can list three reasons why Letters from Iwo Jima should be recognized as a transnational film: 1) adoption by the director of a Japanese point of view; 2) portrayal of Japanese soldiers—against the tradition of American war films—as simple, normal people, not as barbarians or even bloodthirsty wild beasts; 3) setting up the audience’s identification with some of the young soldiers by focusing on their individual stories and their unfolding relations.[7]

We may say that the way Eastwood builds the plot of Letters, describes its characters, and defines their motives leads him to the denial of a number of stereotypes that exist in American culture. Although these stereotypes primary refer to images of an enemy, they also relate indirectly to images of every „other”, whether racial or national. Nonetheless, the director is famous for the blunt attitude towards such stereotypes that he has demonstrated a number of times. He fought against the stereotype of a Native American as a tomahawk-wielding savage thirsty for the white man’s blood and living in the wilderness or on reservations (men) and a beautiful maiden (women) in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). He questioned various stereotypes of Afro Americans (as thugs, domestic workers, or a best friend of a white man) in Bird (1988) and that of an African as a naked black guy brandishing spears and fighting with their neighbours in White Hunter, Black Heart (1990). Finally, he waged a war with the stereotypes of Hispanic American women as maids, sexpots, or immigrants in Blood Work (2002) as well as with the stereotypes of Asian Americans as kung fu fighters or a technical experts (men) and prostitutes (women) in Gran Torino (2008).

The majority of stereotypes are of national nature in two senses of the word. Firstly, they frequently come into existence and are formed within a group we call a nation. Secondly, they often refer to nations. Obviously, stereotypes differ according to both their subjects and objects (for instance, Poles have quite different stereotypes of Russians than do Serbians [8], just as Jews see Palestinians completely unlike Egyptians or Saudi Arabians). I want to stress that stereotypes might sometimes be modified over the course of time, but usually they are relatively stable.

Cinema is a domain where stereotypes occur very often. We may even say that the history of film is the history of disseminating stereotypes. Rejection of national and racial stereotypes is not so easy when you consider viewers’ expectations and their cultural training as well as a filmmaker himself being trapped in the stereotype network of his own culture. However, success means something special: the transition from the sphere of national to the sphere of transnational. To paraphrase the words of Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden, we may say that the key to transnationalism is the recognition of the decline of national stereotypes as a regulatory force in global cinema.[9]

I have already mentioned the extremely stereotypical images of the Japanese in the American films produced during World War II. This subject will be discussed in more detail in a later part of this study. However, it is interesting whether the images of Americans and other enemies of the Empire were equally stereotypical in the Japanese films from the same period. The answer is surprising: no. Japanese films, including war and combat movies, rarely presented or even mentioned the enemy; battles were often filmed simply from the Japanese side, showing no opposing soldiers. Even the leading propaganda movie, Kajirō Yamamoto’s The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malay (Hawai Marē oki kaisen, 1942)—made to commemorate the first anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor—paid little attention to the Americans. The main reason seems to be simple: “Japanese racism was less concerned with the denigration of others than with the elevation of themselves, with affirming their status as an allegedly superior and chosen people”.[10] As a result, on-screen Japanese soldiers were depicted as living in an exclusive world of camaraderie and racial affinity. Images of enemies were needless.

Obviously, this was not the absolute rule. A number of jidaigeki movies stirred up “a passionate hatred among the populace against Japan’s ‘historic enemy’ (shukuteki), the Anglo-Saxon powers”[11]. Some films, for instance Tomotaka Tasaka’s Mud and Soldiers (Tsuchi to heitai – 1939) and Yoshimura Kōzaburō’s The Legend of Tank Commander Nishizumi (Nishizumi senshachō den – 1940), presented the “inhuman” qualities of the Chinese, and Imai Tadashi’s Suicide Troops of the Watchtower (Bōrō no kesshitai – 1943) depicted the Korean communist guerrillas as bloodthirsty beasts (though the image of “normal” Koreans was relatively positive).

Paradoxically, the most negative image of American soldiers, politicians and culture can be found in Taku Shinjō’s For Those We Love (Ore wa, kimi no tame ni koso shini ni iku – 2007), a quite recent production about the kamikaze pilots of World War II. The movie has triggered many controversies in the United States, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zeeland as it portrayed pilots’ suicides as courageous and honourable, whereas the Allied forces, the victims of their attacks, were shown as brutal aggressors with no honour or sense of duty.

Let us return to Letters from Iwo Jima. The “soul” of Eastwood’s film and one of its main figures is the baker-turned-soldier, Private Saigo (played by pop star Kazunari Ninomiya), who has promised his young pregnant wife not to kill himself, to return home alive, and to never fire a shot. His name is symbolic, as it means “the last” in Japanese. Indeed, he is the only Japanese character who has survived the bloody slaughter on Iwo Jima. Saigo is not only a Japanese baker or soldier, but also an “everyman”, one of us, somebody who loves his family and profession, thinks about his future, and primarily wants to live. He cannot adapt to military life, he does not accept the callousness of the Japanese army based on a strict hierarchy and the absolute obedience of soldiers, and he cowers under the stare of fanatic and indoctrinated officers. He feels the absurdity of being forced into a battle in which “only death awaits”.[12] Ikui Eikoh notices that “a hero like Saigo is exceptional less in Japanese history than in the history of Japanese film”[13], because he is weak, frightened, defenceless, and lost, or using the words of Lars-Martin Sorensen because “he is … normal”.[14]

Saigo is not the only “normal”, unheroic, and rational Japanese soldier in Letters from Iwo Jima. Private Nozaki (Yuki Matzusaki), accused of treason by an over-zealous officer, and Private Shimizu (Kase Ryo) are other ones. They, as Saigo, fight the rules and customs common in the Imperial Army: absolute hierarchy, ruthless obedience, and fanaticism inspired by the highest command. In one of the few scenes in the film that take place in Japan, we see a military police officer (Kempeitai) who orders Shimizu, a young recruit, to shoot a child’s pet dog as a test of his toughness and loyalty. When Shimizu tries to save the dog, he is dismissed and sent to Iwo Jima to face inevitable death. There his comrades accuse him—unjustly, of course—of being a Kempeitai informer. Fortunately, a conversation with Saigo clears up the misunderstanding. Both soldiers notice they have very similar opinions and attitudes. They consider the war in the name of the Emperor and abstract ideas of love of the country, honour, and imperial patriotism absurd. They also feel that they are too young to lay down their lives in a doomed war. They refused to commit suicide (after the others in their platoon had all killed themselves) and decided to surrender to the Americans. Shimizu goes first but is killed by two American guards. Saigo fails to move and preserves his life.

The killing of Shimizu by American guards reverses elementary Hollywood conventions of combat films: U.S. Marines, usually presented as good guys, perpetrate a crime on a Japanese soldier, shown usually as a bad guy. This murder is committed for no apparent reason, in fear of Shimizu and the reputation of the Imperial Army. The crime makes no sense: it is a savage and purposeless act that was most often attributed to the enemies of America in Hollywood movies. Therefore, Eastwood eventually overturns repartition of values: U.S. Marines are bad guys while Shimizu turns out to be a good guy.

Shimizu has bad luck. On the contrary, Saigo is lucky. Late in the film, Saigo and other Japanese soldiers are told by their commanding officers to defend Mount Suribachi with their lives. Desperate and distraught men begin committing suicide. However, Saigo refuses to kill himself, escapes the mountains, and goes to the base of operations where he meets General Kuribayashi. The General orders Saigo to burn all the documents whilst he leads the surviving soldiers for one final nighttime attack on the American troops. Saigo, fulfilling the order, burns the military documents and buries the pouch containing thousands of letters written by the soldiers and never delivered to Japan. In the bloody assault, Kuribayashi is fatally wounded and asks Saigo for a last favour: to bury him where he would not be found. In the closing shot of Letters, we see Saigo, captured by the U.S. forces, lying amongst many wounded American soldiers. His face is turned toward the camera. As Rikke Schubart writes, “This man—no hero, no saviour, no decorated corpsman or admired general—survives. He is the future, not to honour or mourn, but to emulate. He returns to his wife and child”.[15]

This scene also contains another message reconstructed by Ian Buruma: “Lying under his army blanket”, he notes, “waiting to be taken off the island of death, Saigo is no different from the Americans lined up beside him, and yet it is unmistakably him; and that is the point of Eastwood’s remarkable movie”.[16] This construction can be, and in fact should be, easily extended. It seems to me that the director makes it clear that all national, ethnic, racial, cultural, and religious distinctions are not important because in fact we are all alike. Alternatively, in other words, differences between people do not depend on national, ethnic, cultural, and religious factors. As Mikkel Bruun Zangenberg sums up: “Eastwood seems to suggest, we are all simple human beings endowed neither with the sadistic urge to kill nor with a fervent desire to fight for some abstract notion of ‘love of country’”.[17]

However, Zangenberg in his generalization takes things too far because in Letters Eastwood portraits not only “simple human beings”, but also soldiers and civilians brainwashed by the military government and the tradition of the bushido code. Lieutenant Ito (Shido Nakamura) is a good example. He is obsessed with driving his men to honour suicide; ironically, he fails to kill himself and is imprisoned by U.S. Marines. In addition, many other officers, educated in strict military discipline and samurai tradition, are soulless, cruel, and ignorant, and seem more concerned with achieving a glorious suicidal death than defending Iwo Jima. Some of the civilians are indoctrinated too. When Saigo is conscripted into the Imperial Army, his neighbours and friends keep congratulating him and repeating that he is lucky to be chosen to die for his country.

Eastwood presents the problem of indoctrination as a conflict between simple soldiers and officers. While the soldiers are primarily concerned with survival and comradeship among themselves, the officers are caught in the trap of ideological thinking in terms of patriotism, honour, self-sacrifice, and fate. Nevertheless, not all of them are fully incapacitated by ideology, upbringing, and traditional samurai code. The director shows two senior officers who are exceptional: General Tademichi Kuribayashi and Colonel Baron Takeichi Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara).

General Kuribayashi left his post as head of the Emperor’s Palace Guard “to lead what would turn out to be the suicidal defence of Iwo Jima, with all naval air support withdrawn”.[18] After he arrived at the island, he deviated from traditional Japanese war strategy that “dictates that an island should be defended by pillboxes on the beaches”.[19] Instead, he ordered his men to hew in the rocks of Mount Suribachi 28 kilometres of tunnels and 5,000 caves, which turned the Japanese infantry positions into nearly impregnable fortress. As a human being, Kuribayashi was a caring person. He protected his men against abusive officers, ordered equal food rations for officers and simple soldiers, and shared his water. Besides, he had the best qualities of the real warrior: he was tough, manly, courteous, and good-looking.

Kuribayashi is a cosmopolitan figure. He knows the United States well because he spent five years there as a military attaché. He likes this country, has American friends, and respects American values and the American way of life. One flashback shows his memory of a banquet dinner held in his honour at Fort Bliss in the late 1920s. Sitting in the dark cave on Iwo Jima, he recalls the moment when an American officer presents him with a Colt .45 “as a token of friendship”. Rikke Schubart writes, “We understand this is a painful memory of a happy moment. Kuribayashi treasures the gun, which he wears in his belt and with which he will commit suicide. Now, 54 years old, time is testing him. The commander’s conflict is obvious to us, torn as he is between his own convictions and those of his nation. Because, alas, they are not the same”.[20] The General “is no longer an enemy. Having travelled back in time and into his thoughts, we feel that we know him and that he is now a fellow being”.[21]

Besides Saigo, Kuribayashi is the main character of Letters from Iwo Jima. Both are similar in a way; but at the same time, both are quite different. They experience internal conflict between the demands of the intrusive rationality of war (survival above all else) and the cultural obligation to die for the country and the Emperor. However, they choose different solutions. Saigo decides on life, homecoming, and meeting his newborn daughter. The General, on the other hand, chooses honour death. When he recognizes the situation of his soldiers as hopeless, he orders the general attack on the American lines telling his men to be proud to die for their homeland. Then he takes his sword and leads his soldiers on the last charge.

Kuribayashi is fatally wounded during the assault and he orders his aide-de-camp to behead him with his sword, but the lieutenant is shot before the blow. Because of his injuries, Kuribayashi cannot hold his sword, so he uses the gun. “Ironically, the American gift of friendship leads to Japanese suicide”.[22]

The Colt .45 as a tool of suicide is a symbolic requisite. On the one hand, it represents American mythology and violence (as a well-known object of the history of the United States and many cultural texts, for example numerous literary or cinematographic Westerns); on the other hand it symbolizes friendship, honour, valour, pride, and politeness (as a gift). Nevertheless, it also symbolizes death, war, destruction, and self-destruction (as a weapon). For Kuribayashi it is an important bond with his happy past, days of peace, a time of innocence. It is also a tool of suicide that differs from the traditional Japanese tool used for that purpose. We may say that the gun is an object in which elements of the American and Japanese cultures meet. Maybe, more precisely, it is an agent of westernisation of Japanese culture.

Kuribayashi is not the only character in Letters from Iwo Jima with any personal knowledge of America and Americans: Colonel Baron Takeichi Nishi is another. He is an aristocrat and an equestrian who had won the gold medal in the individual jumping event of the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. As a well-known and rich man, he entertained Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, the famous actors of the era, at his home. His attitude to an enemy does not resemble traditional Japanese customs. Instead of killing a wounded young U.S. Marine soldier, Sam (Lucas Elliot Eberl), Nishi treats him with the last dose of morphine and reminisces about happy old days and his Hollywood friends. After the GI dies from his injuries, Nishi reads out a letter from the boy’s mother, “Remember what I said to you: always do what is right because it is right”. The letter enlightens Japanese soldiers that the Americans were just like them. Later despite bushido code and opinions of other officers, Nishi orders his infantry men not to commit suicide.

The Colonel seems to be even more cosmopolitan than Kuribayashi. He was a ladies’ man, attracted to the glamour of society life. As Ian Buruna writes, “Nishi has the hearty manners of a sporting Englishman. He is rather like the Erich von Stroheim character in Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, a member of the international aristocracy, in home in any place where wine, horses, and women have an acceptable pedigree”.[23] However, when Nishi is blinded by an explosion and unable to lead his soldiers, he commits suicide. His cosmopolitism turned out to be a coat covering deeply hidden nationalism. I think this way because I agree with Rikke Schubart, who notes, “Letters makes it crystal clear that suicide is a perverted nationalism”.[24] This means that Kuribayashi was a kind of nationalist too. Or rather, he was loyal to the national ethos he did not share, but obeyed. In his last message to the Imperial Headquarters, he wrote, “Our ammunition is gone and our water dried up. Now is the time for us to make the final counterattack and fight gallantly, conscious of the Emperor’s favour, not begrudging our efforts though they turn our bones to powder and pulverize our bodies. I believe that until the island is recaptured, the Emperor’s domain will be eternally insecure. I therefore swear that even when I have become a ghost I shall look forward to turning the defeat of the Imperial Army to victory. I stand now at the beginning of the end. At the same time as revealing my innermost feelings, I pray earnestly for the unfailing victory and security of the Empire. Farewell for all eternity”.[25]

General Kuribayashi and Colonel Nishi are the tragic heroes in an Aristotelian sense of the term. Firstly, they face the insoluble conflict. As we already know, this is a conflict between the rationality of war and a cultural or ideological obligation to die for the country and the Emperor. Kuribayashi and Nishi have Free Will, so they can choose. Each choice, however, leads to suffering and disaster. To choose survival means to be disloyal to military oath, to the Emperor, to the State, and to the Japanese tradition, and eventually to lose everything that is of great worth: face, honour, respect, and a place in history. On the other hand, to choose self-sacrifice means to lose life on earth, worldly possessions, family, happiness, and future; in other words, everything that a human being knows empirically. Every choice is wrong. The tragic hero is a victim and a culprit at the same time. He is guilty of so-called hamartia, meaning that he has made a bad decision or miscalculation because of “poor reasoning” or an external stimulus (e.g. interventions of Gods or divine madness in ancient tragedy). I enclose the expression poor reasoning in quotation marks because a tragic hero, ex definitione, does not use “proper reasoning”; his reasoning is always poor. It results from circumstances and limited knowledge of human beings. A typical tragic hero makes a bad decision because he sees only one way. For instance, many Japanese infantrymen on Iwo Jima chose death over surrender because, as Robert S. Burrell writes, “most soldiers believed Americans massacred and tortured prisoners. In particular, the Japanese were taught to despise Marines, who purportedly had to murder their own parents to qualify for enlistment”.[26] However, Kuribayashi and Nishi were broadminded men with extensive knowledge partly based on their personal experiences. That is why they were double guilty of hamartia and thus double tragic; they must have seen more than one way out.

By building the figures of Kuribayashi and Nishi as tragic heroes, Eastwood precludes our privilege of judging their proceedings in terms of right and wrong. Certainly, it does not mean that they do not participate in the Manichean conflict between good and evil: it only means that their individual decisions do not influence the ultimate result of that eternal struggle, as it must continue until the end of our world. Kuribayashi and Nishi are only insignificant puppets in the theatre of life. They are fated to fail; in other words, they have to die.

Nevertheless, the character of Kuribayashi seems to be somewhat internally contradictory. Initially, he forbids his soldiers to use banzai charges and counterattacks, but at the end of the film, he leads his men to a suicidal assault on American lines. He likes and understands Americans. During the ceremonial banquet dinner at Fort Blass he says, “The United States is the last country in the world Japan should fight”. However, on Iwo Jima he writes the following order to his men: “Each of your shots must kill many Americans. We cannot allow ourselves to be captured by the enemy. If our positions are overrun, we will take bombs and grenades and throw ourselves under the tanks to destroy them. We will infiltrate the enemy lines to exterminate them. No man must die until he has killed at least ten Americans. We will harass the enemy with guerrilla actions until the last of us has perished”.[27]

Eastwood does not question Kuribayashi’s command. “He shows the despair of some of the Japanese soldiers who are ordered to die, admittedly, but he does not critically engage Kuribayashi’s orders to die defending the island, or his heroic character for that matter”.[28]

Aaron Gerow wonders whether Eastwood, in honouring soldiers like Kuribayachi, “may be unwittingly engaging in the same process of creating ‘heroes’ that Flags of Our Fathers criticized, albeit for another country”.[29] This is even truer because the practice of honour suicide in form of seppuku or banzai seems to be Eastwood’s most important tool to humanize Japanese characters. That praxis is also, as Robert Burgoyne notes, “the key to the film’s tragic tone and the act that carries the strongest anti-war charge”.[30] The author notices that Eastwood does not depict self-sacrifice “as a weapon, a tactic or strategy of war”, but rather “as a means of bearing witness to a cause”.[31] Such treatment of self-destruction is nothing new: Ancient Romans used it as a means of protest; ancient Israelites as a message to their contemporaries and descendants that Jews would never be “servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God Himself”[32]; early Christian martyrs as a way to follow in Jesus’ footsteps; and present-day Buddhist monks in Tibet as a call of protest against Chinese occupation. Even Americans had an experience with something like banzai in the defence to the last man of Alamo Mission in 1836. Polish moviegoers remember the case of Michał Wołodyjowski and Hassling-Ketling of Elgin who blew themselves up in Kamieniec Podolski in 1672, which was described by Henryk Sienkiewicz in his famous novel Pan Wołodyjowski and shown in its adaptation for the screen by Jerzy Hoffman.

In Eastwood’s movie, the acts of self-sacrifice are of great importance. As Robert Burgoybe writes, “Seen as an instance of testimony—a speech act—the suicides depicted in Letters from Iwo Jima can be associated with the ‘letters’ of the film’s title. The film reframes the act in a way that emphasises the body of the soldier as a site of competing message, a text that exceeds its culturally sanctioned meanings in the coded discourses of war, becoming instead a site of self-authorship”.[33]

The first ritual suicide scene in Letters from Iwo Jima is demonstrative and moving. Let me once more quote Burgoyne: “The officer in charge … decides to disobey General Kuribayashi’s order to retreat and orders his men to ‘die with honour’ … Each soldier draws a grenade, struggles to fight back on overwhelming sense of fear and sorrow, and then blows himself up. The care, shown previously in the monochrome colours of pewter and charcoal, suddenly erupts into a sickening orange-red as the bodies of the soldiers burst open … As the camera observes each soldier’s internal agony in extended psychological close-up, the powerful sense of identification and empathy that the collective suicides elicit is countered by an equally strong sense, underscored by the character’s behaviour, lighting and sound, of suicide as profoundly ‘Other’, as transgression, as taboo”.[34]

I would like to stress that, showing the scenes of honour deaths and banzai, Eastwood deprives individual and collective suicide of connotation with something barbarian, uncivilized, and primitive. While self-sacrifice is primarily motivated culturally, it is also a question of being true to oneself and to individual values, of loyalty to commanders and soldier fellows, and of inflexibility and courage. We may acknowledge those who commit suicide as victims of traditions, ideology, or upbringing. However, we may also acknowledge them as heroes because they are able to overcome fear, to give their life to a cause and to show extremely strong will.

As I have already mentioned, in Letters from Iwo Jima Eastwood tries to escape from stereotypical images of the Japanese and to refute the decades when the Americans demonized them as a result of the war on Pacific. Since Pearl Harbor, American films have built an extremely negative image of the Japanese as aliens, traitors, barbarians, and creatures unworthy of the name of human beings. They were accused of sadism, brutality, fanaticism, perversity, dishonesty, indecency, lack of dignity, and shortage of empathy, as well as of hatred and contempt for their enemies. What is very important is that these attributes belonged to almost all of the Japanese. “On American screens”, Wang Xiaofei notes, “Japanese soldiers were repeatedly shown torturing POWs, killing civilians, and raping Chinese women. Japanese soldiers laughed when they were killing (Ray Enright’s Gung Ho! The True Story of Carlson’s Makin Island Raiders, 1943), when they were raping Chinese women (John Farrow’s China, 1943, Harold S. Buckuet’s and Jack Conway’s Dragoon Seed, 1944), or when they knew other soldiers had won a bloody battle (Lewis Milestone’s The Purple Heart, 1944). They smiled when they tried to ‘persuade’ American prisoners to speak (Edward Dmytryk’s Behind the Rising Sun, 1943 and Purple Heart). Japanese soldiers were also portrayed as sons of the jungle. They shot American soldiers in the back and they pretended to surrender only in order to kill GIs”.[35]

         Kathryn Kane notices that in American combat films, Japanese soldiers were shown as nameless and faceless, not people who could think and act as individuals.[36] They were anonymous masses specially created to be killed by American heroes. If some Japanese survived, they would probably commit seppuku (this ritual was presented in Edwin S. Martin’s Invisible Agent, 1942, in Behind the Rising Sun, Purple Heart, and in Frank Lloyd’s Blood on the Sand, 1945). Sometimes the presence of Japanese soldiers was only suggested. Xiaofei quotes the excerpt from the program to Tay Garnett’s Bataan (1943): “the Japs are totally impersonal; we don’t even see the planes—only their bombs and bullets and the damage they do”.[37]

         Ian Buruma explains why we encounter faceless enemies in many combat films: “More war movies have been about heroes, and individual differences among the enemies were irrelevant, since their villainy could be taken for granted … The whole point of feel-good propaganda is that the enemy has no personality; he is monolithic and thus inhuman”.[38]

         It is obvious that Eastwood does not use such a strategy in Letters from Iwo Jimia. On the contrary, he individualizes his characters: Saigo, Kuribayashi, Nishi, Shimizu, and even Ito. We get to know a lot about their lives, families, likes and dislikes, and systems of values. They are human beings to the core. They have their distinctive features so that they are easily recognizable by the audience. They are no more “Others”: they are like our friends and people around us.

The viewers find out a lot about the characters from flashbacks. Three of them belong to Kuribayashi (his visit to the United States as a military attaché), one to Saigo (call-up), and one to Shimizu (the incident with a pet dog and a Kempetai officer), and all are memories of a past prior to the war. They differ from the remaining fragments of the film in higher colour saturation; the scenes on Iwo Jima are almost drained of colour, restricting themselves to “an attenuated palette of pewter greys and pumice browns”.[39]

The use of flashbacks allows viewers to get into the minds of characters and to come to know their thoughts, emotions, and way of reasoning. In building such images of the Japanese characters, Eastwood breaks and deconstructs the conventions of war and combat films (although to a lesser degree than in Flags of Our Fathers). This does not mean the director ignores and rejects the whole genre’s tradition. Letters of Iwo Jima also preserves some of the fundamental tenets of combat movies. It follows the track of films such as Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s Westfront 1918: Vier von der Infanterie (1930), Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), William A Wellman’s Bastogne (1949), and Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951), all works that are distinguishable by a high degree of realism. However, absolute realism is impossible as combat movies contain acts of violence. As Stephen Prince writes, “the cinema cannot present violence in other than a pleasure-inducing capacity … The medium inevitably aestheticizes violence. The arousal and expression in cinema of ‘negative’ emotions—fear, anxiety, pain—typically occur as part of a pleasure-inducing aesthetic experience”. The reason is simple: “It seems likely that representations of violence on screen that are unrelentingly horrifying, nauseating, or disgusting will fail to attract viewers”.[40] Authentic images of combat violence are horrifying, nauseating, and disgusting.

Eastwood sets a high value on psychological realism. Sometimes, however, he abandons visual realism in favour of aesthetization of images that intensifies the film’s influence. This is true, among others, of battle scenes and those presenting ritual suicides and banzai. I have already mentioned, quoting Robert Burgoyne, the sequence showing the first collective suicide. This fragment is tragic and startling but it is extraordinarily beautiful at the same time. The aesthetization of death, wounds, and blood gives the audience pleasure in seeing the film. If the viewers looked at those horrors in reality, they would never feel satisfaction. Most of them would probably have to close their eyes.

I believe Letters from Iwo Jima is an almost standard example of a transnational film, both on production and plot levels. However, it does not mean it is an absolute turning point in American-Japanese cinematographic relations. As we already know, during the Second World War and the next decade Hollywood directors portrayed the Japanese as brutal and barbarian villains representing a lower and more primitive human race. However, in the mid-1950s they began to hint, in movies like Daniel Mann’s The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) and Joshua Logan’s Sayonara (1957), that the Japanese were not so alien and uncivilized. By the 1960s, even the war on Pacific was represented as more humane and noble. As Michael Paris writes, in Frank Sinatra’s None but the Brave (1965) and John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific (1969), “it is even suggested that some Japanese soldiers were not very different from Americans”.[41] Both films were American-Japanese co-productions, as was Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) directed by Richard Fleischer, Kinji Fukasaku, and Toshio Masuda, which was “a detailed examination of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but told with remarkable fairness”.[42] In subsequent years, a number of films appeared which were sympathetic to Japanese culture, tradition, and way of life. For example, movies such as Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza (1975) (“the first serious attempt of Western filmmakers to depict code-driven, context-driven interactions between peoples in Japan”[43]), John G. Avildsen’s The Karate Kid (1984), Fran Rubel Kuzui’s Tokyo Pop (1988), Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai (2003), Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), and Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha (2005).

However, Letters from Iwo Jima is an exceptional film. It is the only American combat movie made from a Japanese point of view and the only in which the author tries to understand and show respect to old Japanese customs and contemporary contradictions of Japanese ego. Eastwood reveals intense empathy towards the perfect cultural strangers who, by virtue of a government decision, became enemies of the United States. However, looking at somebody as at an enemy does not mean regarding him as a being deprived of humanity: a barbarian and a wild beast. Eastwood admits the very term “enemy” to be shady. Saigo, Shimizu, Kuribayashi, Nishi, and even Ito are not enemies. They are “trapped in a narrative of the primacy of patriotism, honour, and fate”[44] and led by cynical political leaders. Therefore, the true enemies are “politicians—the ones who are never seen in battle, but who willingly send soldiers off to die for a cause whose underlying rationale is virtually inscrutable”.[45] Japanese soldiers are victims, not perpetrators. They are to be pitied, not hated.

 

References:

Braudy Leo, “Flags of Our Fathers / Letters of Iwo Jima”, Film Quarterly 60: 4 (2007).

Budd David H., Culture Meets Culture in the Movies: An Analysis East, West, North and South, with Filmohraphies (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland) (2002)

Burgoyne Robert, “Suicide in ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’” in Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, ed. Rikke Schubart and Anne Gjelsvik (New York: Columbia University Press) (2013).

Burrell Robert S., The Ghost of Iwo Jima (College Station: Texas A&M University Press) (2006).

Buruma Ian, “Eastwood War: The Battle of Iwo Jima”, Japan Focus, 5,  http://www.apjjf.org/-Ian-Buruma/2360/article.html, date accessed 28 July 2016.

Eikoh Ikui, „’Letters from Iwo Jima’: Japanese Perspectives”, Japan Focus, 2,  http://www.japanfocus.org/-Ikui-Eikoh/2417, date accessed 28 July 2016.

Ezra Elizabeth and Rowden Terry, „General Introduction: What is Transnational Cinema? [in:] Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden (eds.), Transnational Cinema. The Film Reader (London and New York: Routledge) (2006)

Flavius Josephus, The Works of Flavius Josephus, the Learned and Authentic Jewish Historian, translated by William Whiston, A.M., vol. II (London: Henry G. Bohn) (1845).

Freiberg Freda, „China Nights (Japan, 1940): The Sustaining Romance [in:] John Whiteclay Chambers II, David Culbert (eds.), World War II, Film, and History (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press) (1996).

Gerow Aaron, “From ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ to ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’: Clint Eastwood’s Balancing of Japanese and American Perspective”, http://apjjf.org/-Aaron-Gerow/2290/article.html, date accessed 26 July 2016.

High Peter B., The Imperial Screen. Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years’ War, 1931-1945 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press) (2003).

Kakekashi Kumiko, Letters from Iwo Jima (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson) (2007).

Kane Kathryn, Vision of War: Hollywood Combat Films of World War II (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press) (1982).

Paris Michael, “‘What Happened was Wrong!: Come See the Paradise’ and the Japanese-American Experience in the Second World War” in Repicturing the Second World War: Representations in Film and Television, ed. Michael Paris (London: Palgrave Macmillan) (2007),.

Prince Stephen (ed.), Screening violence (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press) (2000).

Schubart Rikke, “Eastwood and the Enemy” in Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, ed. Rikke Schubart and Anne Gjelsvik (New York: Columbia University Press) (2013).

Schubart Rikke and Gjelsvik Anne, “Intruduction: Know Your Enemy, Know Yourself” in Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, ed. Rikke Schubart and Anne Gjelsvik (New York: Columbia University Press)  (2013).

Sorensen Lars-Martin, “East of Eastwood. Iwo Jima and the Japanese Context” in Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, ed. Rikke Schubart and Anne Gjelsvik (New York: Columbia University Press) (2013).

Vaux Sara Anson, The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood (Grand Rapids, Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) (2012).

“Tadamichi Kuribayashi”, http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Tadamichi_Kuribayashi, date accesed 4 August, 2016).

Xiaofei Wang, “Movies Without Mercy: Race, War, and Images of Japanese People in American Films, 1942-1945”, Journal of Amrican – East Asian Relations 18 (2011).

Zangenberg Mikkel Bruun, „Humanism versus Patriotism? Eastwood Trapped in the Bi-Polar Logic of Warfare” in Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, ed. Rikke Schubart and Anne Gjelsvik (New York: Columbia University Press) (2013).

Notes

[1] Rikke Schubart and Anne Gjelsvik, “Introduction: Know Your Enemy, Know Yourself” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’ (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), p. 1.

[2] Eastwood quoted from the press material for the film Letters from Iwo Jima, “Letters from Iwo Jima Production Information”, 4.

[3] Another book that influenced and inspired Eastwood was Kumiko Kakekashi’s Letters from Iwo Jima (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007), originally published as Chipuzo Kanashiki (Tokyo: Shinchosha, 2005).

[4] Rikke Schubart, “Eastwood and the Enemy” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 174.

[5] Leo Braudy, “Flags of Our Fathers / Letters of Iwo Jima”, Film Quarterly; Summer 2007; 60, 4; p. 17.

[6] Aaron Gerow, “From ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ to ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’: Clint Eastwood’s Balancing of Japanese and American Perspective”, online: http://apjjf.org/-Aaron-Gerow/2290/article.html (accesed 26 July, 2016).

[7] See Sara Anson Vaux, The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood (Grand Rapids, Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), p. 157.

[8] The Poles consider the Russians to be the threatening barbarians, as „Asians” who want to conquer Poland and the whole Europe, as the rude, backward, conceited and always dead-drunk nationalists, poor and with no future before them. Meanwhile, the Serbs perceive Russians as the Slav brothers and the close friends.

[9] Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden, „General Introduction: What is Transnational Cinema? [in:] Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden (eds.), Transnational Cinema. The Film Reader (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), s. 1.

[10] Freda Freiberg, „China Nights (Japan, 1940): The Sustaining Romance” [in:] John Whiteclay Chambers II, David Culbert (eds.), World War II, Film, and History (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 34.

[11] Peter B. High, The Imperial Screen. Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years’ War, 1931-1945 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), s. 421.

[12] Ikui Eikoh, „’Letters from Iwo Jima’: Japanese Perspectives”, Japan Focus, 2, online: http://www.japanfocus.org/-Ikui-Eikoh/2417 (accessed 28 July, 2016).

[13] Ibidem.

[14] Lars-Martin Sorensen, “East of Eastwood. Iwo Jima and the Japanese Context” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 210.

[15] Rikke Schubart, “Eastwood and the Enemy” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 189.

[16] Ian Buruma, “Eastwood War: The Battle of Iwo Jima”, Japan Focus, 5, online: http://www.apjjf.org/-Ian-Buruma/2360/article.html (accesed 28 July, 2016).

[17] Mikkel Bruun Zangenberg, „Humanism versus Patriotism? Eastwood Trapped in the Bi-Polar Logic of Warfare” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 220.

[18] Leo Braudy, “Flags of Our Fathers / Letters of Iwo Jima”, Film Quarterly; Summer 2007; 60, 4; p. 21.

[19] Rikke Schubart, “Eastwood and the Enemy” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 182.

[20] Ibidem, p. 184.

[21] Ibidem, p. 185.

[22] Ibidem, p. 185.

[23] Ian Buruma, “Eastwood War: The Battle of Iwo Jima”, Japan Focus.

[24] Rikke Schubart, “Eastwood and the Enemy” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 189.

[25] Tadamichi Kuribayashi, online: http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Tadamichi_Kuribayashi (accesed 4 August, 2016).

[26] Robert S. Burrell, The Ghost of Iwo Jima (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2006), p. 47.

[27] Tadamichi Kuribayashi, online: http://ww2db.com/person_bio.php?person_id=21 (accesed 5 September 2016).

[28] Lars-Martin Sorensen, “East of Eastwood. Iwo Jima and the Japanese Context” [in:] Rikke Schubart &^ Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 197.

[29] Aaron Gerow, From ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ to ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’: Clint Eastwood’s Balancing of Japanese and American Perspective.

[30] Robert Burgoyne, “Suicide in ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 232.

[31] Ibidem, p. 232.

[32] The words credited to Elazar ben Yair, leader of Zealots defending the Jewish stronghold of Masada agains Roman army in 73. See: Flavius Josephus, The Works of Flavius Josephus, the Learned and Authentic Jewish Historian, translated by William Whiston, A.M., vol. II (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1845), s. 490.

[33] Robert Burgoyne, “Suicide in ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’” [in:] Rikke Schubart &^ Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 232.

[34] Ibidem, p. 234.

[35] Wang Xiaofei, “Movies Without Mercy: Race, War, and Images of Japanese People in American Films, 1942-1945”, Journal of Amrican – East Asian Relations 18 (2011), p. 18-19.

[36] Kathryn Kane, Vision of War: Hollywood Combat Films of World War II (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982), p. 56.

[37] Wang Xiaofei, Movies Without Mercy: Race, War, and Images of Japanese People in American Films, 1942-1945, “Journal of Amrican – East Asian Relations” 18 (2011), p. 22.

[38] Ian Buruma, “Eastwood War: The Battle of Iwo Jima”, Japan Focus, 5, online: http://www.apjjf.org/-Ian-Buruma/2360/article.html (accesed 28 July, 2016).

[39]. Leo Braudy, “Flags of Our Fathers / Letters of Iwo Jima”, p. 17.

[40] Stephen Prince (ed.), Screening violence (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000), pp. 27-28.

[41] Michael Paris, “‘What Happened was Wrong!: “Come See the Paradise’ and the Japanese-American Experience in the Second World War” [in:] Michael Paris (ed.), Repicturing the Second World War: Representations in Film and Television (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 113.

[42] Ibidem, s. 113.

[43] David H. Budd, Culture Meets Culture in the Movies: An Analysis East, West, North and South, with Filmohraphies (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2002), p. 52.

[44] Mikkel Bruun Zangenberg, „Humanism versus Patriotism? Eastwood Trapped in the Bi-Polar Logic of Warfare” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 220.

[45] Ibidem, p. 220.

Łukasz A. Plesnar is a Professor of Film Studies and holds the Chair of Film History at Jagiellonian University (the Institute of Audiovisual Arts). His main research interests, besides general film history, include silent cinema, classical American cinema, theory and history of film genres (particularly Western), as well as theory of film and American culture. He is the author of eleven books and almost one hundred other publications (in Polish, English, French, and Spanish). His books focus on ontology of film, semiotics of film, history of American cinema, Western and combat films, and the image of frontier in American literature.

He is currently completing a new book on Clint Eastwood as a film director.

 

Depictions of Post-9/11 South Asian Racial Profiling in Indian Cinema

Kaja Łuczynska

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 78-88.

Kaja Łuczynska

Jagiellonian University

 

Depictions of Post-9/11 South Asian Racial Profiling in Indian Cinema

Abstract:

Events that took place in USA on 11th September 2001 had a profound influence on the American culture, politics and society. It is very often said, that “nothing will be the same after 9/11” and in my article I would like to examine one of many 9/11 consequences, which is a shift in the image of many races and ethnicities. The attacks caused not only a great shift in homeland security, which resulted in many civil right violations, but also a return of large-scale racial profiling. The victims of such practices, apart from Arabs and people of Arabic descent, were also South Asians. In their cases “racial profiling” has become more of a “color profiling” (according to J.Angelo Corlett) which resulted in a series of hate crimes (such as the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi) and other forms of hostility. There are many Indian films concerning the problem briefly described above, but in my article I will focus on three of them: New York (2009, Kabir Khan), My Name Is Khan (2010, Karan Johar) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012, Mira Nair). All of them portray the issue of post-9/11 racial profiling of South Asians, but each focuses on a different aspect of the subject.

Key words: 9/11, USA, South Asians, racial profiling, Indian cinema, Bollywood

Introduction

 The events that took place in the United States on 11th September 2001 had a profound influence on American culture, politics, and society. It is very often said that nothing will be the same after 9/11 and this is not an overstatement. In this paper, I would examine one of the many consequences of 9/11, which is the return of large-scale racial profiling and a significant shift in the image of South Asians living in the U.S. Until the tragic events of 2001, the phenomenon of racial profiling applied mostly to African-Americans and Mexicans, who were stereotypically considered “a dangerous element” that was prone to violence and criminality. However, after 9/11 the biggest fear was raised by people of Arabic descent and all those who happen to have “Arabic” (in the broadest and most common meaning of the word) features. The problem of racial profiling of American South Asians was depicted many times in films, especially those made in India or by Indian directors. Of the plethora of titles, I have chosen three that will establish a base for my study: New York (2009, Kabir Khan), My Name Is Khan (2010, Karan Johar), and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012, Mira Nair). All of them portray the issue of post-9/11 racial profiling, but each of them focuses on a different aspect.

South Asian Americans

Firstly, it is necessary to explain the term “South Asians” in the title of this paper. The definition below comes from a brochure entitled “In Our Own Words” as a response to the problem of post 9-11 racial profiling by organizations such as: New York City Profiling Collaborative; DRUM – Desis Rising Up and Moving; The Sikh Coalition; United Sikhs; South Asian Youth Action (SAYA!); Coney Island Avenue Project; Council of People’s Organization; and above all SAALT (South Asian Americans Leading Together). The handbook states, “The South Asian community comprises individuals who trace their ancestry to Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka; in addition, members of Afghan and Pastun communities”.[1]

In time, similarly to other ethnic groups, South Asian immigrants have become important members of American society and worked, studied, and lived in the United States. Many of them felt like fully-fledged U.S. citizens, especially the young generations, which identified themselves both as Americans and South Asians (they had a kind of “flexible citizenship”). However, their perceptions changed in the days after 9/11, which were filled with intolerance, hatred, and prejudice. Subsequently, “flexible citizenship can be a tenuous, or even potentially dangerous strategy for Muslim immigrant youth, for transnational ties and shifting national allegiances are precisely what have come under scrutiny for Muslim Americans by the state in the era of the Patriot Act”[2], writes Sunaina Maira in her study of South Asian Muslim Youth in Post-9/11 America.

American society has essentially been divided into two groups: allies and enemies. Previous modern and progressive views on immigrants’ nationalities have ceased to exist and the world has once again become black and white. This might seem like a simplification, as it is well known that attitudes to immigrants in the US have always been paradoxical.

America is built on immigration, needs immigration, and is at the same time massively suspicious of strangers, in a perfect incarnation of what Derrida calls “hospitality”. There is always a delicate balance of hostility and hospitality in acts of welcome”. Therefore, it can be said, “the stranger-foreigner is always both desired and rejected.[3]

However, the great shift mentioned above was obvious for most Americans, and especially those whose lives totally changed after the attacks on WTC. A great description of this change is provided by the already quoted publication “In Our Own Words”:

In the eyes of the world, New York City serves as the quintessential emblem of the vibrant diversity within the United States and the gateway to the American Dream. Amid the city’s mosaic of residents – including African Americans, Asians, Europeans, Latinos, Middle Easterners, and those from the Caribbean – South Asians have long established an indelible presence in the city. Yet, after the devastating attacks of September 11th, 2001 on the World Trade Center, Muslims and anyone perceived to be Muslim became the public enemy literally overnight. New York City soon shifted to become one of the epicentres of systemic racial and religious profiling against these communities. (…) Since September 11th, South Asian community members continue to encounter government scrutiny based on their race, national origin, and religion in various arenas.[4]

Racial Profiling

Everyday impediments, harmful racial profiling, and even acts of violence that touched South Asian Americans after 9/11 were not directly and unambiguously sanctioned, or inspired by law. Even the infamous Patriot Act, an Act of Congress that was signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 26, 2001 whose full title was “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001”, consisted of many notations on tolerance and peaceful coexistence with Muslim Americans:

Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, and Americans from South Asia play a vital role in our Nation and are entitled to nothing less than the full rights of every American. The acts of violence that have been taken against Arab and Muslim Americans since the September 11, 2001, attacks against the United States should be and are condemned by all Americans who value freedom. The concept of individual responsibility for wrongdoing is sacrosanct in American society, and applies equally to all religious, racial, and ethnic groups. When American citizens commit acts of violence against those who are, or are perceived to be, of Arab or Muslim descent, they should be punished to the full extent of the law. Muslim Americans have become so fearful of harassment that many Muslim women are changing the way they dress to avoid becoming targets. Many Arab Americans and Muslim Americans have acted heroically during the attacks on the United States, including Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a 23-year-old New Yorker of Pakistani descent, who is believed to have gone to the World Trade Center to offer rescue assistance and is now missing.[5]

The same kind of thought was expressed many times by the President George W. Bush, Jr., who said in the Address to the Joint Session of Congress, delivered on 20 September 2001:

I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It is practiced freely by many millions of Americans and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them. [6]

Unfortunately, appeasing statements, such as this, which were ineffectual preventive measures against the outburst of violence towards Muslim Americans, did not sound convincing enough for many Americans, who desired palpable revenge. Apparently, it did not sound plausible for the government itself. For example in June 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced a “Special Registration” requirement that all males from a list of Arab and Muslim countries report to the government to be registered and fingerprinted. According to the May 2011 statement by the American Civil Liberties Union, the program has never led to a single terrorism-related conviction despite tens of thousands of people forced to register. [7]

This is why, after 9/11 the security practice known as “racial profiling” began on a large, almost incomparable scale, which is, basically (according to the definition provided by Mathias Risse and Richard Zeckhauser): “any police-indicated action that relies on the race, ethnicity, or national origin and not merely on the behaviour of the individual”.[8] It might be also said that racial profiling entails racist stereotyping of those targeted[9], but that actually is not a general rule: sometimes it is just and based on statistics. For example, if the police is looking for members of a certain gang which is known to include only young Mexicans, that is the group which naturally should be targeted first in the investigation. [10]

However, the current cases of intolerance and prejudice that can be observed all around the U.S. are (in the majority) not just; moreover, according to J. Angelo Corlett, they are not really racial profiling, but rather colour profiling.[11] “So strictly speaking, not only is racial profiling not taking place in law enforcement, it ought not to, that is, so long as it is conceived in popular terms. What is really happening is colour (and/or other morphological) profiling, which is believed erroneously by many to indicate the “race” of a suspect. However, at best it is a prima facie indicator of race. At worst, it is rather misleading”.[12]

Corlett draws the attention to a very important issue. Not many people are experts at indicating someone’s race and ethnicity and what is more, even the concept of “race” itself is very problematic.[13] This is why it also enfolded people of South Asian descent, who were frequently taken as Arabs. An excellent (and at the same time gruesome) example of such mistakes was the treatment of Sikhs after 9/11, who were taken for Muslims (or even Islamic terrorists) because of their traditional headgear dastaar, which is a certain kind of turban covering their uncut hair (kesh).

The targets of their post-September 11 bias incidents have included anyone who is perceived to be Arab or Muslim. Thus, non-Arabs such as Indians, Pakistanis, and other South Asians have been affected, as have non-Muslims such as Indian Sikhs and Hindus and Arab Christians. Sikh men in particular, readily identifiable by their turbans and long beards, have borne a disproportionate burst of the violence (…).[14]

The most well-known case was the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh-American gas station owner from Arizona, which was officially acknowledged as the first of several cases across the United States that were supposed acts of retaliation for the 9/11 attacks. Balbir was murdered by 42-year-old mechanic Frank Silva Roque, who mistook him for an Arab American. “In a series of racist statements that began when the World Trade Centre collapsed, Roque announced his murderous plans and told a co-worker that he had been treated rudely at a gasoline station on University Drive by «a towel-head or a rag-head»” [15]

Racial profiling has grown to an impressive scale. The total number of reported hate crime incidents in the US decreased by over 18 percent between 2000 and 2009, but during the same period, the percentage of hate crime incidents directed towards Muslims increased by over 500 percent. The number of hate crimes against Muslims has been increasing more slowly since 2010.[16] This kind of crime also involves another, paradoxical feature: egalitarianism. It affects both affluent and poor members of society, so it does not matter if somebody is a well-educated doctor, IT specialist, shopkeeper, or unemployed. The only thing that counts is the skin colour and other aspects of appearance.[17]

American South Asian themselves listed expressions of racial profiling directed towards them:

  • South Asians are frequently questioned about their faith or national origin by government officials.
  • South Asians are often questioned by government officials about their immigration status, which is used as leverage to pressure individuals to inform on fellow community members.
  • South Asians subjected to profiling often feel being viewed as “suspects” by the general public, within their community, and even within their families
  • South Asians encounter profiling so routinely that many have altered their behaviour in an attempt to avoid additional scrutiny.
  • South Asians report that profiling has caused them to lose faith in the government’s ability to protect them in times of need.[18]

Looking for historical references to the scale of racial profiling after 9/11, it is necessary to move back to the times of Second World War, when a similar mechanism was implemented towards Japanese Americans. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the FBI arrested more than 2,000 Japanese, suspecting them of links to the attackers. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which announced immediate evacuation of all Japanese Americans from the West Coast (many believed that Japan might soon strike there) to internment camps. 110,000 Japanese Americans (2/3 of whom were American citizens) were forced to move and as a consequence suffered great hardships and had to hurriedly sell their homes or businesses and relocate to crowded camps. Although there were more German, and Italian Americans living in the country than Japanese Americans, there was less hostility displayed towards them.[19]

Indian Cinema on 9/11 Racial Profiling

“The Western view of mainstream Bollywood is one-dimensional”,[20] writes Burhan Wazir in his article “Bollywood for Grown-ups”. Extremely differentiated Indian cinema is mostly perceived through masala-movies, produced in Mumbai, but it is a harmful simplification. Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that:

The Bombay [Mumbai is official city’s name since 1995] industry actually produces about 150-200 films a year. Feature films are produced in approximately 20 languages in India and there are multiple film industries whose total output makes India the largest film-producing country in the world. The cities of Madras and Hyderabad are homes to the Tamil and Telugu language film industries which are equally, or more prolific that the Bombay industry in terms of the number of films made per year[21].

 Secondly, masala movies, especially recently, are not the only kind of films produced in India, and also look different from what the audience was used to, with titles such as Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001, Karan Johar). The term masala movie:

Alludes to the whole range of genres and emotions that one can expect to find in a Bollywood film. It is widely accepted that the spices used release different flavours, which find their parallel in what Sanskrit scholars call Rasas or «feelings». (…) The popular Hindi film is a unique blend of different moods and itself composes a specific genre because its constitution is so fixed. From the story line to the direction, these films are entirely grounded in melodrama. (…) The characters are strong stereotypes. These films are pure escapist material, blurring out the hard-knock reality of everyday life and what they do best is to provoke a huge emotional participation from the masses, who loudly manifest their reactions.”[22]

However, contemporary Indian cinema does not entirely look the way it is commonly perceived. Many movies deal with serious political or social issues, and draw public attention to previously ignored matters. “Hindi cinema can be political about the personal. A film that explores homosexuality or religious intermarriage will have an impact. However, it will always be done through the melodramatic form of the film, which should not detract from the argument, as entertainment is the way to reach large audiences”, says Rachel Dwyer, professor of Indian cultures and cinema at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.[23] These issues can be immigration (Swades, 2004, Ashutosh Gowariker), gender-based discrimination (Chak De India, 2007, Shimit Amin), social class (English Vinglish, 2012, Gauri Shinde), teenage pregnancies (Teree Sang, 2009, Satish Kaushik), or even the problem of racial profiling after 9/11, broadly described above.

From many Indian films regarding the issue of racial profiling after 9/11, I have chosen three that depict the problem in an exceptionally interesting way. The first was directed by widely acclaimed Indian female film director Mira Nair, known for Salaam Bombay! (1988), Monsoon Wedding (2001), and Vanity Fair (2004). One of her recent films, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012), tells the story of a young Pakistani man who moves to USA and works in a finance company. Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed) is a skilled professional who is valued by his supervisors and has a great career ahead, but unfortunately, after 9/11 his life changes completely. As a Pakistani, he is perceived as a danger for American homeland security and this attitude is expressed many times in the film. Changez is subjected to humiliating personal inspection at airports, is called “Osama” by random people on the street, and eventually comes to the upsetting conclusion that “I didn’t have to pick a side after 9/11. It was picked for me”. Surprisingly, in opposition to the domineering tendency, the protagonist does not try to hastily westernize himself and fit into American society after what happened. He grows a traditional beard, resigns from work, and goes back to Pakistan, where he starts to work at Lahore University. Until the very last scenes of the film, the viewer does not know whether Changez is just a random victim of racial profiling or a real, dangerous fundamentalist who was recruited by terrorists. Notwithstanding, Mira Nair is convinced that Changez deserves to be heard, and expresses that by introducing the character of journalist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), whose basic task is to listen to the main hero’s story.

Another film that depicts the problem of post-9/11 racial profiling is Kabir Khan’s New York, a seemingly typical Bollywood masala-movie, but with a very contemporary and bitter touch. Again (similarly to The Reluctant Fundamentalist), the narrative structure of the film is in the form of a retrospective. Young Indian Omar (Neil Nitin Mukesh) is arrested by an FBI agent Roshan (Irrfan Khan) for illegal possession of firearms. Soon it is unveiled that the detention was just a provocation, done in order to force Omar to inform on his best friend Sameer (John Abraham), who is suspected of terrorist activity. After a long period of persuasion, harassment, and blackmail, Omar finally agrees to report on Sameer, but only in order to prove his innocence. Unfortunately, his friend is not entirely blameless and is, in fact, preparing a large-scale terrorist attack. It may seem impossible and absurd, but in the film Sameer’s motivation is very reliably explained and related to another social problem. At some point he says, “Everything changed after 9/11, people stared at me on the street like I was a terrorist”, which is interesting, because by this point of the plot, Sameer was just a regular young American of Indian descent who was trying to start his own life with a woman he loved (Katrina Kaif). However, things changed after an illegal and accidental arrest, as a result of which Sameer landed in prison, which looked very much like Guantanamo Bay. This innocent film character was subjected to humiliation and torture such as sleep deprivation, water boarding, and music torture. In addition, that was exactly where and when Sameer met for the first time a real terrorist who, through the cell bars, invited him to join a terrorist sleeper cell in New York. After release, broken and mentally changed, Sameer decided that if he is treated a terrorist, he might as well become one and take revenge on the United States, which had treated him so horribly. This interesting plot twist suggests that to some degree it is the U.S. that is guilty in the “War on Terror”.

The third title, My Name is Khan, is definitely the most well-known, also because of the appearance of superstar Shah Rukh Khan in the main role of Rizwan Khan, an Indian immigrant suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome. After the death of his mother, Rizwan—unable to live by himself—moves to the USA to live with his brother Zakir, a successful businessman who sells beauty products. While working for Zakir, the protagonist meets a charming single mother Mandira (Kajol), and after some time marries her and adopts her son Sameer (Arjan Aujla). Their happy life is disrupted by the 9/11 attacks, which once again change their lives totally. At some point Rizwan says, “In the western world, history is marked simply by BC and AD. Now however, there is a third distinction: 9/11”. To make matters worse, young Sameer is killed due to racial hatred exhibited by his school colleagues. The happy marriage of Mandira and Rizwan is over, but the husband decides to repair the relationship by visiting the president of United States and telling him in person: “My name is Khan and I’m not a terrorist”. Rizwan starts to follow George W. Bush Jr. and seeks to meet him. Unfortunately, he is taken for a terrorist, arrested, and put in a prison, in which he experiences violence and torture. Even his condition—essentially a mild form of autism—does not help him to be released. Finally—thanks to a crew of student filmmakers—Rizwan is freed and gains the opportunity to meet the president. However, he meets not the distant and cold George W. Bush, but the warm and friendly Barrack Obama, who treats Rizwan as a hero and hails him as an example of human endurance and determination.

Conclusions

Although the films mentioned above are primarily a form of entertainment (especially New York, which is rich in songs and romance, and My Name Is Khan, brimming with great Indian movie stars), they also focus on unpopular and complicated issues related to the life conditions of South Asians after 9/11. They do it in a surprisingly comprehensive and intelligent way, trying to depict different angles of the problem simultaneously. At the same time, they also do not revert to simplifications and one-dimensional treatment of their heroes. They are subordinated to one, maybe a little naïve and idealistic rule: everyone deserves to be heard no matter what their descent, background, religion, or even the crimes they have committed.

However, the problem is that this idea is complementary to the mistakes committed by the USA itself, prior to the tragic events of 9/11. They both represent the same level of naivety and idealism that cannot possibly exist in the real world. The false delusion of a tolerant global village in which all people live happily, are proud of their decent, and can reunite in a world without borders, had fallen alongside the two towers of the World Trade Center. The world was once again reminded that the idea of modern, secularized state is impossible to achieve.

Nonetheless, it is important to emphasize that some issues highlighted by films such as New York, My Name Is Khan, and The Reluctant Fundamentalist are important and should be kept in mind. The focal point of all the movies is not only post-9/11 racial profiling, but also its consequences, such as unlawful and violent treatment of South Asians, who were arrested without any explicit charges and without respect to their human rights. This reflects reality, in which there have been many cases of people detained for several years without charges, legal counsel, or representation. After 9/11, the classic rule of presumption of innocence changed to treating suspects as guilty until proven innocent. This undermined the very foundation of law. This definitely should not be a starting point for rebuilding a country after an enormous tragedy such as 9/11.

References:

American Rhetoric, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/gwbush911jointsessionspeech.htm, date accessed 19 August 2016.

Ahmad Munner, “Homeland Insecurities: Racial Violence the Day After September 11”, Race/ Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts, vol. 4, no. 3 (2011).

Chakraborty Chandrima, “Subaltern Studies, Bollywood and Lagaan”, Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 38, no. 19 (2003).

Corlett J. Angelo, “Profiling Color”, The  Journal of Ethincs, vol. 15, no. 1 (2011).

Ganti Tejaswini, Bollywood. A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema (New York: Ruthledge) (2004).

Giese James R., Downey Matthew T., Mazón Mauricio (ed) The American Century: A History of the United States in Modern Times, (Cincinnati: West Educational Publishing) (1999).

In Our Own Words, http://www.issuelab.org/resource/in_our_own_words_narratives_of_south_asian_new_yorkers_affected_by_racial_and_religious_profiling , date accessed 19 August 2016.

Maira Sunaina, “Flexible Citizenship / Flexible Empire: South Asian Muslim Youth in Post-9/11 America”, American Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 3, 2006.

Ryberg Jesper, “The Ethics of Racial Profiling: Introduction”, The Journal of Ethics, vol. 15, no. 1/2 (2011).

Simpson David, “After 9/11: The Fate of Strangers”, Americastudien / American Studies, vol. 57, no. 2 (2012).

Swept Up in a Dragnet, Hundreds Sit in Custody and Ask, ‘Why?’, http://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/25/national/swept-up-in-a-dragnet-hundreds-sit-in-custody-and-ask-why.html, date accessed 22 August 2016.

Watson Institute, http://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/costs/social/rights/profiling, date accessed 19 August 2016.

Wazir Burhan, “Bollywood for Grown-ups”, The World Today, vol. 68, no. 6 (2012).

Rediff: India Abroad, http://www.rediff.com/us/2003/sep/03sodhi.htm, date accessed 19 August 2016.

Filmography:

 New York (2009, Kabir Khan)

My Name is Khan (2010, Karan Johar)

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012, Mira Nair)

Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001, Karan Johar)

Swades (2004, Ashutosh Gowariker)

Chak De India (2007, Shimit Amin)

English Vinglish (2012, Gauri Shinde)

Teree Sang (2009, Satish Kaushik)

Salaam Bombay! (1988, Mira Nair)

Monsoon Wedding (2001, Mira Nair)

Vanity Fair (2004, Mira Nair)

Notes

[1] In Our Own Words, http://www.issuelab.org/resource/in_our_own_words_narratives_of_south_asian_new_yorkers_affected_by_racial_and_religious_profiling, date accessed 19 August 2016.

[2] Sunaina Maira, “Flexible Citizenship / Flexible Empire: South Asian Muslim Youth in Post-9/11 America”, American Quarterly 60:3 (2006), p. 712.

[3] David Simpson, “After 9/11: The Fate of Strangers”, Americastudien / American Studies 57:2 (2012), p. 201.

[4] In Our Own Words, http://www.issuelab.org/resource/in_our_own_words_narratives_of_south_asian_new_yorkers_affected_by_racial_and_religious_profiling, date accessed 19 August 2016.

[5] The USA PATRIOT Act, https://www.justice.gov/archive/ll/what_is_the_patriot_act.pdf, date accessed 19 August 2016.

[6] American Rhetoric, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/gwbush911jointsessionspeech.htm, date accessed 19 August 2016.

[7] Watson Institute, http://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/costs/social/rights/profiling, date accessed 19 August 2016.

[8] J. Angelo Corlett, “Profiling Color”, The Journal of Ethincs 15:1 (2011), p. 25.

[9] J. Angelo Corlett, p. 25.

[10] J. Angelo Corlett, p. 21.

[11] J. Angelo Corlett, p. 25.

[12] J. Angelo Corlett.

[13] J. Angelo Corlett, p. 26.

[14] Ahmad Munner, “Homeland Insecurities: Racial Violence the Day after September 11”, Race/ Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts 4:3 (2011), p. 341.

[15] Rediff: India Abroad, http://www.rediff.com/us/2003/sep/03sodhi.htm, date accessed 19 August 2016.

[16] Watson Institute.

[17] Ahmad Munner, p. 344.

[18] In Our Own Words.

[19] James R. Giese, Matthew T. Downey, Mauricio Mazón (ed), The American Century: A History of the United States in Modern Times (Cincinnati: West Educational Publishing) (1999), p. 527.

[20] Burhan Wazir, “Bollywood for Grown-ups”, The World Today 68: 6 (2012), p. 47.

[21] Tejaswini Ganti, Bollywood. A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema (New York: Ruthledge) (2004), p. 3.

[22] The “Masala” Film Recipe, http://www.postcolonialweb.org/pakistan/literature/rushdie/takhar20.html, date accessed 19 August 2016.

[23] Burhan Wazir, p. 47.

Kaja Łuczyńska – graduated Film Studies (BA, MA), American Studies (BA), and is now a PhD candidate at Jagiellonian University. Currently working on a dissertation about post-9/11 American cinema and its connections to the interdisciplinary concept of loss. Her articles have been published in magazines such as “Ekrany”, “Ha!art” and “Fragile”. She works also as a film educator and since 2011 has written a blog, „Orbitowanie bez cukru”.

Postcolonial adaptations of classic British literature

Bartłomiej Nowak

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 79-89.

Bartłomiej Nowak

 

Postcolonial adaptations of classic British literature

 

Abstract:

The article is an attempt of re-reading selected film adaptations of the classic British literature. The author confronts them with the images of history, British culture and ‘Others’ that are present in the literary works on which they are based. Is the gaze of the ‘center’ looking at the ‘margins’ present in the books transgressed in the movies or do the movies repeat the historical views of the authors and works unchanged despite different social and political context of the contemporary times?

For example, does Bride & Prejudice (2004), directed by Gurinder Chadha, combining the plot of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice with the form of the Bollywood cinema, reinterpret the text of the novel and let the viewer „read” it through the eyes of the postcolonial subject? How are the themes of slavery and postcolonialism treated in Derek Jarman’s and Julie Taymor’s movie adaptations of Shakespeare’s The Tempest? Is David Lean’s A Passage to India progressive or conservative in its portrayal of the Raj?

The author points to the works of postcolonial theoreticians (such as Frantz Fanon, Edward W. Said), interpretations of the movies and analysis of the literary works on which they are based. He tries to answer the question: is the spirit of the British colonial and imperial history still present in the film culture that is product of the changing (but neocolonial) world? Can this question be answered unambiguously?

Key words: postcolonialism, adaptations, British literature, rewriting history, interpretation

In this short article, I try to analyse a few film adaptations of classic British literature and compare the images of ‘Others’ they contain with those present in the texts on which they are based. I focus on four films: A Passage to India (1984, dir. David Lean), Bride & Prejudice (2004, dir. Gurinder Chadha), and two adaptations of The Tempest (1979, dir. Derek Jarman and 2010, dir. Julie Taymor). I try to answer the question: is the spirit of British colonial and imperial history still present in film culture that is a product of the changing (but neo-colonial) world?

Let me begin with Bride & Prejudice (2004), directed by Gurinder Chadha, which combines the plot of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice with the form of Bollywood cinema. Does this movie reinterpret the text of the novel and let the viewer “read” it through the eyes of the postcolonial subject?

Bride & Prejudice was made more than two decades after the beginning of British cinema’s ‘heritage cinema’ movement (which started with Chariots of Fire, 1981, dir. Hugh Hudson). It depicted the British Empire and the class society of the nineteenth or twentieth century and was frequently accused of being morally and socially conservative and the product of Thatcherism and its politics. Sometimes considered as a smaller part of the movement (and sometimes as a parallel phenomenon), the so-called Raj Revival cinema, which depicted the times of the British rule in India, was described by the British scholar, Andrew Higson, in the appropriately titled text Re-presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film, in the following manner:

the imperialist fantasies of national identity found in the cycle of films and television programmes about the Raj, such as A Passage to India and The Jewel in the Crown, […] can be seen as conservative responses to a collective, post-imperialist anxiety. Retreating from the social, political, and economic crises of the present, they strive to recapture an image of national identity as pure, untainted, complete and in place. Yet like so many nostalgic narratives, they return to a moment of stability and tranquillity in the social order as they themselves chart the process of decay, the fall from this utopian national ideal […][1].

In contrast to this nostalgic cinema of the past, the socially aware movies of the decade, such as Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), depicted the times of Margaret Thatcher and a society of the mixed ethnic groups and sexual orientations. Heritage cinema did not avoid topics such as homosexual orientation (Maurice, 1987, dir. James Ivory; Another Country, 1984, dir. Marek Kanievska), or the situation of women in patriarchal society (A Room with a View, 1985, dir. James Ivory); however, it treated them (at least in the eyes of some scholars) in a conservative manner.

However, contemporary movies did not forget about the changes in the national structure of modern society and this was probably the biggest difference between them and heritage cinema, which usually showed the British nation as homogenous, white, and divided only by class and gender (despite the fact that black people were part of British society as early as the 16th century[2]). The movies and TV series of the Raj Revival movement obviously showed people of colour, but not usually as the main protagonists of their own history. Salman Rushdie in the essay Outside the Whale cites the words of David Lean, director of the movie A Passage to India (1984), which was adapted from the novel written by E. M. Forster in 1924 (some twenty-three years before India gained independence from the British Empire):

 Forster was a bit anti-English, anti-Raj and so on. I suppose it’s a tricky thing to say, but I’m not so much. I intend to keep the balance more. I don’t believe all the English were a lot of idiots. Forster rather made them so. He came down hard against them. […] As for Aziz [the Muslim protagonist of the novel], there’s a hell of a lot of Indian in him. They’re marvellous people but maddening sometimes, you know…. He’s a goose.[3]

Such a statement shows that the Raj Revival movement might be seen as “a revisionist enterprise”[4]: an attempt to change history, conceal its atrocities, and show the empire as a still valuable model for the national and social future of Great Britain.

Gurinder Chadha’s movie was made more than a decade after the end of Margaret Thatcher’s rule as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Jane Austen was not popular with directors in the 1980s, but was rediscovered in the next decade when at least few movies based on her works were made. Her popularity did not end with the beginning of the 21st century but Chadha’s movie differed in more than one way from most of Austen’s adaptations. She changed the setting from 19th century Britain to modern Britain, India, and the United States. Elizabeth Bennet, the main protagonist of the novel, is now Lalita Bakshi and Mr. Darcy’s citizenship was changed to American. If the change of the name of the main heroine is justified mainly by the new setting of the story (India), the fact that Darcy is now a citizen of the United States is the result of the new world order in which the United Kingdom was replaced by the USA in the role of the main world power. It is even said in the movie when Lalita complains about Darcy’s plans to build a new hotel in India for tourists from the West: “I thought we got rid of imperialists like you!” To his words “I’m not British. I’m American” she responds “Exactly”.

It might be said that Chadha clashes here with the nostalgic atmosphere of heritage cinema. By recontextualization of Austen’s text, changing of its time and place, it no longer has the power to evoke the past. At the same time, by using British text as a background for the modern story of cultural clashes, Chadha asks questions about the meaning of nation and cultural identity, about belonging to the national whole. Two of the main characters in the movie are British Asians. Their cultural identity is compared (rather unfavourably) with the identity of Indian people (Lalita and her family), still immersed in Indian tradition.

Lalita accuses Darcy and other rich people of the West of trying to turn India into a ‘theme park’, and Chadha’s movie can be seen as a response to this type of thinking about the Orient and Eastern cultures. There are scenes in the movie that show the colourful world of Indian culture that might appeal (by its ‘otherness’) to Western audiences; for example, scenes of singing and dancing reproducing the style of the Bollywood musical movies (or ‘masala’ movies as they are called), local garba dances and mujra, etc. However, these scenes do not function in the diegesis of the movie as the Oriental attraction, but are the proof that Indian culture still pulsates with life and is much more than a picturesque place from tourist guides of neo-colonial businessmen. The final scene shows Darcy riding on an elephant, clearly being taken by the beauty of India. This might be seen as a symbolic triumph of a postcolonial culture over a neo-colonial power, even if for Western audiences this could also be a phantasmatic neo-colonial dream of wild adventures in the Eastern milieu becoming reality.

When the movie protagonists travel to London, the capital city of the United Kingdom is shown in a sequence of short cuts of landmarks such as Big Ben, Tower Bridge, or the London Eye. Among them is one that is not as known abroad, but here it is treated as just another landmark building: the gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, the Sikh temple situated in Southall. Such editing punctuates the multiculturalism of British society and the British capital city.

Combining the new vision of postcolonial and multicultural Great Britain with one of India—still honouring its traditions and withstanding neo-colonial attempts of new imperial powers to constrain its freedom by global economic forces—Chadha shows a totally different reality than the one seen in heritage cinema and the movies of the Raj Revival movement, and the fact that her movie is set in contemporary times is not the only reason for this difference. As previously mentioned, heritage cinema avoided difficult topic of ethnic diversity and—in the movies of Raj Revival—recreated the image of empire and British rule in India, but turned away from the necessity of dealing with the racist and violent atrocities of the past. When historical movies of the 1980s did touch on the topic of the violent British rule—as was the case with Gandhi, 1982, dir. Richard Attenborough, which shows the massacre of 1919 in Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, when many innocent people were killed after orders of the British general Reginald E. H. Dyer to shoot at a peaceful demonstration—this tragedy is shown as an aberration, as an error of one man, not the whole imperialistic system. “The moral mission of imperialism, while certainly discredited in some respects […], is also partly recuperated through an insistence on the essential rectitude of the British national character […]”, notices Bart Moore-Gilbert, author of a book analysing the works of Hanif Kureishi, a British writer, screenwriter and director who wrote screenplays for the aforementioned movies of Stephen Frears. “Whereas Attenborough clearly sentimentalises Gandhi, the more obviously ‘political’ Jinnah is an antipathetic figure, cold, rigid, aloof, and cunning, who compares badly not just with his rival but with many of the British officials.”[5] Such differences tend to show (by contrast) that the British nation did bring civilisation and gentlemanship to the allegedly uncivilised world of precolonial India.

Chadha’s movie contrasts such a presentation of history and India. It is worth noting that it is set in Amritsar, the city of the Amritsar massacre, and this tragedy had an impact on Chadha’s previous work: in her debut short movie I’m British but…, in which she presented the phenomenon of bhangra music and talked with young British Asian people about their national identity, this crime of the British empire is remembered. One of the female protagonists of this document says, I don’t think that one should forget one’s history. […] You can’t forget about events like the Amritsar massacre”. We also hear a song with the words: “Recall that it was these same foreigners | That took their rifles to us – | […] And every corner lies in witness. | O Jallianwala Bagh”. Maybe it is not a coincidence that a city that became a symbol of colonial criminality was chosen by Chadha as the setting for Bride and Prejudice, with all its critique of neo-colonialism.

Not all modern readings of British classic literature are as apparently postcolonial in their interpretations. A lot has been said and written about Shakespeare’s The Tempest and its antagonist Caliban. Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan in the book Shakespeare’s Caliban. A Cultural History notice:

In any event, scholars have wrangled over Caliban’s genesis since at least the middle of the eighteenth century. What did Shakespeare intend when he fashioned his puppy-headed monster? Was his paradigm the American Indian, for example, or an African perhaps, or Europe’s mythical wodewose? And if he had American Indians in mind, were they Montaigne’s noble savages or their ignoble opposites or a combination of both? Or, on the other hand, did the playwright shun obvious exemplars and contrive instead a creature unrelated to existing figures or types? The answer, of course, is elusive and endlessly debatable.[6]

This debate is caused by the constantly valid question of presentation: is Caliban a racist creation, based on all Western presuppositions about the alleged savageness of primitive cultures, or maybe we can say that his “rebellion against Prospero’s control—in whatever form it is represented—embodies issues fundamental to a culture’s ideology”[7]. In our context, “ideology” might mean Western faith in its superiority and supremacy over lands and people colonised through the ages.

There have been more adaptations of The Tempest, but I would like to centre on two of them: the one made in 1979 by Derek Jarman, and the other directed by Julie Taymor in 2010. Taymor did not give up the colonial and racial connotations of presenting Caliban as a black character. In the role she cast Djimon Hounsou, an actor born in Benin, Africa. It might be said that Taymor is not

bound by the post-colonial context of Tempest interpretation. She cast a black actor […] but then coated him with mud and fish scales, his own skin showing through only in a moon-like circle around his left eye. […] Whether improvised by the actor or at Taymor’s behest, her Caliban does a shockingly real impersonation of a gorilla. Taymor returned him to the status of the alien other, a primitive beast, not a human being. His only moment of human dignity is a silent face off with Prospera toward the end of the play in a scene invented by Taymor.[8]

Such moments of human dignity are completely absent from Jarman’s adaptation, but he decided to cast white blind actor Jack Birkett in the role and thus abandoned the more obvious colonial and postcolonial meanings that were important for Taymor more than three decades later. In the Polish monograph of Jarman, Małgorzata Radkiewicz claims that the way in which he is presented in Jarman’s version (of Birkett’s acting is grotesque and full of caricature) makes Prospero more delicate and subtle in comparison (despite his tyranny over Caliban and Ariel)[9]. For both Jarman and Taymor, gender issues are more important than racial ones; however, the subject of slavery, which could not disappear even from Jarman’s version, exists there behind themes of queerness and physicality. Taymor even changed the sex of Prospero and made him Prospera and Jarman spent a lot of time sexualising the sculptural body of David Meyer, who played Ferdinand. However, the theme of disobedience of the enslaved Caliban is still present in both versions and its meanings cannot be ignored despite the stereotypical savagery of both Calibans (and the whiteness of one from the earlier movie).

Frantz Fanon in his famous book Black Skin, White Masks, when writing about the image of blackness or otherness, notices:

The Tarzan stories, the sagas of twelve-year-old explorers, the adventures of Mickey Mouse, and all those “comic books” serve actually as a release for collective aggression. The magazines are put together by white men for little white men. This is the heart of the problem. In the Antilles – and there is every reason to think that the situation is the same in the other colonies – these same magazines are devoured by the local children. In the magazines the Wolf, the Devil, the Evil Spirit, the Bad Man, the Savage are always symbolized by Negroes or Indians; since there is always identification with the victor, the little Negro, quite as easily as the little white boy, becomes an explorer, an adventurer, a missionary “who faces the danger of being eaten by the wicked Negroes”.[10]

Even if these sentences are not as true nowadays as they were when these words were written (there are black comic book writers these days etc.), they show how the proper representation of otherness (or lack thereof) can affect human identity and self-respect. So how is the history of slavery treated in the adaptations of Shakespeare that are being discussed here? In addition, does this correspond with postcolonial thinking about the past or sustain the colonial ideology of race and the superiority of the Western civilisation?

Janja Ciglar-Žanić claims that: “Jarman […] locates the issues of colonization, subordination, and domination on the territory of the human body, and uses The Tempest to speak for those repressed Others, whose subordination and repression has been effected through the deployment of the dominant ideological construct of human sexuality.”[11] I suggest that this might be also the case with Taymor’s version. The unnatural cover of Caliban’s body, these “mud and fish scales”, as Alan A. Stone described them in the previously cited analysis, quite literally transfer the issue of subordination onto the surface of the human being: this cover hides the natural blackness of Hounsou’s body and forces viewers to see him through it. Part of Hounsou’s face is covered with white make-up. This might remind us of the title of Fanon’s book, already cited here: “black skin, white masks”. Despite the fact that Shakespeare’s text and previous interpretations of his play very often treat Caliban as a beast-like creature, I suggest that Taymor’s version is only seemingly similar to them. By casting a woman (Helen Mirren) in the role of Prospero and gay actor (Ben Whishaw) as Ariel, she showed that gender, body, and sexual issues are key to her interpretation of Shakespeare’s play (and this was also the case with her previous movie adaptation of the Bard of Avon’s play, Titus, 1999). “Mud and fish scales” might be read as a veil, a mask (of the whole body) and the wild, ‘primitive’ behaviour of Taymor’s Caliban as the physical, colonial stereotype that is just the normative cover behind which lies the truth about the Other which is as elusive as it is desired (this desire of knowledge and understanding of the Other is also found on Caliban’s body: Hounsou is strong, perfectly built, and indisputably attractive despite the unnatural skin cover). Obviously, this might be read as the stereotypical sexualisation of the bodies of black men, and the fact that Caliban’s sexual force is tamed now by a woman, Prospera, asks questions about the position of genders in the postmodern world: the real one and the one of Taymor’s adaptation. However, it would be deceptive to read Taymor’s movie through conservative glasses, forgetting about all the body issues that are at the same time stereotypical and transgressive. For example, questions about colonialism have to be asked differently when Prospera is no longer a figure of patriarchal power.

As Edward W. Said says in Culture and Imperialism about Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête, which re-writes Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

The core of Aimé Césaire’s Carribean Une Tempête is not ressentiment, but an affectionate contention with Shakespeare for the right to represent the Caribbean. That impulse to contend is part of a grander effort to discover the basis of an integral identity different from the formerly dependent, derivative one. Caliban, according to George Lamming, »is the excluded, that which is eternally below possibility… He is seen as an occasion, a state of existence which can be appropriated and exploited to the purposes of another’s own development.« If that is so, then Caliban must be shown to have a history that can be perceived on its own, as the result of Caliban’s own effort. One must, according to Lamming, »explode Prospero’s old myth« by christening »language afresh«; but this cannot occur »[…] until we make available to all the result of certain enterprises undertaken by men who are still regarded as the unfortunate descendants of languageless and deformed slaves«.[12]

Does a similar attempt to regain Caliban’s history for himself show up in Taymor’s or Jarman’s movie adaptations? I have tried to suggest here that gender and race issues are equivalents in both movies and that by emphasizing the enslaving nature of gender and sexual norms, Taymor and Jarman show the core of Western culture in which the Other (regardless of the reason of his Otherness: his gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion etc.) is tamed by norms that have to be broken, taken off like these “mud and fish scales”, to get to the true (but elusive) nature of his identity. Physicality always was one of the main reasons of intolerance and inequality: queerness and womanhood gain power in both movie adaptations of The Tempest and therefore it might be said that Jarman and Taymor contest patriarchalism: its history and its model of thinking about the Other and its place in the social structure of the past and the present. Non-whiteness is not forgotten, even if it is removed from the diegesis of Jarman’s movie. By casting a white actor as Caliban, Jarman forces viewers to ask themselves questions about power, norms, slavery etc. without connecting them directly with themes of race and ethnicity and therefore making them fundamental subjects of Western culture, significant in all kinds of contexts.

As part of this article, I would like to return to Lean’s A Passage to India. I have cited already Lean’s words about his approach to E. M. Forster’s novel. After all that has been written here about both adaptations of The Tempest, it is worth noting that both E. M. Forster’s novel and Lean’s movie can be interpreted as conservative or progressive, depending on the analysed aspect of the book or film. T. Muraleedharan in the text Imperial migrations: Reading the Raj cinema of the 1980s writes:

The most significant feature of the rewriting of history attempted by A Passage to India and Heat and Dust [another movie of the Raj Revival movement, 1983, dir. James Ivory] is the films’ neat reversal of the oppressor/victim dichotomy. Colonised India—a victim of political and economic oppression and exploitation—ends up appearing in these films as a mysterious and evil force that disrupts the middle-class domesticity of England.[13]

The most recognizable example of such a ‘reversal’ in A Passage to India is the scene in which one of the female protagonists of the movie, Mrs. Moore, during her journey to the fictitious Marabar Caves, loses breath when she becomes surrounded by a group of Indian inhabitants in one of the caves. Such an image suggests that she is a victim of the ‘aggressive, sensual […] physicality”[14] of the Indian people, while she actually is (as a British citizen) one of the imperialistic oppressors.

On the other hand, the gender politics of E. M. Forster’s text (and Lean’s movie) help to transgress the boundaries of the conservative colonial (or postcolonial) content of the book and film. Thus, once again gender politics might be key to a progressive re-reading and reinterpretation of the classic text. Leela Gandhi claims in her book Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction that no one understood the colonial ‘hostility’ between British women and Indian men better than E. M. Forster[15]. This hostility was related to the national identity of Indian men and the stereotypical model of Indian womanhood that was allegedly endangered by European women and their style of living. At the same time, British women were jealous that the bond between their partners and Indian men might be homoerotic[16]. Such suspicions were the results of the Western perception of Oriental sexuality and the stereotypes of the alleged effeminacy of Indian men. Such a bond also found a place in Forster’s novel. Forster was gay and the main protagonist of his novel, Fielding, befriends a local Muslim man, Aziz, and even if their friendship does not have a clear homosexual subtext, Fielding supports Aziz when he is accused of a rape attempt by an English girl, Adela Quested. Fielding does so despite the resistance of his compatriots.

This subtext (regardless of its meaning: whether it is clearly homosexual or not) allows criticism of the colonial discourse that simplifies sexual and gender differences between the East and the West. The mythical superiority of the colonizer (who allegedly should be heterosexual because his homosexuality would ruin the cultural construct of manhood) is questioned because it is revealed that the sexual and gender discourse models of the masculine West and the effeminate East are only constructs that can be (and very often are) transgressed.

This content of Forster’s novel stays intact in Lean’s movie and therefore it might be interesting to watch his film through pink glasses of queerness. I wanted to show that even texts that are usually read as conservative might contain content that can be seen as progressive and anticolonial and that one-sided reading of cultural texts is very often problematic.

To finish this article, let me rephrase the question from the first paragraph: do postcolonial movies reinterpret classic texts of the British literature? Unfortunately, as we have seen, this question cannot be answered in a simple way. However, I have tried to show in this article that modern attempts to read the classics differently, by theory or reinterpretation, let modern cinema cope with the colonial past in a way that contests the old thinking about norms, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.

References:

 

Bourne Stephen, “Secrets and lies. Black histories and British historical films” in British Historical Cinema, ed. Claire Monk, Amy Sargeant (London, New York: Routledge, 2002).

Chari Hema, “Colonial Fantasies and Postcolonial Identities: Elaboration of Postcolonial Masculinity and Homoerotic Desire” in Postcolonial, Queer, ed. John C. Hawley (Albany: State University of New York Press) (2001).

Ciglar-Žanić Janja, “Anti-colonial Tempest: Theory and Practice of Postmodernist Shakespearean Reinscriptions”, Studia Romanica et Anglica Zagrabiensia 42 (1997).

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, (London: Pluto Press) (2008).

Higson Andrew, “Re-presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film” in British Cinema and Thatcherism, ed. Lester D. Friedman (London, New York: Wallflower Press 2006).

Lamming George, The Pleasures of Exile, (London: Allison & Busby) (1984).

Moore-Gilbert Bart, Hanif Kureishi, (Manchester, New York: Manchester University Press) (2010).

Muraleedharan T., “Imperial migrations. Reading the Raj cinema of the 1980s” in British Historical Cinema, ed. Claire Monk, Amy Sargeant (London, New York: Routledge, 2002).

Nandy Ashis, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of the Self Under Colonialism, (Delhi: Oxford UP) (1983).

Radkiewicz Małgorzata, derek jarman: portret indywidualny, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo RABID) (2003).

Rushdie Salman, Outside the Whale, https://granta.com/outside-the-whale/, date accessed 4 September 2016.

Said Edward W., Culture and Imperialism, (London) (1994).

Stone Alan A., Drowned Out. Julie Taymor’s The Tempest, http://new.bostonreview.net/BR36.2/alan_a_stone_julie_taymor_tempest.php, date accessed 4 September 2016

Vaughan Alden T., Vaughan Virginia Mason, Shakespeare’s Caliban. A Cultural History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) (1999).

Notes

[1] Andrew Higson, “Re-presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film” in British Cinema and Thatcherism, ed. Lester D. Friedman (London, New York: Wallflower Press 2006), p. 104.

[2] Compare with: Stephen Bourne, “Secrets and lies. Black histories and British historical films” in British Historical Cinema, ed. Claire Monk, Amy Sargeant (London, New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 58.

[3] Cited by: Salman Rushdie, Outside the Whale, https://granta.com/outside-the-whale/, date accessed 4 September 2016.

[4] Salman Rushdie.

[5] Bart Moore-Gilbert, Hanif Kureishi, (Manchester, New York: Manchester University Press) (2010), p. 76.

[6] Alden T. Vaughan, Virginia Mason Vaughan, Shakespeare’s Caliban. A Cultural History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) (1999), p. xx.

[7] Alden T. Vaughan, Virginia Mason Vaughan, p. xvi.

[8] Alan A. Stone, Drowned Out. Julie Taymor’s The Tempest, http://new.bostonreview.net/BR36.2/alan_a_stone_julie_taymor_tempest.php, date accessed 4 September 2016

[9] See: Małgorzata Radkiewicz, derek jarman: portret indywidualny, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo RABID) (2003), p.27.

[10] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, (London: Pluto Press) (2008), p. 112-113.

[11] Janja Ciglar-Žanić, “Anti-colonial Tempest: Theory and Practice of Postmodernist Shakespearean Reinscriptions”, Studia Romanica et Anglica Zagrabiensia 42 (1997), pp. 73.

[12] Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism, (London) (1994), p. 256-257. Cited in: Janja Ciglar-Žanić, p. 82-83. Said cites Lamming from: George Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile, (London: Allison & Busby) (1984), p. 107 and 119.

[13] T. Muraleedharan, “Imperial migrations. Reading the Raj cinema of the 1980s” in British Historical Cinema, ed. Claire Monk, Amy Sargeant (London, New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 150.

[14] T. Muraleedharan, p. 150.

[15] Leela Gandhi, Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction, (New York: Columbia University Press) (1998), p. 97.

[16] Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of the Self Under Colonialism, (Delhi: Oxford UP) (1983), p. 9-10. Cited in: Hema Chari, “Colonial Fantasies and Postcolonial Identities: Elaboration of Postcolonial Masculinity and Homoerotic Desire” in Postcolonial, Queer, ed. John C. Hawley (Albany: State University of New York Press) (2001), s. 281.

Bartłomiej Nowak, prior to completing his Ph.D. in Humanities in Art Studies at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland, he studied film studies and computer science. His doctoral dissertation about the presentation of ethnic minorities in modern British cinema and the postcolonial content of British movies was defended in 2015. His academic research concerns, among others, cinema, ethnic and sexual minorities, gender and postcolonial issues.

Transnational Bodies of Yogis: A Flow from Analogue Photography to Social Media

Bilge Gölge

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 90-99.

Bilge Gölge

Bilkent University

 

Transnational Bodies of Yogis: A Flow from Analogue Photography to Social Media

 

Abstract

In the initial stages of “modern, transnational yoga”, the image of the Indian yogi in a yoga pose became an effective medium for introducing the discipline to Western society. Due to this, the Indian subject began to be spoken about in terms of “showmanship”[1]. At the same time, yoga began interacting with the practices of Western gym culture. Subsequent to the impact of photography, the emergence of the Internet and digital photography have created a different approach to yoga by practitioners. At the end of the historical process of modern postural yoga’s development, we encounter modern Western individuals who today utilize yoga as a way to present themselves through visual materials again, but in a digital space and different cultural context. In this paper, I present the historical evolution of yoga practices in Western society to reveal the re-contextualization of yoga as a transnational concept. Moreover, I question how transnational yoga became a means for modern individuals to present their identity in the context of social media. Here, the body is used as a means for both constituting a social dialogue and communicating self-identity. Even if these two subjects have different approaches towards yoga, Indian showmen and the modern yogi still have commonalities regarding the “show” in a Goffmanian sense[2]. To investigate the transformation of yoga and highlight similarities and differences due to both technological changes and the dominance of visuality in culture, Instagram is an appropriate platform, as it claims to connect people via images. Drawing from a visual analysis of Instagram posts and a comparison of the bodily practices contained within them against publicly available images of the first yogis in the West, bodily representations are interpreted in the re-contextualized setting of modern society.

Key words: yoga, yogi, self-presentation, transnational body, photography, social media

Introduction

 As a physical discipline in the modern fitness culture of the West, yoga has been welcomed around the world and appreciated by the masses for its benefits to people’s lives since the early nineteenth century. Due to this growing popularity, the International Day of Yoga was adopted on the 21st June 2015 in a declaration by the UN General Assembly. The event was organized with the co-sponsorship of a record number of 175 nations. Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, proposed this Indian-led initiative, which is now celebrated all over the world, and the United Nations responded by emphasizing yoga’s “global benefits” in terms of individuals’ health and well-being[3].

Along with the widespread embracement of yoga by various cultures, regardless of diversified traditions, customs, religions, or geographic regions, the interaction between this Indian discipline and the West makes it worth investigating as a transnational concept, as it is influenced by global flows of knowledge disseminated through modern visual technologies. While there are a variety of types of yoga, postural yoga—a popular physical activity based on bodily practices—is the focus of this paper. Instead of meditation-based branches of yoga, non-religious yoga practice has been chosen for examination since it is prevalent in contemporary society today. Although spiritual aspects of yoga are promoted in the public eye, common practice in the West suggests that yoga’s increased popularity is due to the physical activity involved and the fact that it offers an enjoyable way of spending free time. Iyengar[4], who is one of the most well-known yoga gurus in the world, offered the definition of yoga that states that it is not a religion, but is intended for personal growth and physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual balance. While the religious roots of this Indian discipline are not ignored, the concerns of this paper are limited to styles of yoga based on asana, yoga posture, and physical techniques for physical and mental health of individuals. The flexibility of postural yoga has made it suitable for a multitude of social settings, as proven by the celebration of Yoga Day in 175 countries.

Here, digital photography of yogi Instagram users was analysed to identify yoga as a means of presenting self-identity in the digital realm. Through this presentation, the body becomes the focus and the modern subject uses social media and Instagram to live out their yogic self online. To investigate the bodily representations, the data was obtained from Instagram posts of Western yogis and the mass-distributed images of the first yogis in the West. According to Gillian Rose[5], images cannot speak for themselves: they must be analysed in a specific context in order to be meaningful. Therefore, it was important to consider the visual material in relation to the historical and social settings in which they were produced. Appropriately, the data was interpreted in terms of its content and the composition of the photographic images. Furthermore, understanding how users experienced the visual technologies as they developed over time is important in social research[6]. Hence, the photography’s discursive construction was examined, focusing on medium-specific features of magazines with early image production technologies, and social network services in the era of digital photography. It is also worth noting that the term yogi refers to male yoga practitioners, whereas yogini is used for female practitioners. To avoid repetition, the term “yogi” is used here for yoga practitioners, regardless of gender. Furthermore, “asana”, which means yoga pose or posture, is used throughout this paper for yoga moves in a sequence synchronized with breathing exercises[7].

Yoga as a Transnational Practice

 Stemming from the Sanskrit word yuj, the literal meaning of yoga corresponds to the English “unite”, which is interpreted as uniting body and mind[8]. Since the late 19th century, yoga—with its diverse set of rules— has preoccupied Western society; from the techniques of hatha yoga, which has become a generic term for yoga based on physical posture, to vinyasa yoga, which is based on a sequence of yoga moves. While “every group in every age has created its own version and vision of yoga”[9], its benefits on health and emotional stability have been manifested in dominant discourse.

As opposed to the common understanding of yoga in terms of its ancient roots and spiritual references, the modern postural yoga that we encounter today in the United States and European countries has a history of around 150 years[10]. Based on the works of Mark Singleton, one can affirm that what is practiced outside of India today should be viewed in relation to international gym culture. Concurrent with the proliferation of yoga in the West, it has continued to interact with contemporary physical practices. At the end of this historical process, society encountered yoga as a transnational product. It is a result of the colonial process while India was under British rule, nationalist movements in which yoga was used as a means for Indian identity, and finally global influences that are very powerful in forming modern yoga through increased mobility and developed communication technologies[11]. However, rather than being linear, the formation and re-formation of postural yoga has been influenced by increasing mobility in the modern world. Jain explains this, stating:

… (Yoga) does not move from India to Europe and North America, but rather moves back and forth among a plurality of spaces, resulting in multifarious forms that are perpetually constructed and reconstructed anew to adapt to new discourses, demands, and trends in the modern yoga market[12].

In the contemporary era, yoga is instrumentalized for Westerners’ self-presentation in a different cultural context. This time, beyond the offline lives of the individuals, the digital realm provides a Goffmanian stage for the yogic self. Especially on profile-based Social Network Services (SNSs) such as Instagram, the yogi portrays a different self than the one lived out by the Indian yoga gurus of the 20th century. Yet, the yogi still presents relevant aspects of her/his identity through the utilization of visual material whose aim is to influence the viewer’s impression. The self-identity in question appears in connection with consumption preferences regarding the yogic lifestyle, which is conveyed via specific sign equipment. Erving Goffman explains sign equipment as the tools that people employ for presenting themselves to others. These tools include the social setting of the communication, manner, and appearances, and allow individuals to sustain their performances during social interaction.[13]. For instance, healthy dietary habits are often shown on Instagram galleries and being a “vegetarian yogi” or “vegan yogi” is indicated in the biography section on Instagram. Leisure time activities and yoga outfits are also used as sign equipment for the construction of self-identity in the digital realm. After all, it is important to point out that all the choices framed in posted shots have a connection with the yoga body of yogis.

Regardless of the period of transnational yoga, the body has become the focus of the visual narrativization of yogic-identity and asana, or yoga postures; it has been used as a means of transmitting the messages beyond the physical practice itself. In addition to periodic differences and the characteristics of yogis, the yoga body has been portrayed within the bounds of the technology of its era. In this paper, I will investigate two periods of modern postural yoga and provide a comparison between yoga as self-representation by a post-colonial subject and self-actualization of the late-modern individual.

Here, Goffman’s dramaturgical approach provides a frame for explaining what the yoga body corresponds to on Instagram. Subsequent to the impact of photography, the emergence of the Internet and digital photography created a new relationship with yoga that has still some commonalities with the portrayal in a Goffmanian understanding. Instagram is an appropriate platform for investigating and comparing this transformation due both to technological changes and the superiority of visual imagery in contemporary communication as it claims to connect people via images that create stories.

By considering bodily practices of yoga (asanas) and their relation to cultural health and strength training trends beyond India, I attempt to provide a deeper understanding of how the yogi body conveys certain aspects of the performer’s identity from the past to today. Although the context and the motives have changed over time, I suggest that the visual presentation and dominance of viewing are effective for both the communication process of the yogi as well as the formation of transnational yoga.

The Subject of Yoga in the Age of Photography

 In the historical process, the nineteenth century appears as a breaking point in terms of the transformation of yoga into a global case. Several studies on the history of modern yoga suggest that yoga was a spiritual, male-dominated local discipline before it started to be re-formed through European influences; it subsequently evolved into a physical practice that appeals to both men and women and has become a secular and transnational phenomenon[14].

Especially in the second half of the 19th century, yoga was liberated from its traditional Indian context; after its interaction with other physical cultures such as Scandinavian gymnastics, a new phenomenon, which I refer to as modern postural yoga in this paper, entered the modern world’s stage. Mass production and distribution of images from India to Europe and United States were highly influential in bringing yoga to the West. Trips by yoga gurus to other parts of the world and the transmission of visual material via magazines, photographs and even films, led to transnational yoga becoming an issue to be considered beyond the context of India. In other words, it changed discourses in the international realm, re-contextualizing what yoga signifies. However, I would first like to explain the migration of yoga to the Western world, followed by a demonstration of what postural yoga portrays on today’s digital platforms, especially in the case of Instagram.

Turning back to the initial phases of modern yoga, the Indian post-colonial subject started to discuss his/her (mainly his) identity through yoga with the goal of presenting a national identity based on physical capability[15]. At this point, the development of photography enabled them to present their imaged bodies to the world. These mass distributed images made the introduction of modern transnational yoga to Western society possible, while Indian showmanship focused on the exotic and acrobatic Indian body, drawing attention to a discipline which was supposed to be an ancient tradition[16].

From colonial influences on Indian society to the revival of a national subject, yoga grew into an asana-based physical practice that took place in Western fitness culture, while the spiritual aspect of yoga has disappeared. In the modern era, national ideals have influenced the physical attributes of yoga to show strength and the vigour of the Indian man. In the past, yogis were not welcomed by society, rather, they were viewed as beggars or unwanted people. Freed from this pressure through a change in attitude, a new wave of physical culture appeared. When images from the period are examined, the man in a challenging yoga pose reflects a claim of Indian competence. On one hand, yoga is a means of supporting Indian ideals, which are the strength of the national subject and supremacy of the country’s tradition. On the other hand, as in international gymnastics, showmanship is practiced at the same time.

The case of Krishnamacharya is a good illustration of how an Indian man freed from British rule presented a performance to Western audience with intriguing bodily dispositions. This yoga guru, who was also the trainer of Iyengar—one of the best-known yogis in the world—introduced a yoga based on asanas that was similar to gymnastic exercises and aerobic moves. Yet, it is still unique as the embodiment of the authentic East in Western societal perception. In addition to still images, a few videos display him surprising and entertaining audiences with extraordinary poses. These depictions of him with some poses, such as Adho Mukha Vrksasana (handstand), Shirshasana (headstand) or Vrschikasana (scorpion) made him popular. Today, the videos of Krishnamacharya on YouTube have been watched more than 150,000 times.

fig 1 Golge

Figure  1: Krishnamacharya in a yoga pose (photo source: Wikipedia)

As illustrated in Figure 1, Krishnamachary’s pose bears a resemblance to contemporary yoga asanas. Here, the pose reflects both the strength and flexibility of a yoga body. Thinking in the context of the early periods of the 19th century, one can understand how surprising and—in a certain sense—entertaining this was for Europeans and North Americans.

The Yoga Body on the Social Network Stage

 In the age of social media, the medium for displaying yoga poses has changed and transformed from photography to digital tools and visual signs. In Instagram’s case, its medium is its megadata, which is constituted by still or moving images, text, and hashtags. Today, the Western subject itself has become a figure of spectacle. However, the body has remained central in visual communication, even in a re-contextualized sense in which publicly distributed images of yogis of different societies represent various narratives in their own contexts.

fig 2 Golge

Figure  2: An Instagram post of a handstand pose (courtesy of account owner)

Although its spiritual aspects are underlined and almost caricaturized in the public eye, yoga’s increasing popularity and common practice in the Western world are related to free-time physical activities. Within the context of late-modernity, it can be said that yoga is a physical discipline that is associated with identities and lifestyles. Accordingly, individuals faced with daily complexity due to a plurality of choices consistently construct their identities in relation to consumer culture[17]. Drawing on the definition of lifestyle sport[18], yoga practitioners “identify themselves through recognizable styles, bodily dispositions, expressions and attitudes, which they design into a distinctive lifestyle and a particular social identity”. In other words, yoga’s connotations with certain ways of living reflect the characteristics of late-modern society and its efformation of a subject that is flexible, fleeting, and self-reflexive. Furthermore, the influence of the consumption-oriented disposition is seen in the subject formation in question.

As a way of self-actualization, yogis and yoginis share similar experiences that tie their bodily practices to non-physical attributes (but again by utilizing ‘tangible’ or ‘visible’ tools) in terms of a holistic physical culture. Asanas communicate a way for self-actualization and, as Giddens states, the modern yogi presents his/her social-self agency during his/her daily life [19]. Handstands (see figure 2), for instance, are an indication of the physical and mental strength of the individual, while a personal message is represented via an unusual bodily practice. Flexibility, openness, and being at peace with himself/herself are other examples of characteristics yogis emphasize about themselves on Instagram.

In the context of late-modern society and the culture of connectivity,[20] yoga practitioners from Western societies use Instagram galleries to feed their identity construction and share emphasized characteristics of themselves via digital images. In their posts, where they can be seen standing on their hands or heads, wearing yoga pants, or on a yoga mat, these people publicly exhibit more individualistic performances compared to their Indian predecessors.

Many of the posts are supported by the composition of visual elements, hashtags, and tags that provide a relevant personal message about the yogis. These are specific characteristics in the contemporary case. Since the current technological possibilities enable yogis to produce and share these images instantly, and the hegemony of visuality in society forms the presentation in question, the yogi Instagrammers have a direct focus on visibility. When patterns of Instagram use are analysed, it is clear that the motive is to reach as large an audience as possible. For this reason, even though both context and content have changed, the “show” continues to be performed.

By viewing popular yogis on Instagram, we can say with some certainty that handstands, headstands, or other acrobatic poses still draw the public’s attention, likely influenced by the display-like Indian showmen. However, compared to the early period of modern postural yoga, we now see Western subjects and find individualistic messages about their self-identities. At this juncture, the presentation of the yogi self suggests a spectacle in the Debordian sense. Defined as the manipulation of the visual world to enforce late-capitalism’s expectations of the individual, the spectacle can be observed in the late-modern periods of yoga, in particular on the digital stage. “Spectacular representations”[21] of the yogis intercommunicate with experiences commodified through consumption-related preferences. Accordingly, the yogic identity in question is communicated by mixing different elements of everyday life, and auto-narratives are re-created for maintaining the self-presentation according to the conditions of contemporary consumer culture. In this self-communication, yoga appears as a means for a reflexively constructed self-identity of the late-modern subject.

Conclusion

 In conclusion, it can be said that modern postural yoga is a transnational phenomenon that arose from the interaction of the Indian original with colonial, nationalist, and global forces. Since its introduction outside of India, followers of yoga have reached an extensive number worldwide. Currently, its state reflects a new setting and context for the performances of yogis. Within the present social media environment, including Instagram, yoga has become related to both prevalent use of the online platform as a spectacle and its potential for supporting yogi self-actualization.

Because the visual medium has changed, the importance of keeping the performances updated and connecting asanas to more authentic meanings such as being physically and mentally strong has risen. This is achieved by supporting photography with texts on SNSs; in this way, transnational yoga is constantly being formed.

Drawing from visual analysis on Instagram posts of selected account owners and comparison of their bodily practices with the analogue photography of the first yogis in the West, there is ample support for the claim that the yoga body is a means for sustaining a display for social interaction and communicating self-identity, both in the past as well as today. However, it seems that due to changes in display, the concept has been transformed into a transnational phenomenon of the cultures with which yoga has interacted. Consequently, we can claim that modern postural yoga is a product of both the health and fitness system of the West, as well as original Indian tradition, and distributed by means of analogue images or smart phones.

 

References:

Andrea R. Jain, „The Dual-Ideal of the Ascetic and Healthy Body: The Jain Terapanth and Modern Yoga in the Context of Late Capitalism”, Nova Religio 15:3 (2012), pp.29-50.

Anthony Giddens, Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late-modern age, (Cambridge, Polity Press) (1991). p.57.

Belinda Wheaton, „Introducing the consumption and representation of lifestyle sports”, Sports in Society, 13:7-8 (2010), pp. 1057-1081.

David Gordon White, Yoga in Practice, (Princeton: Princeton University Press) (2012), pp. 2-22.

Definition of Yoga, http://yoga.org.nz/what-is-yoga/yoga_definition.htm, date accessed 1 November 2016.

Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, (University of Edinburgh, Social Sciences Research Center). (1959).

Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, (Detroit, Black & Red Publications) (1970).

Jeff Ferrell, Keith J. Hayward, Jock Young, Cultural Criminology, (London: SAGE Publications Ltd.) (2008).

Gillian Rose, Visual Methodologies; An Introduction To The Interpretation Of Visual Materials, (London: Sage). (2001).

International Day of Yoga, http://www.un.org/en/events/yogaday/background.shtml, date accessed 5 August 2016.

Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar, The Tree of Yoga: Yoga Vka, (Shambhala Publications) (1989).

Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, (Oxford University Press) (2010).

Sarah Pink, Doing Ethnography: Images, Media and Representation in Research, (London: Sage) (2001).

Sarah Strauss, „The Master’s Narrative: Swami Sivananda and the Transnational Production of Yoga”, Journal of Folklore Research, 39:2/3 (2002), pp. 217-241.

 

Notes

[1] Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, (Oxford University Press) (2010).

[2] Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, (University of Edinburgh, Social Sciences Research Center). (1959).

[3] International Day of Yoga, http://www.un.org/en/events/yogaday/background.shtml, date accessed 5 August 2016.

[4] Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar, The Tree of Yoga: Yoga Vka, (Shambhala Publications) (1989).

[5] Gillian Rose, Visual Methodologies; An Introduction To The Interpretation Of Visual Materials, (London: Sage). (2001).

[6] Sarah Pink, Doing Ethnography: Images, Media and Representation in Research, (London: Sage) (2001).

[7] Andrea R. Jain, „The Dual-Ideal of the Ascetic and Healthy Body: The Jain Terapanth and Modern Yoga in the Context of Late Capitalism”, Nova Religio 15:3 (2012), pp.29-50.

[8] Definition of Yoga, http://yoga.org.nz/what-is-yoga/yoga_definition.htm, date accessed 1 November 2016.

[9] David Gordon White, Yoga in Practice, (Princeton: Princeton University Press) (2012), pp. 2-22.

[10] Mark Singleton.

[11] Andrea R. Jain.

[12] Andrea R. Jain, p. 30.

[13] Erving Goffman.

[14] See, for example,  Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, (Oxford University Press) (2010). And also see, Sarah Strauss, „The Master’s Narrative: Swami Sivananda and the Transnational Production of Yoga”, Journal of Folklore Research, 39:2/3 (2002), pp. 217-241.

[15] Mark Singleton.

[16] Mark Singleton, pp. 40, 154, 164.

[17] Jeff Ferrell, Keith J. Hayward, Jock Young, Cultural Criminology, (London: SAGE Publications Ltd.) (2008).

[18] Belinda Wheaton, „Introducing the consumption and representation of lifestyle sports”, Sports in Society, 13:7-8 (2010), pp. 1057-1081.

[19] Anthony Giddens, Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late-modern age, (Cambridge, Polity Press) (1991). p.57.

[20] The phrase is borrowed from van Dijk who has a book with the same title.

[21] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, (Detroit, Black & Red Publications) (1970).

 

Bilge Gölge is an M.A. student in Media and Visual Studies Program at Bilkent University. She holds a BS from the Middle East Technical University and a minor degree in architectural culture. She is currently completing her master thesis, which investigates self-presentation of Turkey’s yoga community in social media, specifically on Instagram. Her research interests include social media, online self-presentation, and communication patterns through visual media.

Contact Information: bilgegolge@bilkent.edu.tr

Slow Expansion. Neomodernism as a Postnational Tendency in Contemporary Cinema

Miłosz Stelmach

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 100-117.

Miłosz Stelmach

Jagiellonian University

 

Slow Expansion. Neomodernism as a Postnational Tendency in Contemporary Cinema

 

Abstract

The article presents a theoretical overview of a distinctive strand of contemporary cinema identified in the text as neomodernism (as defined by Rafał Syska). It focuses on works of filmmakers such as Béla Tarr, Aleksander Sokurov or Tsai Ming-liang and their followers and tries to present them as a part of informal postnational artistic movement developing in cinema from mid-90s onward. The aim of the article is to examine critically the journalistic and reductive category of slow cinema usually applied to auteurs mentioned above and propose term more burdened with cultural connotations and thus open for nuanced historical and theoretical studies. The particular attention is given to the international character of neomodernism that negates the traditional boundaries of national schools as well as the division of centre-periphery in world cinema shaped by the first wave of postwar modernist cinema. Neomodernism rather moves the notion of centre to the institutional level with the growing importance of festivals, film agents and public fund that take the place of production companies as the main actors in the transnational net of art-house cinema circulation.

Key words: contemporary cinema, modernism, slow cinema, postnational cinema, neomodernism

 

Abstract

The article presents a theoretical overview of a distinctive strand of contemporary cinema identified in the text as neomodernism (as defined by Rafał Syska). It focuses on works of filmmakers such as Béla Tarr, Aleksander Sokurov or Tsai Ming-liang and their followers and tries to present them as a part of informal postnational artistic movement developing in cinema from mid-90s onward. The aim of the article is to examine critically the journalistic and reductive category of slow cinema usually applied to auteurs mentioned above and propose term more burdened with cultural connotations and thus open for nuanced historical and theoretical studies. The particular attention is given to the international character of neomodernism that negates the traditional boundaries of national schools as well as the division of centre-periphery in world cinema shaped by the first wave of postwar modernist cinema. Neomodernism rather moves the notion of centre to the institutional level with the growing importance of festivals, film agents and public fund that take the place of production companies as the main actors in the transnational net of art-house cinema circulation.

Key words: contemporary cinema, modernism, slow cinema, postnational cinema, neomodernism

Introduction

 

Over the course of the last two decades, the debate over cinema and modernism has taken the form of a dialectical struggle since two distinctive theoretical standpoints emerged, of which the more traditional and still dominant is rooted in art history and literary studies of the post-war years. It is focused on tracing the signs of high modernism in cinema, locating it mostly in the field of international art film practice of both the pre-war (avant-garde and national film schools of 1920s) and post-war (New Wave and New Cinemas of the 1960s and 1970s) eras.[1] We can call this understanding of cinematic modernism “exclusive” as it refers to the language of formal innovation, auteurism, and a break with classical cinema. Lately, this perspective has been recapitulated and thoroughly explicated by András Bálint Kovács in his book-length study.[2] Kovács identifies subjectivity, reflexivity, and abstraction as basic characteristics of all modernist art[3] and finds them in the post-war films of directors such as Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Robert Bresson, or auteurs associated with French New Wave, among others.

The oppositional, “inclusive” theory of modernism in cinema was conceived as a radical departure from this discourse. Since the 1990s, many scholars (often associated with the term New Modernist Studies) have contradicted the conservative Greenbergian account of modernism as a drive toward formalism, artistic sophistication, and medium specificity. Instead, they perceived it as a cinematic expression and representation of modernity in its various forms that is not restricted to the field of high artistic practice, but rather comprises mass cultural production. Miriam Bratu Hansen’s 1999 essay, which is probably the most emblematic and influential work in this vein, calls Hollywood cinema “vernacular modernism”,[4] and this term caught on.[5] In her understanding, “modernism encompasses a whole range of cultural and artistic practices that register, respond to, and reflect upon processes of modernization and the experience of modernity, including a paradigmatic transformation of the conditions under which art is produced, transmitted, and consumed”.[6] In this sense, early comic strips and Russian socialist realist musicals are just as (or even more) modernist as Ulysses or movies by Ingmar Bergman because of the way they transform and exploit new possibilities of perception born from the spirit of modernity. In its most radical form, this “modernity thesis” tries to prove that cinema as a whole is a modern art: the product and consequence of modernity defined by its technological and industrial character.[7]

Although the two described standpoints might appear to be distinct, competing approaches to the same problem, namely cinematic modernism, I would suggest that the situation is in fact the opposite: they examine two different phenomena claiming the same designation. The disparity between them is demonstrable not simply in the choice of cultural texts they seem to be primarily interested in (“high” vs. “popular” art), but even more importantly in the way they try to position those texts. The proponents of cinema as vernacular modernism focus mostly on the social, industrial, and cultural context in which movies exist. These specific conditions make classical cinema a vital part of late 19th and early to mid-20th century modernity as it was experienced by moviegoers all over the world, since cinema according to Hansen became the world’s first “global vernacular”.[8] As a consequence, their aim is to describe a certain historical point of “paradigmatic transformation of the conditions under which art is produced, transmitted, and consumed”.

By contrast, the idea of modern cinema, as derived from Clement Greenberg’s writings and represented today by András Bálint Kovács, concentrates more on the interrelations within cinema history itself rather than its social context. It is more interested in aesthetic autonomy and internal development of specific art forms and their inherent features. Cultural, political, and social contexts obviously play an important role in this argument; however, they are mostly used as possible hypotheses explaining certain formal and stylistic devices. This line of argumentation was employed also by many authors who did not use the term “Modernism” but were highly influential and contributed greatly to the debate on the term. Key examples might be David Bordwell, who identified “art cinema” as one of the four main historical modes of film practice,[9] or Gilles Deleuze, for whom post-war international cinema of “Time-Image” was the fullest possible realization of medium specificity.[10]

Narrated in this manner, the story of modernism appears to be an evolutionary process of progressing sophistication of a given art in the search for its expressive potential. The crucial consequence of equating modernism with a set of formal qualities (instead of considering its relation to the broader cultural and social field) is the possibility of conceptualizing it as a trans-historical phenomenon. Although Kovács defined modernism as a completed historical period, his recounting of it allows for some trans-historical interpretation when he remarks, “narrative techniques, after they become accepted, remain in fact available for anyone, anywhere, anytime. Historical ‘modes of narration’, however, are conglomerates of certain techniques that are more fashionable in certain periods and in certain parts of the world than in others”.[11] This makes it possible to understand modernism as a set of artistic choices that became less frequently used in the course of 1970s and 1980s, but are still available and one day may come back into favour. This idea of recurring modernist tropes, reappearing in different periods and cultural contexts, is nothing new to modernism studies but has never been convincingly employed in film studies, where it is generally believed that high modernist cinema ended sometime in the mid-70s.

While it might be true for some particular forms of modernist film, specific to the international art cinema of ’60s, I would like to argue that its spirit survived and began reappearing in a new form around mid-90s, gaining full momentum about decade later. The whole wave of directors, led by figures like Béla Tarr, Aleksander Sokurov and Tsai Ming-liang and subsequently joined by younger filmmakers, established what I will call a neomodernist trend in contemporary cinema. This article is an attempt to sketch a historical and theoretical overview of this informal movement, taking specific note of its modernist character and transnational scope.

The eternal return

 

When John Orr attempted to explain the temporal gap between the two phases of modernism in cinema, he referred to the latter as a Nietzschean return to the modern. He described the modernist impulse as a cyclical movement, intersecting from time to time the main, linear path of cinema history: “a return to the modern in a more technically advanced form, (…) recurrence as the completion of form”.[12] Thus, the continuity of the modernist tendency might be disturbed by external (e.g. political) as well as internal (e.g. technological, such as the coming of sound) factors, but the idea and vision of the cinema behind it will be very much alive. However, his 1993 diagnosis concludes that “a second and momentous return of the modern seems unlikely”.[13] He argues that the legacy of modernist cinema has been largely absorbed and adapted into mainstream post-classical cinema and selectively reworked, sometimes in a mannerist way, by postmodern cinema.

Interestingly enough, only a couple of years after Orr wrote these words, the aforementioned group of directors emerged, who tried to avoid both of those paths through creative adaptation of the post-war model of art cinema. They presented films that might enable us to reconsider Orr’s statement about the unlikeliness of another return to the modernist impulse, such as Tsai Ming-Liang’s Vive L’Amour (1994), Béla Tarr’s Satantango (1994), Sokurov’s Mat i syn/Mother and Son (1997), Abbas Kiarostami’s Ta’m e guilass/Taste of Cherry (1997) or Bruno Dumont’s La Vie de Jesus (1997). Their affinity with the older modernist generation was instantly noticed and is still underlined by many critics who frequently try to establish a connection between these modern movies and their historical ancestors. Alexander Sokurov is regularly described as Tarkovsky’s apprentice, Tarr as heir to Jancsó‘s poetics, Dumont as a reinterpreter of Bresson’s work, and Tsai as a contemporary Antonioni, to mention only the most important names of the movement. The beginning of the following decade showed another strong group of directors (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Carlos Reygadas, Lav Diaz and others) following the same path.

Nevertheless, it’s very clear that this artistic indebtedness doesn’t make them merely imitators or “retro” artists, but rather positions them as the newest incarnation of the “tradition of the new,” to quote Harold Rosenberg’s aphoristic definition of artistic modernism. They reach for modernist formalism as well as certain narratives and stylistic and thematic patterns and use them in very idiosyncratic ways, exploring their possibilities and limitations. At the same time, it should be noted that none of the aforementioned directors constitute an organized or even informal “movement”, “school”, or “current”. They represent rather a tendency, a shared attitude toward the medium of cinema and a common sensibility. They come from different continents, generations, and cultural and historical backgrounds, yet their films, resisting both mainstream commercialism and postmodern stylistic games, bear an unmistakable resemblance to each other’s.

Although the opposition between this wave of modernism and alternative modes of the mainstream or the postmodern might be seen as evaluative, its assumptions are (or at least should be) essentially descriptive. This is also the way Kovács understood the distinction between modernism and other modes of film practice: “When we speak of ‘art films’ as opposed to ‘commercial entertainment films’, we are referring not to aesthetic qualities but to certain genres, styles, narrative procedures, distribution networks, production companies, film festivals, film journals, critics, groups of audiences; in short, institutionalized film practice”.[14] As early as 1981, Steve Neale tried to define “art cinema” not only in narrative or aesthetic terms, but also (and maybe even primarily) as an institution.[15] This is also the way the newest development of modernist filmmaking should be considered: as a certain quality of films themselves and the discourse they inhabit.

Neomodern

 

The term “neomodern” in terms of the distinctive strain of contemporary art cinema was proposed by Polish film scholar Rafał Syska, who introduced it in a series of articles and eventually a book-length study.[16] He calls neomodernism a “slow rebellion” and largely identifies it with the phenomenon of so-called slow cinema. This term—very much present in today’s film journalism and promoted by people such as Sight & Sound’s contributor Jonathan Romney,[17]—refers to a specific type of art cinema, forming a non-unified but very strong and visible trend on the contemporary festival circuit. As Thomas Elsaesser crisply explained, “slow cinema (also sometimes referred to as ‘contemplative cinema’) counters the blockbuster’s over-investment in physical action, spectacle and violence with long takes, quiet observation, an attention to detail, to inner stirrings rather than to outward restlessness, highlighting the deliberate or hesitant gesture, rather than the protagonist’s drive or determination”.[18] Other key characteristic features of slow movies include behaviourist and anti-psychological depiction of characters (very often played by non-professional actors), abandoning strict narrative causality in favour of episodic or impressionistic storytelling while still maintaining intensified continuity. As a consequence, they tend to put a greater focus on showing instead of telling, or in other words, they encourage the dominance of monstrating over narrating, to use André Gaudreault’s dichotomy.[19] Directors working in this vein usually avoid non-diegetic music, explanatory dialogue, overt dramaturgical tensions, and clear resolutions.

Many slow cinema movies, although deprived of any commercial potential, have gained critical, academic, and festival acclaim, forming a small but distinctive canon. This canon consists of all the previously mentioned directors as well as the somewhat less recognized but influential Lisandro Alonso and Albert Serra, not to mention dozens of artists who have achieved smaller acknowledgment. These auteurs are also described by Syska in his study of neomodern cinema, in which he analyses recurring thematic and stylistic tropes of the movement as well as individual artistic strategies of its most important figures.

However, why do we need a new term if the discourse on slow cinema is already well established? The answer is twofold. Firstly, this appellation might serve well as a journalistic buzzword, but its explanatory power is very limited. It reduces the entire diverse group of films to only one, quantitative aspect: slowness (measured by the average shot length, lack of on-screen movement or focus on observation and contemplation instead of action). The sluggish pace of certain works draws disproportionate attention, provoking the praise of dedicated aficionados as well as the eloquent critiques of their adversaries. As a result, the ongoing debate on slow cinema and its predominance on the festival circuit was taken over by two opposing groups exchanging arguments for and against the artistic qualities of these films, to some extent restraining more nuanced historical and theoretical studies.

Attempts to define contemporary contemplative cinema in relation to cinematic modernism, as proposed by Syska, might help us replace the ahistorical category of slow cinema with one more burdened with cultural connotations, thus opening new avenues of studies. Besides, the majority of descriptions of the movement focus mostly on its antithetic position toward mainstream commercial films. While it is obviously true that these films stand in distinctive opposition to the post-classical cinema of attractions, they should be characterized not only as a negative movement but also as a part of a positive, modernist project of developing new reflexive structures of perception and the interrelated cinematic forms most appropriate to express them. As Maureen Turim put it in relation to cinema, “high modernism is seen as philosophical and formal, restructuring temporality, spatial relationships, and pictorial representation with a dedicated seriousness that consequently limits its commercial acceptance”.[20] Neomodernism can be seen as a continuation (or even an intensification) of this self-reflexive reconsidering of the medium’s parameters such as time and space.

There is also another reason to consider the term neomodernism more carefully. Although Syska clearly puts all slow cinema’s most important figures at the centre of his argument, in my opinion the two categories should not be seen as identical. They certainly largely overlap, but not every slow movie can be called neomodernist and not every neomodernist work has to be particularly slow. The latter point might be illustrated by some of the recent works of Michael Haneke, who went through his “modernist turn” in the 2000s (thereby following the example of most of the early neomodernist directors, who began their careers with movies that cannot be put in this category, the best example of which might be the unofficial leader of the movement, Béla Tarr, whose early features were socially committed, realist dramas). From Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages/Code Unknown (2000) onward, Haneke abandoned his earlier poetics, which evinced some postmodern characteristics, and began to focus more on formal qualities of the image, questions of subjectivity, and references to high art. Films like Caché (2005), Das weiße Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte/The White Ribbon (2009) or L’amour (2012) might be described as neomodernist, although they are usually not associated with the slow cinema movement. On the other hand, some slow movies might lack modernist conceptualism and self-reflexivity.

Furthermore, the term neomodernism might serve as a link to phenomena existing outside the field of cinema. It was already used in regard to other disciplines such as fine arts, architecture and philosophy, where neomodernist tendencies that reject the fashionable influence of postmodernism in favour of the revitalization of earlier modern forms were perceived.[21] Victor Grauer proposed the name as early as 1982, when on the wider ground of art-historical periodization he advocated for a neomodern aesthetics which may be defined as a return to the most fundamental tenets of “formalist modernism”.[22]

Although “nothing is more unfashionable than a fashion that’s out of fashion”, the question of postmodernism has to be addressed briefly at this point. Regardless of whether one agrees with Umberto Eco and Jean-François Lyotard, for whom postmodernism was only a late, mannerist phase of modernism that exposed some of its features and pushed them to their limits (whilst simultaneously downplaying others),[23] or shares the view of Douwe Fokkema, who argued that postmodernist strategies express a radical break with modernist aesthetics,[24] we can roughly identify the leading formal and thematic characteristics of postmodernist cinema. These have already been described many times and in great detail and do not require another recapitulation here. However, whatever postmodernism is (or was), it is clearly contested by the neomodern directors, wishing to forgo its eccentricity, pastiche and playful intertextuality.

Reducing…

 

Although historical accounts of post-war cinematic modernism agree on the late 70s as the end date for the movement, sharp and precise periodization was never fully possible. As Turim noted, “there has never been much sense in insisting on the linearity of development of an art whose entire history coincides with modernism in the other arts”.[25] Different paradigms always co-existed (and sometimes competed) with each other; only the centre of gravity shifted over the years, when some techniques and devices become less fashionable and other means of expression replaced them. This is exactly what happened in the late 70s and early 80s and was the turning point for art-house cinema, when some key modernist auteurs passed away (Pasolini, Fassbinder) or stopped making movies (Antonioni, Bresson), while those still active moved either toward more avant-garde practice, becoming marginal figures in the industry (Godard) or, on the contrary, lost their modernist temperament and adapted to more mainstream stylistics (Wenders, Akerman).

This dwindling of 70s modernism does not mean that there is no bridge linking the two modernist formations. Just as Luis Buñuel and Carl Theodor Dreyer might be seen as a connection between pre- and post-war phases of modernism in cinema, Theodoros Angelopoulos would be the best example of a director who came from the late 1960s/early 1970s generation of art-house filmmakers and restlessly carried his modernist aesthetics into the 21st century. Rafał Syska calls him one of the few “depositaries of modernism”, consistently affirming values of high modernism in international art cinema. Unlike most of his peers, Angelopoulos continued making persistently elitist, uncompromisingly auteurist, and formally challenging works throughout his entire career. Symptomatically, a collection of essays on Angelopoulos edited in 1997 was entitled The Last Modernist.[26]

The movies of this Greek auteur already showed the direction that the next wave of modernist directors would take. If the late modernist works of Buñuel, Fellini, Godard or Fassbinder were getting gradually closer to postmodernist aesthetics and might have influenced and fertilized this current (when listing instances of postmodernism in different fields of cultural production, Frederic Jameson wrote: “in film, everything that comes out of Godard:  contemporary vanguard film and video”[27]), then neo-modernism clearly draws more from Bresson, Antonioni or Tarkovsky: the minimalist pole of modernism’s wide stylistic spectrum. While Kovács identified minimalism as one of the four most general styles of modernism in cinema (along with the naturalist, theatrical and ornamental), he noted “from 1959, stylistic austerity and reductionism became fashionable, and minimalism became the strongest and most influential trend of modern cinema”.[28]

Reducing the expressive qualities of film form and simplifying thematic or narrative layers without renouncing their sophistication and semantic potential was the main effort of many directors of the time, but if minimalism in the 1960s was the “strongest and most influential trend of modern cinema”, in the 1990s and 2000s it became an almost uncontested one. Whether it’s Tarr’s expressive aestheticism in A torinói ló/The Turin Horse (2010), Alonso’s naturalistic austerity in La libertad (2001) or Sokurov’s empathetic intimacy in Mother and Son, these and other neomodernist directors usually deny the intense emotional involvement encouraged and aroused by (neo)classical movies. In its most radical form, contemporary cinematic minimalism presents itself as a self-prescribed neoprimitivism (echoing the Bressonian call for „cinematograph” as opposed to „cinema”—a spectacle that spoiled the primal purity of the medium), as in the case of Paz Encina’s Hamaca Paraguaya (2006), Albert Serra’s Honor de cavalleria/Honour of the Knights (2006), and El cant dels ocells /Birdsong (2008).

Neomodern minimalism, however dominant, is not pure as it frequently incorporates other styles defined by Kovács, especially the naturalist. Formal asceticism in many cases goes hand in hand with behaviourism, since many slow cinema filmmakers focus on dispassionate observation of everyday routine and time’s arduous passage. Influenced by such modernist ventures as Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), they avoid conventional ellipses by showing trivial actions in their full duration and replacing any possible plot progression with intentional and intense “non-happening”. The naturalistic bent of directors like Tsai Ming-liang, Bruno Dumont, or Lisandro Alonso can be seen in the way they portray characters’ privacy and intimacy, very often exploring their physical (or even physiological) dimension.

This anti-psychological attitude, emphasizing materiality and physicality over the character’s motivation or personality, must entail not only a different set of stylistic devices but also distinct types of characters. The model heroes of neomodern cinema are not the cultured, reflexive intellectuals portrayed in the 1960s by Fellini and Bergman or the careless bon vivants of some French New Wave films. Now it is the members of underprivileged classes who get the most screen time. They are more often rural than urban, usually in a difficult economic position, and on the margins of their own society. This tendency brings a completely different sensibility to the works of, for example, Béla Tarr or Alexander Sokurov, although it hardly makes films like The Turin Horse or Mother and Son politically or socially committed works: both directors (like most neomodern auteurs) are more interested in existential and contemplative aspects of their works—and in developing a unique cinematic form to express them—than in direct political message.

Characters like these appeared rarely in proper cinematic modernism, introduced and honoured sometimes by Pasolini (in Accattone [1961] and Mamma Roma [1962]) or Bresson (in Au hasard Balthasar [1966] and Mouchette [1967]). Contemporary modernist directors, although they show real social commitment only sporadically, direct their camera lenses away from the higher or middle classes, prosperous cities and industrial landscapes, focusing more on people and places that are usually considered peripheral or marginal. What’s more—marking the difference between post-war modern cinema and its contemporary incarnation—this movement from the central to the peripheral takes place not only on the thematic level. One can even say that the shift described above is merely a reflection or consequence of the industry’s dispersion.

…and expanding

 

The silent modernist cinema, identified by most scholars with the European avant-garde movements of the 1920s, was almost exclusively restricted to just a couple of artistic „hubs”. It was mostly Germany, France and Russia (or, to be more exact, Berlin, Paris and Moscow) with their highly developed industrial base and thriving film culture, that served as capitals of high art in cinema. This situation was not unusual in the history of modern art, which was always highly concentrated in certain privileged places; at some point Greenberg even suggested that modernism is a particularly French phenomenon.[29]

In the 1960s and 1970s, at the height of the second wave of modernist cinema, France was still leading with the tremendously influential New Wave: the narrative experiments of the so-called Left Bank group and progressive cinéma-vérité documentarists. Other traditional „superpowers” of cinema also made their important contributions, putting Italian auteurs and German New Cinema filmmakers on the forefront of new aesthetics and politics in film. However, this was also the moment when the range of modernism in cinema expanded vastly. It encompassed many areas that were formerly regarded as marginal in terms of highly artistic film production. Most notable examples are some Eastern European countries (Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia all had an impact on the international art film scene) and two vital non-European movements that reached out to the Western festival circuit and art-house audience with their very original propositions: Japanese New Wave and Brazilian Cinema Novo. Kovács describes this process briefly:

The first phase of modernism was mainly an isolated national phenomenon in German, French, and Soviet cinema, whereas the second phase of modernism was a general phenomenon of global dimensions: apart from most of the European filmmaking countries, Japanese, Indian, and Brazilian new cinemas as well as the North American underground were all contributing to the second modernist movement. It was important as a global film art movement as much as a local national cultural phenomenon.[30]

It is worth noting that although he acknowledges this meaningful expansion, Kovács limits his own interests to European modernism. The subtitle of his seminal book “European Art Cinema 1950-1980” justifies this exclusion and allows him to dismiss smoothly the valid question of defining the relationship between modernism and non-Western art. Nevertheless, it has to be questioned openly: is speaking about the Japanese New Wave as a modernist movement (as in David Desser’s classical study Eros Plus Massacre[31]) evidence of global circulation of aesthetics and politics in international cinema, or is it just an expression of cultural and academic imperialism, imposing familiar categories of description on unfamiliar phenomena? Does it oversimplify our object of studies, reducing it to the role of derivative of European art cinema? Alternatively, maybe it actually enriches our understanding of it, showing relations, tropes, or possible interpretations we could otherwise miss?

This complex problem seems even more pressing in relation to the contemporary cinema of global (co)production, distribution, and reception. However, my argument is that a more synthetic approach that encompasses diverse phenomena might be helpful in some cases, if applied carefully and purposefully. Applying the wide and open term of neomodernism to the films of, for example, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is not a way of denying their intriguing cultural specificity, rooted deeply in Buddhist spirituality and philosophy, but rather an attempt to identify some typically modernist narrative strategies he uses to implement this local tradition into his filmmaking practice. This combination is not unusual for neomodernist directors, who often translate very specific cultural experiences into the more universal language of international art cinema. Because of their cultural specificity, the works of Weerasethakul are frequently described as highly “exotic” for Western audiences. However, at the same time we must remember that they are co-produced by as many as 5 European countries (Loong Boonmee raleuk chat/Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives [2010]), shown and celebrated at the most prestigious European film festivals (and honoured with the Palme d’or at Cannes 2010), and distributed all around the world through the art house circuit, while being almost ignored (and sometimes even banned, as in the case of Sang sattawat/Syndromes and a Century [2006]) in his native Thailand. Due to exhibition restrictions imposed on his films, he announced recently that Cemetery of Splendour (2015) would be the last film he shot in his homeland. This example shows that no matter how “Thai” Weerasethakul films seem, they are actually produced mostly for a European audience by European producers.

This international (or rather postnational) character of neomodern cinema can be observed also on the part of the artist him/herself. Although filmmakers from different parts of the world draw richly from local artistic traditions, they are at the same time deeply entangled in a complex global network of artistic and economic connections. Weerasethakul was educated at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he studied the films of important figures of early slow cinema in the 1990s: Tarr, Tsai, and Kiarostami.[32] Weerasethakul openly speaks about his involvement in international art film culture that overrides national or cultural divisions[33], and of his inspirations from European modernist cinema of the 1960s.[34] Now he is one of the lecturers at Sarajevo’s Film.factory: a film school founded and managed by Béla Tarr, who invited many important figures of slow cinema to form the faculty.

Unobvious connections like the ones described above lead to the vital question of neomodernism’s geography. Generally, when examining the problem of modernism, one has to ask not only when it happened, but also where it happened. In relation to modernist literature, Susan Stanford Friedman recalled Frederic Jameson’s call to “always historicize” and complemented it with her own plea: “always spatialize”.[35] The same is also valid for cinema, and the contemporary global artistic market requires new kinds of analysis. This is also why new terms are coined readily; Nicolas Bourriaud proposed the name altermodernism, defined “by rapidly increasing lines of communication and travel in a globalized world. If early twentieth-century Modernism is characterized as a broadly Western cultural phenomenon, and Postmodernism was shaped by ideas of multi-culturalism, origins and identity, Altermodern is expressed in the language of a global culture. Altermodern artists channel the many different forms of social and technological networks offered”.[36]

Contemporary neomodernist cinema completes this slow process of decentralization, progressing gradually from highly condensed pre-war European movements through the first truly global artistic trends in the age of New Waves and arriving at XXI century radical dispersion. Today, the well-established and long-celebrated national cinemas of France, Italy, or Germany seem to be somewhat exhausted when it comes to high modernist filmmaking, and the refreshing impulses most often come from countries that until recently didn’t have much art-house exposure. This brings to attention a familiar argument that will not be further developed in this article but has to be mentioned: modernist aesthetics emerge in countries where the processes of modernization are the most persistent at a given moment. Whatever the reason was, neomodernism was born at the same time in Tsai Ming-liang’s Taiwan, Abbas Kiarostami’s Iran, Alexander Sokurov’s Russia, and Béla Tarr’s Hungary; later on, directors from Latin America, Western and Eastern Europe, and the Middle and Far East all contributed to the shaping of this new tendency.

Nevertheless, it must be stressed firmly that this change is not a matter of plain relocation. The informal capital of modernist cinema did not simply move from the Paris of the 1960s New Wave to, for example, the Bangkok of Apichatpong Weerasethakul in the 2000s. There is something more to it: the capital ceased to exist and the periphery became a centre. This shift can be observed on the smaller, national level as well: for example, in the career of Bruno Dumont, who can be considered a main figure of French neomodernist cinema. Contrary to all his predecessors from the long tradition of French film modernism, Dumont lives, shoots and sets his movies mostly in rural areas of the Nord region, symbolically abandoning Paris, the city towering over all French cinema to this day.

 At the same time, the disappearance of clearly defined centres of modernist cinema production does not mean that there are no “hubs”. As always, this function is fulfilled partially by film festivals, cinema journals, and public institutions supporting and promoting film culture. However, the real revolution that made this global neomodernist movement possible was the development of an international coproduction model. Due to the large number of film funds and production or distribution companies, Western Europe remains the centre of gravity for international art cinema. European Union countries (especially France and Germany) dominated this market of cultural production, coproducing films of almost every celebrated neomodernist director from all over the world. Most of these directors began their career making locally produced films, but all the mature works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tsai Ming-liang, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Abbas Kiarostami, Carlos Reygadas, Eastern European directors like Béla Tarr and Alexander Sokurov, and others were made thanks to Western European funds.

Production and distribution companies like Germany’s The Match Factory or France’s Wild Bunch, big TV companies (ZDF, Arte, Canal +) and public film funds (the Hubert Bals Fund or the Council of Europe-funded Euroimages) are responsible for producing most of the films that can be considered as neomodernist. These movies are made under the supervision of European producers, largely with the international festivals and art-house audiences in mind. The influence of this economic conditioning on the aesthetic, political, and artistic qualities of works is yet to be examined, but it resolutely precludes the notion that directors from different cultural backgrounds are completely separated from the international film circuit. This complicated situation will most probably soon force us to rethink thoroughly our idea of centre/periphery relations in the field of artistic production and the institutional basis of contemporary art cinema.

Sense of an ending

 

Academic reflection comes too late, as always. The last couple of years finally brought the first scholarly monographs analysing slow cinema more closely. They include expanded overviews of the entire movement[37] as well as book-length studies of its most prominent figures: Béla Tarr, Tsai Ming-liang, and Aleksander Sokurov.[38] They were published at an interesting point of solstice, when the movement seems to have been at its most influential but at the same time probably close to its end. Neomodernism, as expected, is a slow movement. It rose to prominence slowly in the 1990s without any manifestos or glamorous successes and now we can presumably observe its equally slow decline. Symptoms are numerous.

Some of the earliest directors creating the canon of neomodernism in 1990s have now reached the culmination of their long-developed poetics. Their radical artistic pursuit led them to the point of no return. Béla Tarr quit filmmaking after the apocalyptically minimalist The Turin Horse and became engaged in other activities supporting the film industry as president of the Hungarian Filmmakers’ Association and the head of the film school in Sarajevo. Tsai Ming-liang announced that he was abandoning feature filmmaking and focusing on short forms like his series of filmed performances of “slow walking”. Each of those films pictures Lee Kang-sheng (Tsai’s long-standing collaborator) dressed as a Buddhist monk and performing an extremely slow walk in a public place. Filmed with a distanced, immobile camera and without any trace of plot, this series marks a final stage of slow cinema’s pursuit of contemplation and the void. Before Tarr and Tsai, Abbas Kiarostami made a similar shift away from feature filmmaking, realizing a series of highly experimental films in the mid-2000s but then moving back to more conventional filmmaking with his final projects completed before his death in 2016: Copie conforme (2010) and Like Someone in Love (2012) (both made notably outside Iran).

This sliding toward a more conventional mode of cinema becomes another sign of neomodernism’s demise. Some directors abandon their line of radical experimentation, trying to make their aesthetics more accessible for wider audiences by using more traditional narration (like Kiarostami, mentioned above) or TV-series formula (Bruno Dumont in the clearly self-parodistic Li’l Quinquin [2014]), or casting well-known actors (like Viggo Mortensen in Alonso’s Jauja [2014] or Juliette Binoche in Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915 [2013] and Slack Bay [2016]).

Finally, an unexpected and paradoxical threat to neomodernism’s identity and stability might derive from its own success. Growing festival acclaim (sealed by such achievements as the Palme d’or for Uncle Boonmee… in 2010, the Venice Golden Lion for Sokurov’s Faust in 2011 and the Silver Bear in Berlin for Tarr’s The Turin Horse earlier the same year) triggered an increased popularity of neomodern aesthetics among viewers, festival programmers, and directors. Consequently, more and more weight accrues to opinions such as that of Steven Shaviro, who criticized slow cinema on his blog as “a sort of default international style that signifies ‘serious art cinema’ without having to display any sort of originality or insight. ‘Contemplative cinema’ has become a cliché: it has outlived the time in which it was refreshing or inventive”.[39]

Will this emergence of “slow-kitsch” become the end of neomodern cinema? It is possible: every film movement of great importance (and in my opinion neomodernism is such a movement) finally reaches the point of mannerist self-pastiche (some examples of slow cinema parody can be observed already, as in the case of Sergio Caballero’s La distancia/The Distance [2014]). Nevertheless, a turning point like the one we are witnessing right now is perhaps the best moment to capture the movement’s specificity and examine it more carefully. This article is a modest attempt to identify the neomodernist movement in contemporary cinema, and its aim is only to inspire more detailed studies.

References

 

Badt Karin, Interview With Winner of Cannes Festival: Thai Director Weerasethakul Speaks About Reincarnation, Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/karin-badt/interview-with-winner-of_b_587179.html, date accessed 17 February 2015.

Bayraktari Armando, Durand André, Norwood-Witts Scott, Neomodern Manifesto. Paintings, quadri, tabelaux, https://www.durand-gallery.com/pages/manifesto, date accessed 17 February 2015.

Beumers Birgit and Condee Nancy (eds.), The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov (London and New York: I.B. Tauris) (2011).

Bourriaud Nicolas, The Death of Postmodernism and Emergence of Altermodernism, http://www.psfk.com/2009/02/the-death-of-postmodernism-and-emergence-of-altermodernism.html, date accessed 17 February 2015.

Bordwell David, „The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice”, Film Criticism 4:1 (1979).

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

Deleuze Gilles, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson, Barbara Habberjam (London: Continuum) (2007).

Desser David, Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (1988).

Eco Umberto, Reflections on The Name of the Rose, trans. William Weaver (London: Minerva) (1994).

Elsaesser Thomas, „Stop/Motion”, in Between the Stilness and Motion: Film, Photography and Algorythms, ed. Eivind Røssaak, (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press) (2011).

Fokkema Douwe Wessel, Literary history, modernism, and postmodernism (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: J. Benjamins Pub. Co.) (1984).

Friedman Susan Stanford, „Periodizing Modernism: Postcolonial Modernities and the Space/Time Borders of Modernist Studies”, Modernism/modernity 13:3 (2006).

Gaudreault André, „Narration and Monstration in the Cinema”, Journal of Film and Video 39:2 (1987).

Grauer Victor, „Modernism/Postmodernism/Neomodernism”, Downtown Review 3:1-2, (1981-82).

Greenberg Clement, „Beginnings of Modernism” in Late Writings, ed. Robert C. Morgan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (2003).

Han Qijun, „Melodrama as Vernacular Modernism in China: The Case of D. W. Griffith”, Scope: An Online Journal of Film and Television Studies 26 (2013).

Hansen Miriam, „The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism”, Modernism/modernity 6:3 (1999).

Horton Andrew (ed.), The Last Modernist: The Films of Theo Angelopoulos (Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press) (1997).

Jaffe Ira, Slow movies: Countering the cinema of action (New York: Wallflower Press) (2014).

Jameson Frederic, „Postmodernism and Consumer Society”, in Postmodernism and Its Discontents, ed. E. Ann Kaplan (London: Verso) (1988).

Jencks Charles, The new moderns: From late to neo-modernism (New York: Rizzoli) (1990).

Kovács András Bálint, Screening modernism: European Art Cinema 1950-1980 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press) (2007).

Kovács András Bálint, The Cinema of Béla Tarr: The Circle Closes (London and New York: Wallflower Press) (2013).

Kupfer Peter, „Volga-Volga: “The Story of a Song,” Vernacular Modernism, and the Realization of Soviet Music”, The Journal of Musicology 30:4 (Fall 2013).

Lyotard Jean-François, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (1984).

Menichini Marc, Interview: Apichatpong Weerasethakul Recalls His Past Films and Future Plans, Criticwire, http://blogs.indiewire.com/criticwire/interview-apichatpong-weerasethakul-recalls-his-past-films-and-future-plans, date accessed 17 February 2015.

Neale Steve, „Art Cinema as Institution”, Screen 1:22 (1981).

Orr John, Cinema and Modernity, (London: Polity Press) (1993).

Peranson Mark and Rithdee Kong, Ghost in the Machine: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Letter to Cinema, Cinema Scope, http://cinema-scope.com/spotlight/spotlight-ghost-in-the-machine-apichatpong-weerasethakuls-letter-to-cinema/, date accessed 17 February 2015.

Romney Jonathan, „In Search of Lost Time”, Sight & Sound, 20:2 (2010).

Shaviro Steven, Slow Cinema Vs Fast Films, http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=891, date accessed 17 February 2015.

Singer Ben, Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts (New York: Columbia University Press) (2001).

Song Hwee Lim, Tsai Ming-liang and a Cinema of Slowness (Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press) (2014).

Syska Rafał, Filmowy neomodernizm (Kraków: Avalon) (2014).

Szaniawski Jeriemi, The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox (New York: Wallflower Press/Columbia University Press) (2014).

Turim Maureen, „Cinemas of Modernity and Postmodernity”, in Zeitgeist in Babel: The Postmodernist Controversy, ed. Ingeborg Hoesterey (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (1991).

[1]    See John Orr, Cinema and Modernity, (London: Polity Press, 1993).

[2]    András Bálint Kovács, Screening modernism: European Art Cinema 1950-1980 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

[3]    Kovács, Screening modernism, p. 52.

[4]    Miriam Hansen, ‘The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism’, Modernism/modernity, vol. 6, no. 3 (1999), pp. 59-77.

[5]    It has been used to describe, among others, Soviet socialist realist cinema (Peter Kupfer, ‘Volga-Volga: “The Story of a Song,” Vernacular Modernism, and the Realization of Soviet Music’, The Journal of Musicology Vol. 30, No. 4 (Fall 2013), pp. 530-576.) and silent Chinese films (Qijun Han, ‘Melodrama as Vernacular Modernism in China: The Case of D. W. Griffith’, Scope: An Online Journal of Film and Television Studies, no. 26 (2013), pp. 18.).

[6]    Hansen, ‘The Mass Production of the Senses’, p. 60.

[7]    Ben Singer, Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), pp. 102-103.

[8]    Hansen, ‘The Mass Production of the Senses’, p. 68.

[9]    See David Bordwll, ‘The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice’, Film Criticism, vol. 4, no 1 (Fall 1979), pp. 56-64.  The expanded version of this text formed a basis for one of the chapters in Bordwell’s famous book-length study on narration. See David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985).

[10]  See Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson, Barbara Habberjam (London: Continuum, 2007).

[11]  Kovács, Screening modernism, p. 59.

[12]  Orr, Cinema and Modernity, p. 3.

[13]  Orr, Cinema and Modernity, p. 12.

[14]  Kovács, Screening modernism, p. 21.

[15]  Steve Neale, ‘Art Cinema as Institution’, Screen 1 (22) (1981), pp. 11-40.

[16]  Rafał Syska, Filmowy neomodernizm (Kraków: Avalon, 2014).

[17]  Jonathan Romney, ‘In Search of Lost Time’, Sight & Sound, vol. 20, no. 2 (2010), p. 43.

[18]  Thomas Elsaesser, ‘Stop/Motion’, in Eivind Røssaak (ed.), Between the Stilness and Motion: Film, Photography and Algorythms (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2011), p. 117.

[19]  See André Gaudreault, ‘Narration and Monstration in the Cinema’, Journal of Film and Video, Vol. 39, No. 2 (1987), pp. 29-36.

[20]  Maureen Turim, ‘Cinemas of Modernity and Postmodernity’, in Ingeborg Hoesterey (ed.), Zeitgeist in Babel: The Postmodernist Controversy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), p. 183.

[21]  For visual arts, see Armando Bayraktari, André Durand, Scott Norwood-Witts, Neomodern Manifesto. Paintings, quadri, tabelaux, accessed February 17, 2015, https://www.durand-gallery.com/pages/manifesto. For architecture, see Charles Jencks, The new moderns: From late to neo-modernism (New York: Rizzoli, 1990).

[22]  Victor Grauer, ‘Modernism/Postmodernism/Neomodernism’, Downtown Review, Vol. 3 Nos. 1&2, (1981-82), pp. 3-7.

[23]  Umberto Eco, Reflections on The Name of the Rose, trans. William Weaver (London: Minerva, 1994), especially pp. 67-68;  Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), especially chapter Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?, pp. 71-82.

[24]  Douwe Wessel Fokkema, Literary history, modernism, and postmodernism (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: J. Benjamins Pub. Co., 1984).

[25]  Turim, ‘Cinemas of Modernity and Postmodernity’, p. 182.

[26]  Andrew Horton (ed.), The Last Modernist: The Films of Theo Angelopoulos (Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press, 1997).

[27]  Frederic Jameson, ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’, in E. Ann Kaplan (ed.), Postmodernism and Its Discontents (London: Verso, 1988), pp. 13-29.

[28]  Kovács, Screening modernism, p. 140.

[29]  Clement Greenberg, ‘Beginnings of Modernism’ in Late Writings, ed. Robert C. (Morgan Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), p. 35.

[30]  Kovács, Screening modernism, p. 217.

[31]  Dyan Desser in his seminar work used the category “modernism” (as opposed to classicism) to describe New Wave movies of Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura and others. Dyan Desser, Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988).

[32]  Marc Menichini, Interview: Apichatpong Weerasethakul Recalls His Past Films and Future Plans, Criticwire,

     accessed February 17, 2015, http://blogs.indiewire.com/criticwire/interview-apichatpong-weerasethakul-recalls-his-past-films-and-future-plans

[33]  Mark Peranson and Kong Rithdee, Ghost in the Machine: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Letter to Cinema, Cinema Scope, accessed February 17, 2015, http://cinema-scope.com/spotlight/spotlight-ghost-in-the-machine-apichatpong-weerasethakuls-letter-to-cinema/

[34]  Karin Badt, Interview With Winner of Cannes Festival: Thai Director Weerasethakul Speaks About Reincarnation,

     Huffington Post, accessed February 17, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/karin-badt/interview-with-winner-of_b_587179.html

[35]  Susan Stanford Friedman, ‘Periodizing Modernism: Postcolonial Modernities and the Space/Time Borders of Modernist Studies’, Modernism/modernity, vol. 13, no 3 (2006), p. 426.

[36]  Nicolas Bourriaud, The Death of Postmodernism and Emergence of Altermodernism, accessed February 17, 2015, http://www.psfk.com/2009/02/the-death-of-postmodernism-and-emergence-of-altermodernism.html

[37]  Ira Jaffe, Slow movies: Countering the cinema of action (New York: Wallflower Press, 2014).

[38]  András Bálint Kovács, The Cinema of Béla Tarr: The Circle Closes (London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2013); Song Hwee Lim, Tsai Ming-liang and a Cinema of Slowness (Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 2014); Birgit Beumers and Nancy Condee (eds.), The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2011); Jeremi Szaniawski, The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox (New York: Wallflower Press/Columbia University Press, 2014); Only Abbas Kiarostami enjoyed greater attention from film scholars with first monographs being published already in the early 2000s.

[39]  Steven Shaviro, Slow Cinema Vs Fast Films, accessed February 17, 2015, http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=891

Miłosz Stelmach is a PHD candidate at the Institute of Audiovisual Arts at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. His scholarly interests include the history of cinematic modernism, cinema of the Communist bloc, and transformations of contemporary art cinema. Currently, he is working on his dissertation on late modernist tendencies in Polish cinema of the 1970s and 1980s. He is also an editor of “EKRANy” [“SCREENs”], a scholarly journal on film and audiovisual culture.

Mexican Minimalist Cinema: Articulating the (Trans)national

Bolesław Racięski

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 118-131

Bolesław Racięski

Jagiellonian University

 

Mexican Minimalist Cinema: Articulating the (Trans)national

 

Abstract

In the article I aim to identify and analyse the specific elements of the Mexican minimalistic cinema (minimalismo mexicano) in both transnational and national contexts.

Mexican minimalistic cinema is a relatively new phenomenon that arose in Mexico around the year 2002 and is now widely regarded as one of the most important phenomena in the world cinema. It is often considered to be a subdivision of slow cinema, since it utilises similar formal and narrative devices. While the researchers generally focus on the universal, supranational aspects of the slow films, I intend to expose how the Mexican filmmakers make use of the aesthetic and storytelling devices deriving from the slow cinema to comment on Mexican cultural traditions, current social and political issues, notions of national mythologies and history.

The first part of the article focuses on the category of „transnationality” in the context of film studies, and the basic characteristics of Mexican minimalist cinema as the transnational cinema. The last part is devoted to the analyses of „Heli” (2013, dir. Amat Escalante) and „Lake Tahoe” (2009, dir. Fernando Eimbcke) – the two examples of Mexican minimalist films that, despite their transnational appeal, are deeply rooted in national preoccupations.

Key words: transnationality, Mexican cinema, Amat Escalante, Fernando Eimbcke, slow cinema, minimalism

 

Introduction

 In the following article I identify and analyse the elements of Mexican minimalist cinema (minimalismo mexicano) in both transnational and national contexts. The most interesting aspect of the topic appears to be the question of how Mexican minimalist films utilize stylistic and storytelling strategies that are commonly identified with the transnational phenomenon of slow cinema[1] in order to comment on strictly Mexican cultural traditions, current social and political issues, the notions of national mythologies, and cinematic traditions.

I start by explaining how I understand the category of transnationality and why it seems fitting to use it in the examination and interpretation of Mexican minimalist films. The next part of the text focuses on the basic characteristics of Mexican minimalism as transnational cinema and simultaneously constitutes a revision of the most relevant characteristics of slow cinema. The last part is devoted to the analysis of two representative examples of minimalismo mexicano: Heli (2013) by Amat Escalante and Lake Tahoe (2009) by Fernando Eimbcke. These two movies, despite their transnational appeal, are rooted in national preoccupations and encompass two extremities of a wide spectrum of Mexican minimalist cinema. Lake Tahoe is rather comical in tone and its national concerns are hidden underneath an apparently simple narrative. On the other hand, Heli tells a grim and shocking story, which is clearly engaged with the current problems of Mexico.

The term “minimalismo mexicano” appeared in Mexican film criticism at the beginning of the 21st century, mainly thanks to the artistic success of such filmmakers as Carlos Reygadas (e.g. Japón, 2002), Amat Escalante (e.g. Sangre, 2005), Enrique Rivero (e.g. Parque vía, 2008), Nicolás Pereda (e.g. Perpetuum Mobile, 2009) and Fernando Eimbcke (e.g. Temporada de patos, 2004)[2]. This term does not determine a clearly structured film movement, but mainly refers to directors’ admiration for aesthetic minimalism and nondramatic narratives deprived of climaxes and focused primarily on an individual.

It is also possible to use this term in the context of the production process: the discussed films were made for a (relatively) small amount of money and mainly feature amateur actors and unknown beginners. At the same time, it is noteworthy that—as observed by Germán Martínez Martínez—the discussed term is not homogenous and refers to films of comedic character (Eimbcke’s oeuvre) as well as to those which penetrate the dark side of human existence[3]. Nevertheless, their clearly visible common features undoubtedly allow for a conceptualization of these individual films as a group. The discussed films are created on the margins of the dynamically developing Mexican film industry and—even if they sometimes appeal to the wider audience (e.g. Temporada de patos, 2004, Fernando Eimbcke)—they are mostly screened at international festivals of art cinema.

The question of ‘transantionality’

In the article “On the Plurality of Cinematic Transnationalism,” Mette Hjort accurately observes that this particular term is surrounded by an “aura of indisputable legitimacy” (by virtue of widespread „transnational arrangements in the world of contemporary filmmaking, and the undeniable transnational dimensions of earlier periods of cinematic production”), which, however, threatens to blur the definition and, consequently, render the term useless as a methodological tool. Hjort claims that „the term <<transnational>> does little to advance our thinking (…) if it can mean anything and everything”[4]. Will Higbee and Song Hwee Lim remark that the term ‘transnational cinema’ is sometimes employed in order to talk about productions created as a result of cooperation between filmmakers from different parts of the world; however, in this case the crucial aesthetic, political, and economic consequences of such cooperation are neglected[5]. Deborah Shaw also says that the problematic term “has often been used without any definition or explanation of what it meant”[6]. The prevalence and the inaccurateness of the term made some researchers question its usefulness in film studies[7].

Due to the threat of methodological uncertainty, it is helpful to consider M. Hjort’s proposal to distinguish between strongly transnational cinema and weakly transnational cinema. She writes that a “given cinematic case would qualify as strongly transnational, rather than only weakly so, if it could be shown to involve a number of specific transnational elements related to levels of production, distribution, reception, and the cinematic works themselves”[8]. Another division is the one distinguishing marked transnationality (the audience pays attention to elements of a film which prompt thinking about its transnational character) and unmarked transnationality (for example, transnationality is not visible until the production process has been analysed)[9]. The present article lacks space for a complex research on transnational aspects of production, distribution, and exhibition of minimalismo mexicano, since it is the analysis of the film text itself which lies at the centre of my attention. Nonetheless, it is important to reflect briefly upon it, in order to demonstrate that many Mexican minimalist films involve forms of the unmarked transnationality and are frequently close to being considered as strongly transnational.

Mexican minimalist cinema as the transnational cinema: production, distribution, exhibition

In terms of the production process, Mexican minimalism is largely dependent on foreign funds. Neoliberal transformations which started to take place in the national film industry at the end of the 1980s led to a situation in which the state virtually stopped supporting non-commercial films. Independent production companies gradually started to emerge (in the middle of the 1990s the art cinema market in Mexico was small, but relatively stable[10]), which, at the beginning of the current century, commenced with the financial support offered by international festivals. Carlos Reygadas and Amat Escalante’s projects are backed by the Hubert Bals Fund (Rotterdam International Film Festival), which also helps other Mexican filmmakers, such as Nicolás Pereda. On the other hand, Fernando Eimbcke was supported by the Sundance Film Festival when he was working on Lake Tahoe. In search for funds, filmmakers take abundant advantage of the possibilities offered in cooperation with other countries, e.g. Amat Escalante’s Heli is a coproduction of entities from four countries, namely Mexico, the Netherlands, France and Germany[11]. Even if certain state mechanisms created to support ambitious artistic productions have been introduced in Mexico (FOPROCINE fund, tax exemption for film investors), many authors of minimalismo are still forced to look for funds around the world.

If a film has been produced, the creators are usually confronted with an inability to release it in Mexico. As the critic Jorge Ayala Blanco observes, the total number of 75 produced films per year is inconsequential if only 45 of them are ever released to cinemas[12]. The director Felipe Cazals compares the situation of the national cinema to “an airport which is deprived of a landing strip”: films are numerous, but few of them are later shown on the big screen to national audiences[13]. As remarked by Ayala Blanco, the production of Mexican cinema is “the worst business in the world” as recovering the money is still almost impossible[14]. Therefore, minimalismo directors have always focused on the international release, which means that films premier at international festivals (Cannes, Berlinale, Sundance, Rotterdam) in order to get foreign distribution firms (Media Luna and others) and reach international audiences. They frequently appear in Mexican cinemas at the end of their journey and in a minimal number of copies, screened mostly in the Cineteca Nacionál complex.

Hence, minimalismo mexicano has undoubtedly a transnational character in terms of production, distribution, and exhibition: the films are often created thanks to international financial support with the goal of reaching audiences around the world.

Mexican minimalist cinema as transnational cinema: style and narrative

The analysis of formal conventions and themes of the discussed films reveals various common characteristics which allow them to qualify them as representatives of the same cinematic phenomenon. Regarding the formal features of the film, there are visibly reduced means of expression: a limited number of editing cuts, deliberately arranged static takes, the absence of soundtrack (which often appears only during the end credits), simplified blocking, location shooting, and inconspicuous lighting.

In regards to narrative, Mexican minimalist films usually focus on individuals, frequently lonely and excluded from mainstream social life and consumed by a poignant fatalism[15] . The stories told by the creators of minimalismo are extremely slow and frequently deprived of clear act breaks, plot twists and climaxes. De-dramatizing techniques dominate, such as pauses and long moments of stillness.

Even such a superficial description of the basic aspects of minimalismo allows it to be associated with slow cinema: a transnational phenomenon, represented by directors from various countries (e.g. China, Argentina, Hungary, Thailand), who make their films thanks to the support of foreign funds, and aim to screen them at international festivals of art cinema. Moira Weigel characterizes slow films as follows: “their narratives are nondramatic or non-existent. The scripts are minimal and repetitive, with little dialogue. They unfold in long takes, captured by still or nearly still cameras. Often the figures in the frames stay still themselves”[16]. The Mexican film movement parallels the characteristics of modernist minimalism, described by András Bálint Kovács, whose contemporary manifestations the scholar finds in slow films[17]. Matthew Flanagan writes about the themes the creators touch upon: “Many individual works by these filmmakers turn their attention to marginal peoples (low-paid manual labourers, poor farmers, the unemployed and dispossessed, petty criminals and drug addicts) subsisting in remote or invisible places”[18]. It is worth emphasising that many scholars researching the phenomenon of slow cinema devote their attention to the authors of Mexican minimalism, mainly Amat Escalante and Carlos Reygadas[19].

Therefore, even if particular representative films of minimalismo mexicano do not fulfil the conditions of transnationality in terms of production, their formal features and themes can easily be identified with a phenomenon of international character. Escalante and Reygadas (as well as Rivera, Eimbcke, Pereda, Yulene Olaizola, and others) use almost all cinematic techniques that are currently treated as artistic and cherished by programmers of international film festivals. They employ codes easily understood by audiences familiar with slow cinema. As a result, when it comes to the reception and critical interpretations of these films, they are commonly situated in the well-established art cinema traditions, compared to the (mostly European) masters of art cinema, and read as touching upon universal thematic motifs (such as notions of spirituality, religiousness, search for transcendence). As noted by Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover, “in mainstream film criticism, films are often lauded as universal stories in order to reduce the threat of unpleasurable difference”[20]. Although I agree with R. Galt and K. Schoonover, who argue that the “move toward the universal does not always have to be simple or naive” and “the problem of universality in art cinema is too complicated to be addressed by a simple dismissal”[21], the most interesting approach seems to be the one which shows how these transnational filmic strategies have been used to articulate the themes and problems directly related to the cultural circle in which the analysed films were made.

The cultural specificity of Mexican minimalist cinema

Minimalismo mexicano is close to being considered as strongly transnational in M. Hjort`s terms: it undoubtedly has a transnational character in regards to production, distribution, exhibition, and formal features. Nevertheless, it fulfils M. Hjort’s condition, which is “a resistance to globalization as cultural homogenization; and a commitment to ensuring that certain economic realities associated with filmmaking do not eclipse the pursuit of aesthetic, artistic, social, and political values”[22]. Mexican minimalists are mainly astute and ruthless commentators of local reality, and only later are they representatives of the transnational phenomenon of art cinema.

It is worth stressing that I perceive the application of filmic strategies and themes associated with slow cinema by Mexican directors as a parallel process and not as a process simply resulting from contact with the achievements of the slow cinema world masters. Associated with slow films, the anthropological turn of cinema, i.e. focus on an individual, started in Latin America in the 1990s and was partly a result of the search for new paradigms of national identity, different from the clearly political “third cinema”, which was concerned mainly with the collective[23]. This minimalistic, contemplative style is used nowadays by directors from the biggest film industries of Latin America. Hence, it is not surprising that it has become an exquisite language used to talk about Mexico. The director Michel Lipkes remarks that “in such a baroque and anarchistic country like Mexico, the act of contemplation is the only way to stop for a moment and to ask some bold questions about the shape of the world surrounding us”[24].

Minimalismo is at the same time engaged with the national traditions and politics of Mexican audio-visual culture. This cinematic phenomenon enters a polemic both against the excessive aestheticization and ideological simplifications of the so-called época de oro, i.e. the golden age of Mexican cinema (dating back to the 1940s, but still present in the popular discourse),