Category Archives: DVD

the indeterminate dvd

On a clear day, Guy Maddin might be my favorite living film maker. He’s not to everyone’s taste (The Heart of the World, complete on YouTube, is a good litmus test), and I won’t attempt to convert the unbelievers. But anyone who would decide that Knut Hamsun’s Pan should be a Vaseline-lensed movie set on an ostrich farm inside the earth (Twilight of the Ice Nymphs) or who is making a movie about Raymond Roussel with John Ashbery can’t expect me to be rational and objective about what they do. Regardless of my sympathies, his work is formally interesting, and I think it bears scrutiny if we’re interested in how artistic forms change with technology.
While not entirely uncommercial, Maddin’s films set out to take filmmaking apart to its component pieces. Much of his work mines the aesthetic of the silent era of film making, particularly the German Expressionists, with grainy, high-contrast imagery, prominent use of intertitles, and grandly theatrical acting. Watching Maddin’s work reminds us that the form we know as the feature film is very much a constructed form, and we, as its audience have learned to read it. This is something we generally forget – the feature film has been around longer than just about anyone has been alive, and it’s as much a part of our mental furniture as the novel or the poem. But this wasn’t always so – in his autobiography, Luis Buñuel recalls watching early films in Spain:

In addition to the traditional piano player, each theatre in Saragossa was equipped with its explicador, or narrator, who stood next to the screen and ‘explained’ the action to the audience. ‘Count Hugo sees his wife go by on the arm of another man,’ he would declaim. ‘And now, ladies and gentlemen, you will see how he opens the drawer of his desk and takes out a revolver to assassinate his unfaithful wife!’

It’s hard to imagine today, but when the cinema was in its infancy, it was such a new and unusual narrative form that most spectators had difficulty understanding what was happening. Now we’re so used to film language, to the elements of montage, to both simultaneous and successive action, to flashbacks, that our comprehension is automatic; but in the early years, the public had a hard time deciphering this new pictorial grammar. They needed an explicador to guide them from scene to scene.

I’ll never forget, for example, everyone’s terror when we saw our first zoom. There on the screen was a head coming closer and closer, growing larger and larger. We simply couldn’t understand that the camera was moving nearer to the head, or that because of trick photography (as in Méliès’s films), the head only appeared to grow larger. All we saw was a head coming toward us, swelling hideously out of all proportion. Like Saint Thomas the Apostle, we believed in the reality of what we saw.

(My Last Sigh, trans. Abigail Israel, p. 32–33.) Maddin has resurrected this idea of the explicador in his most recent films, a loose biographical trilogy about his youth in Winnipeg – Cowards Bend the Knee (about, roughly: ice hockey; beauty parlors; abortion clinics: Sarah Palin avant la lettre); Brand Upon the Brain! (orphanages; young detectives; gender confusion); and My Winnipeg (sleepwalking; urban development; nostalgia). Brand Upon the Brain! is the most ambitious of the three: for the release of this film last year, Maddin mounted a theatrical production, where musicians provided a live soundtrack, foley artists reproduced the film’s sound effects, and an interlocutor narrated the film.
Watching the film this way is a disorienting experience: the audience sees the film and is drawn into the suspension of disbelief elicited by film. But between the audience and the screen are those creating the sounds that are part of the experience: while on the screen the audience sees a man going up the stairs, the audience can’t avoid seeing the foley artists who are making the noises of the man going up the stairs. The Russian Formalists would have called this estrangement.
Brand Upon the Brain! has just been released on DVD by Criterion; watching it in this form is a very different sort of experience. Of necessity, it’s a reduction of the richness of sensory experience of watching a live production. (Watching a movie on DVD rather than with an audience in a theater is always a different experience. In a theater, we are part of an audience and should behave in a certain way: generally, we don’t shout at the screen, or answer telephones in the midst of things, for example, because we are conscious that we’re part of an audience and have been socialized to behave properly.) One can’t fault Maddin or the Criterion Collection for this: movies are, of course, supposed to make money, not everyone could go to the live performances, and sometimes, Russian Formalists be damned, we don’t want to think about estrangement so much as we want to watch a movie.
But it’s still worth watching Brand Upon the Brain! on DVD. In a nod to the film’s original production, the DVD contains eight different soundtracks – three different narrators recorded in a studio, and five different narrators recorded in live performances in New York. The film thus viewed can be very different – as a sample, here’s a scene from near the beginning with three different narrators. First is the default choice, Guy Maddin recorded in a studio:

then John Ashbery, again recorded live:

then Isabella Rossellini, recorded live:

What the viewer sees is the same; but even though the narrators say the same things, what the viewer hears is very different. Maddin sounds bored and dismissive of his imagined biography; Ashbery sounds like your crazy uncle; Rossellini sounds like she’s been brought in from some wildly different film, possibly a European imagining of things are in Canada. It’s worth emphasizing that the music and sound effects in these three clips are different, as they’ve been recorded live in the Rossellini and Ashbery performances.
This DVD is an odd artifact: the film that it presents is in a sense indeterminate, presenting multiple possible films. It’s a trick that I’ve never seen exploited before, which is strange: multiple soundtracks for a film have been possible since the Laserdisc appeared thirty years ago. This particular aspect of the DVD is not new; it’s just something that it’s taken artists a long time to explore. It’s odd, really, that at a point in time when more movies are viewed on DVD than in theaters more films aren’t targeted as specifically to that viewing environment. It’s also striking to me how slowly technology changes. Criterion’s Brand Upon the Brain! could effectively have been released on Laserdisc: granted, DVDs are more convenient than Laserdiscs, but there’s nothing tremendously different in the possibilities for presentation. Blu-Ray, the designated successor to the DVD, promises a Java support, enabling more complex features, though no one seems particularly excited about a new physical format for movies, and I imagine that it will be years before anyone does anything interesting with this. Technology doesn’t wait for our ability to work constructively with it.

blu-ray, amazon, and our mediated technology dependent lives

A couple of recent technology news items got me thinking about media and proprietary hardware. One was the New York Times report of Sony’s problems with its HD-DVD technology, Blu-Ray, which is causing them to delay the release of their next gaming system, the PS3. The other item was Amazon’s intention of entering the music subscription business in the Wall Street Journal.
The New York Times gives a good overview on the up coming battle of hardware formats for the next generation of high definition DVD players. It is the Betamax VHS war from the 80s all over again. This time around Sony’s more expensive / more capacity standard is pitted against Toshiba’s cheaper but limited HD-DVD standard. It is hard to predict an obvious winner, as Blu-Ray’s front runner position has been weaken by the release delays (implying some technical challenges) and the recent backing of Toshiba’s standard by Microsoft (and with them, ally Intel follows.) Last time around, Sony also bet on the similarly better but more expensive Betamax technology and lost as consumers preferred the cheaper, lesser quality of VHS. Sony is investing a lot in their Blu-Ray technology, as the PS3 will be founded upon Blu-Ray. The standards battle in the move from VHS to DVD was avoided because Sony and Philips decided to scrap their individual plans of releasing a DVD standard and they agreed to share in the revenue of licensing of the Toshiba / Warner Brothers standard. However, Sony feels that creating format standards is an area of consumer electronics where they can and should dominate. Competing standards is nothing new, and date back to at least to the decision of AC versus DC electrical current. (Edison’s preferred DC lost out to Westinghouses’ AC.) Although, it does provide confusion for consumers who must decide which technology to invest in, with the potential danger that it may become obsolete in a few years.
On another front, Amazon also recently announced their plans to release their own music player. In this sphere, Amazon is looking to compete with iTunes and Apple’s dominance in the music downloading sector. Initially, Apple surprised everyone with the foray into the music player and download market. What was even more surprising was they were able to pull it off, shown by their recent celebration of the 1 billionth downloaded song. Apple continues to command the largest market share, while warding off attempts from the likes of Walmart (the largest brick and mortar music retailer in the US.) Amazon is pursuing a subscription based model, sensing that Napster has failed to gain much traction. Because Amazon customers already pay for music, they will avoid Napster’s difficult challenge of convincing their millions of previous users to start paying for a service that they once had for free, albeit illegally. Amazon’s challenge will be to persuade people to rent their music from Amazon, rather than buy it outright. Both Real and Napster only have a fraction of Apple’s customers, however the subscription model does have higher profit margins than the pay per song of iTunes.
It is a logical step for Amazon, who sells large numbers of CDs, DVDs and portable music devices (including iPods.) As more people download music, Amazon realizes that it needs to protect its markets. In Amazon’s scheme, users can download as much music as they want, however, if they cancel their subscription, the music will no longer play on their devices. The model tests to see if people are willing to rent their music, just like they rent DVDs from Netflix or borrow books from the library. I would feel troubled if I didn’t outright own my music, however, I can see the benefits of subscribing to access music and then buying the songs that I liked. However, it appears that if you will not be able to store and play your own MP3s on the Amazon player and the iPod will certainly not be able to use Amazon’s service. Amazon and partner Samsung must create a device compelling enough for consumers drop their iPods. Because the iPod will not be compatible with Amazon’s service, Amazon may be forced to sell the players at heavy discounts or give them to subscribers for free, in a similar fashion to the cell phone business model. The subscription music download services have yet to create a player with any kind of social or technical cachet comparable to the cultural phenomenon of the iPod. Thus, the design bar has been set quite high for Amazon and Samsung. Amazon’s intentions highlight the issue of proprietary content and playback devices.
While all these companies jockey for position in the marketplace, there is little discussion on the relationship between wedding content to a particular player or reader. Print, painting, and photography do not rely on a separate device, in that the content and the displayer of the content, in other words the vessel, are the same thing. In the last century, the vessel and the content of media started to become discreet entities. With the development of transmitted media of recorded sound, film and television, content required a player and different manufacturers could produce vessels to play the content. Further, these new vessels inevitably require electricity. However, standards were formed so that a television could play any channel and the FM radio could play any FM station. Because technology is developing at a much faster rate, the battle for standards occur more frequently. Vinyl records reigned for decades where as CDs dominated for about ten years before MP3s came along. Today, a handful of new music compression formats are vying to replace MP3. Furthermore, companies from Microsoft and Adobe to Sony and Apple appear more willing to create proprietary formats which require their software or hardware to access content.
As more information and media (and in a sense, ourselves) migrate to digital forms, our reliance on often proprietary software and hardware for viewing and storage grows steadily. This fundamental shift on the ownership and control of content radically changes our relationship to media and these change receive little attention. We must be conscious of the implied and explicit contracts we agree to, as information we produce and consume is increasingly mediated through technology. Similarly, as companies develop vertical integration business models, they enter into media production, delivery, storage and playback. These business models create the temptation to start creating to their own content, and perhaps give preferential treatment to their internally produced media. (Amazon also has plans to produce and broadcast an Internet show with Bill Maher and various guests.) Both Amazon and Blu-Ray HD-DVD are just current examples content being tied to proprietary hardware. If information wants to be free, perhaps part of that freedom involves being independent from hardware and software.

the bible on dvd: another weird embodiment of the book on screen

The bible has long been a driver of innovation in book design, and this latest is no exception: an ad I saw today on TV for the complete King James Bible on DVD. Not a film, mind you, but an interactive edition of the old and new testaments built around a graphical rendering of an old bible open on a lectern that the reader, uh viewer, uh… reader controls. Each page is synched up to a full-text narration in the “crystal clear, mellow baritone” of Emmy-winning Bible reader Stephen Johnston, along with assorted other actors and dramatic sound effects bringing the stories to life.

There’s the ad to the right (though when I saw it on BET the family was black). You can also download an actual demo (Real format) here. It’s interesting to see the interactivity of the DVD used to mimic a physical book — even the package is designed to suggest the embossed leather of an old bible, opening up to the incongruous sight of a pair of shiny CDs. More than a few analogies could be drawn to the British Library’s manuscript-mimicking “Turning the Pages,” which Sally profiled here last week, though here the pages replace each other with much less fidelity to the real.
There’s no shortage of movie dramatizations aimed at making the bible more accessible to churchgoers and families in the age of TV and the net. What the makers of this DVD seem to have figured out is how to combine the couch potato ritual of television with the much older practice of group scriptural reading. Whether or not you’d prefer to read the bible in this way, with remote control in hand, you can’t deny that it keeps the focus on the text.
Last week, Jesse argued that it’s not technology that’s causing a decline in book-reading, but rather a lack of new technologies that make books readable in the new communications environment. He was talking about books online, but the DVD bible serves just as well to illustrate how a text (a text that, to say the least, is still in high demand) might be repurposed in the context of newer media.
Another great driver of innovation in DVDs: pornography. No other genre has made more creative use of the multiple camera views options that can be offered simulataneously on a single film in the DVD format (I don’t have to spell out what for). They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and what greater necessities than sex and god? You won’t necessarily find the world’s most elegant design, but it’s good to keep track of these uniquely high-demand areas as they are consistently ahead of the curve.


i. the text of light

a moth wing, from _mothlight_The filmmaker Stan Brakhage is one of those people whose work hangs in the back of my mind with a frequency well out of proportion to my actually engaging with his work. I first (and really, only, until recently) saw his films about seven years ago, when he introduced a marathon screening of what must have been almost his complete works. Hours later, I stumbled out of the theatre, knowing that this was someone whose work I should have seen years before, having seen on the screen something new to me, a new way of looking at the possibility of film. I’ve felt an analogous sensation with only a handful of artists and writers; I’ve found it again in the luminously fractured English of Amos Tutuola, Ray Johnson’s conceptual games of “correspondance”, and Michel Butor’s reimagining of the page and narrative.

some tiny flowers, from _mothlight_But Brakhage. His films tend to be short and silent. His editing, if it can be called such, is quick – often an image only shows for a frame, then it’s gone. In most of his films, he cuts quickly between shots; in some of his work he abandoned the camera entirely to work directly with the film stock itself, painting on it or gluing things to it. Jean-Luc Godard said that the cinema was the truth twenty-four times a second; rarely has this been so literally explicated as in Brakhage’s films. Mitchell Stephens, in The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word saw in the lighting-fast editing style that Brakhage introduced a possible future for communication. But Brakhage was following his own very particular muse. His aim, he declared in one of his later films, was to show on film what the eye sees when it is closed, the phenomenon of dancing spots of color that’s been termed hypnogogic vision.

a flower petal, from _mothlight_Mothlight, stills from which can be seen floating about this post, was one of the films that stuck most clearly in my mind. In it, Brakhage set out to show “what a moth might see from birth to death if black were white and white were black.” The ratio of the size of the moth to that of ourselves is roughly that of the size of a film negative to the blown up film; with this in mind, and a collection of dead moths that had flown into a light and perished, Brakhage composed a three-minute film, every frame of which is composed of things from the moth’s world: wings, plant leaves, and flowers. Brakhage pasted these objects directly onto the film stock. When the film is projected there’s a rush of images made unfamiliar by size: a moth wing or a flower twenty feet wide is something we’ve never seen before. Though constructed of objects that we imagine we know, the moth’s world as Brakhage depicts it is utterly foreign to us. Speed has a lot to do with it: the eye can’t possibly process twenty-four different images per second. The moth’s world is much faster than our own.

The memory of that flicker of images has stayed with me, as much for its ephemerality as anything else: I’d seen something briefly, not long enough to remember the images themselves, but long enough to remember the film more clearly than nearly anything else I saw that year.

ii. the act of seeing with one’s own eyes

a leaf, from _mothlight_The Criterion Collection released a two-DVD set of some of Brakhage’s films a few years ago, a year or so before he passed away and was briefly in the news again. I’m not sure why I held off buying a copy of the DVD: maybe a devotion to the ephemerality of memory? I did convince an old roommate, a painter, to buy his own copy soon after it was released: independently, he had been trying to capture with oils hypnogogic visions of his own. But I didn’t get a copy until a few weeks ago, when after finding him again in Mitchell Stephens’s book, I broke down for an online Christmas DVD sale. It arrived, and I inserted one of the discs into my Powerbook, curious to see how his films compared to my memory of them.

a flower, from _mothlight_Watching him the first time, I’d been supine before the screen. Watching him on my laptop was something different, something surprising. My first impulse after starting one of the films playing was the obvious one when something’s going too fast, but not an option that one has when you’re part of an audience: to hit the pause button. The moth wings, spider webs, flowers, and blades of grass instantly snap into startling focus: around every object, you can see the halo of glue that Brakhage used to hold it to the celluloid. Then another pleasant surprise: on the Apple DVD player, if you then press the right arrow button, you can advance one frame. Not another frame in the same shot, as one would expect in an ordinary film, but another image entirely, though sometimes, you realize, a connected object: in some frames one sees the top of a plant leaf, in the following, the bottom, exactly as Brakhage constructed the film. (Images of the film stock itself – not just screencaptures from the DVD – can be seen at critic Fred Camper’s website, which offers a dizzying amount of information on Stan Brakhage.)

Technically, this is not very exciting at all: pausing to see a crisp frame is just one of the niceties of the DVD that we’re all used to. But what this does to the viewer’s experience of the film is immeasurable. Instead of the imposed stricture of watching the images projected at 24 frames per second, you’re free to proceed through Brakhage’s frames at any rate you like – his film becomes something like a slide show. As great a change, though, is imparted to the viewer, who goes from being a passive recipient of speeding images to an active participant with control over what’s being shown.

a spider web, or something, from _mothlight_This isn’t, it’s worth pausing to consider, something that would have been possible with a VHS tape. Video didn’t respect the frames of film, and a paused VHS tape generally gives you a blurred and indistinct image. Presumably with a projector and a copy of the original films, you could do the same thing. (This would also resolve the incongruity of looking at images that are meant to have light projected through them rather than being composed of red, green, and blue blips of it, as on my computer screen.) Alas, not many of us have our own movie theater to try this out in. For the rest of us, this amount of control is something that arrives with new digital media, and deserves to be considered as a function of it.

From time to time, Bob talks to the programmers busy making Sophie about imagining film as being a book that’s flipping through 86,400 pages per hour. This sort of talk tends to throw them into conniptions (to paraphrase: nobody in their right mind thinks that way & how current processors don’t have nearly enough computational power and they probably won’t for the next fifty years). But despite their objections, that’s almost exactly what we have here, if not through design. It’s worth noting, of course, that the tools for reading film in this way aren’t yet perfect: while I can press the right arrow to advance a frame in my DVD player, I can’t, for some reason, press the left arrow to go back a frame: you have to rewind. I can’t look at several consecutive frames together without a fair amount of work. There’s more work for the programmers.

iii. mothlight

an iris, from _mothlight_Thinking about technology for the past month or so, I’ve often found myself in a mild funk, which might be the sort of thing one expects to set in around the end of the year, when I, at least, find myself wanting to neatly box the disjointed events of the past year to take up to the attic for storage. The crux of my worrying: while there’s clearly no shortage for ideas of new ways to say things – as even a cursory reading of this blog will readily attest – there seems to be a comparative paucity of new ways to understand things. Maybe this makes sense: people like novelty. It’s more exciting to announce something brand new and different than to find a new way to look at something familiar. Who can be bothered to care about a fourteenth way of looking at a blackbird when you can make your own genetically-modified fuchsia- and chartreuse-birds?

a flower, from _mothlight_My funk wasn’t straight misoneism: I’m all for new forms else I wouldn’t be working here. But if we’re to create new forms that resonate as strongly as the physical book has been able to historically – a project that I suspect Brakhage considered himself engaged in – it’s just as important to find new ways to understand how what we’ve created works. And this is I think why the simple gesture of hitting the “pause” button in the middle of a film feels like something of a revelation to me, puncturing my December miasma. It’s not a blinding Damascene conversion, and that’s perhaps the point: it’s a realization that there are plenty of possibilities for new ways to look at things. We just need to notice them.

The late Guy Davenport, one of Brakhage’s friends and a kindred spirit, defended the unity of some of his own work – short stories that included his own drawings as an integral part of the story – by arguing that text, picture, and film weren’t in opposition, but were all images alike:

“A page, which I think of as a picture, is essentially a texture of images. . . . The text of a story is therefore a continuous graph, kin to the imagist poem, to a collage (Ernst, Willi Baumeister, El Lissitzky), a page of Pound, a Brakhage film.”
(from “Ernst Machs Max Ernst”, pp. 374-5 in The Geography of the Imagination)

another flower, from _mothlight_Davenport’s declaration can be turned inside-out: we can now take a Brakhage film and read it as a series of pages. The word and the image still aren’t quite the same thing, but digital media allows us to think about them in some of the same ways. Watching with the pause button ready, we can scrutinize the composition of a single frame of film just as you might scrutinize an individual line or words in a poem, a page of a book.

Or again: historically, the coming of the book might be seen as freeing the reader from the dominion of time. The pre-literate can only listen to a text being read, while the literate is free to read at leisure. It’s a pause button, of a sort. Brakhage’s moth seems an apt tool for thinking here. I haven’t done the math, but I’d imagine the ratio of the length of a moth’s life to our own is about the same as the ratio of the moth’s size to our own. When we look at a moth, we see a being utterly bound by time. But it doesn’t have to be that way.