Tag Archives: media

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.

a problem

A screaming comes across the sky: the familiar roar of the growing Media Event, gathering power as it leaves the launchpad – the shootings at Virginia Tech – behind it. It has happened before, and it will happen again, and we know exactly how it will work: cover stories and TV coverage of Seung-Hui Cho will proliferate for the next few weeks, while journalists try furiously to get to the bottom of what caused this, feeling out the endless ramifications.
I don’t have any noteworthy opinions on Cho. I am, however, interested in the news cycle and how it impacts the way we think about the world we live in. This is something brought home last week by this post from Wonkette, which points out that 160 people were killed in Iraq at roughly the same time as the Virginia Tech massacre. The tone is crass, but I think it’s on target: Iraqbodycount.org estimates that 700 people died in Iraq last week, over twenty times the number killed in Virginia. That’s not a ratio reflected by coverage in the American media: looking at the front pages of The New York Times for the past week, I find seven stories on Cho, two on deaths in Iraq. It’s a strange and problematic disparity when you think about it. While it’s difficult to predict where and when the next school shooting will occur, there’s a high probability that a similarly high number of people will die in Iraq in the coming week. Predictability doesn’t translate into preventability, but there’s some correlation: we can still do something about Iraq.
The media is very good at reporting on sharply punctuated events (the death of Anna Nicole Smith; the rise and fall of Sanjaya; French politics when there’s an election happening). The news cycle feeds on novelty. I’m sure in the weeks to come we’ll learn more than we ever wanted to about the sad life of Cho. The media’s not very good at reporting on things that go on for a long time: as the war in Iraq grinds past its fourth anniversary, it’s hard for anyone to get excited about what’s happening there, no matter how horrific they are. Any number of similar long-standing issues are similarly poorly served: when was the last time you heard about what’s going on in New Orleans? Afghanistan? post-tsunami Indonesia?
This becomes an if:book issue simply because temporality has become such an enormous part of the way we deal with electronic media. The past few years have witnessed the ascendency of blog-based writing online; when we read blogs, we tend to read the most recent posts, to look at what’s new. This works very well for targeting certain sorts of problems: a snippy post at Boing Boing about some perceived wrong will target thousands of would-be hackers’ wrath. But we don’t seem to have a good way to deal with big, lasting problems that aren’t changing quickly, in part because the media forms that we have to use are so strongly time-based. Historically, this is a space in which books have functioned: consider the role of Thomas Paine’s pamphlets or Uncle Tom’s Cabin in fomenting past wars. An open-ended question: how can this be done in today’s media environment? Are the forms we have good enough? Or do we not know how to use them?

the year in ideas

In developed nations, and in the US in particular, high-speed wireless access to the Internet is a given for the affluent and an achievable possibility for most. In the rest of the world, owning a computer is a dream for a community, and a fantasy for the individual. At this moment, away in the central mountains of Colombia, I am virtually disconnected from the world, though quite connected to the splendor of nature. I’m writing this relying on uncertain electricity that, if it fails, will be backed up by a gas generator that will keep food fresh and beer cold, the hell with the laptop. Reading one of last week’s Medellín’s newspapers, I was surprised to see news of the advent of the BlueBerry as a technological advance that will reach the city in early 2006. Medellín is a booming, sophisticated Third World city of more than 3.5 million people. This piece of news made clearer for me, more than ever, how in the US we take technology for granted when, in fact, it is the domain of only a small minority of the world. This doesn’t mean that the rest don’t need connectivity, it means that if they are being pushed to play in the global monopoly game, they must have it. From that perspective, I bring the New York Times Magazine’s fifth edition of The Year in Ideas” (12/11/2005.) As always, it examines a number of trends and fads that, in a way or another, were markers of the year. Considering the year at the Institute and its pursuit of the meaningful among myriad innovations, I’ll review some of the ideas the Times chose, that meet the ones the Institute brought to the front throughout the year. Beyond the noteworthy technological inventions, it is the human contribution, the users’ innovative ways of dealing with what already exists in the Internet, which make them worth reflecting upon.
The political power of the blogosphere is an accepted fact, but it is the media infrastructure that passes on what is said on blogs what has given the conservatives the upper hand. Even though Howard Dean’s campaign epitomized the power of the liberal blogosphere, the so called “Net roots” continue to be regarded as the terrain of young people with the time in their hands to participate in virtual dialogue. The liberal’s approach blogs as a forum to air ideas and to criticize not only their opponents but also each other, differs greatly from that of the conservatives’. They are not particularly interested in introspection and use the Web to support their issues and to induce emotional responses from their base. But, it is their connection to a network of local and national talk-radio and TV shows what has given exposure and credibility to the conservative blogs. Here, we have a sad, but true, example of how it is the coalescence of different media what matters, not their insular existence.
The news media increasingly have been using the Web both as an enhancer and as a way to achieve two-way communications with the public. An exciting example of the meeting of journalism and the blog is the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Before Katrina hit the city, they set up a page on their Web site called “Hurricane Katrina Weblog.” Its original function was supplemental. However, when the flood came and the printed edition was shut down, the blog became the newspaper. Even though the paper’s staff kept compiling a daily edition as a download, the blog was brimming with posts appearing throughout the day and readership grew exponentially, getting 20 to 30 million page views per day. The paper continued posting carefully edited stories interspersed with short dispatches phoned or e-mailed to the newspaper’s new headquarters in Baton Rouge. In the words of Paul Tough, “what resulted was exciting and engrossing and new, a stream-of-consciousness hybrid that combined the immediacy and scattershot quality of a blog with the authority and on-the-scene journalism of a major daily newspaper.”
Joshua M. Marshall, editor of the blog Talkingpointsmemo.com, decided to ask his readers to share their knowledge of the ever spreading Washington scandals in an effort to keep abreast of news. He called his experiment “open-source investigative reporting.” Marshall’s blog has about 100,000 readers a day and he saw in them the potential to gather news in a nationwide basis. For instance, he relied on his readers’ expertise with Congressional ethics code in order to determine if Jack Abramoff’s gifts were violations. What Marshall has come up with is a very large news-gathering and fact-checking network, a healthy alternative to traditional journalism.
Podcasting has become another alternative to broadcasting which provides the ability to access audio and video programs as soon as they’re delivered to your computer, or to pile them up as you do with written media. Now, through iTunes, we are experiencing the advent of homemade video postcasts. Some of them have already thousands of viewers. Potentially, this could become the next step of community access television.
The mash-up of data from different web sites has gained thousands of adepts. One of the first ones was Adrian Holovaty’s Chicagocrime.org, a street map of Chicago from Google overlaid with crime statistics from the Chicago Police online database. Following this, many people started to make annotated maps, organizing all sorts of information geographically from real-estate listings to memory maps. The social possibilities of this personal cartography are enormous. The Times brings Matthew Haughey’s “My Childhood, Seen by Google Maps,” as an example of an elegant and evocative project. If we think of the illuminated maps that expanded the world and ignited the imagination of many explorers, this new form of cartography brings a similar human dimension to the perfect satellite maps.
Thomas Vander Wal has called “folksonomy” to tagging taken to the level of taxonomy. The labeling of people’s photos, on Flicker for instance, gets richer by the additions of others who tag the same photos for their own use. Daniel H. Pink claims, “The cumulative force of all the individual tags can produce a bottom-up, self organized system for classifying mountains of digital material.” In an interesting twist, several institutions that are part of the Art Museum Community Cataloging Project, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim, are taking a folksonomic approach to their online collections by allowing patrons to supplement the annotations done by curators, making them more accessible and useful to people.
The effort of Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of the MIT’s Media Lab, to raise the funds to have a group of his colleagues design a no-frills, durable, and cheap computer for the children of the world is a terrific one. Having laptops equipped with a hand crank, in absence of electricity, and using wireless peer-to-peer connections to create a local network will make it easier to access the Internet from economically challenged areas of the world, notwithstanding the difficulties this presents. The detractors of Negroponte’s effort claim that children in Africa, for instance, will not benefit from having access to the libraries of the world if they don’t understand foreign languages; that children with little exposure to modern civilization will suddenly have access to pornography and commercialism; and that wealthy donors should concentrate on malaria eradication before giving an e-mail address to every child. Negroponte, as Jeffrey Sachs, Bono, Kofi Annan, and many others, know that education along with connectivity, are key to bring the next generation out of the poverty cycle to which they have been condemned by foreign powers interested in the resources of their countries, and by every corrupt local regime that has worked along the lines of those powers. The $100 laptop, accompanied by a sound and humane program to use them will bring enormous benefits.
A. O. Scott’s review of the documentary as a genre that supplies satisfaction not from Hollywood formulas but from the real world, reminded me of Bob Stein’s quest for thrills beyond technologically enhanced reality. A factor of the postmodern condition is the unprecedented immediate accessibility to the application of scientific knowledge that technology brings, accessibility that has permeated our relationships with and towards everything. Knowledge has acquired an unsettling superficiality because it has become an economic product. Technology is used and abused, forced upon the consumer in all sorts of ways and Hollywood’s productions are the obvious example. 2005 was the year of the documentary, and I suspect this has to do with a yearning for the human, for the real, for the immediate, for the unmediated. A. O. Scott eloquently traces that line when he praises Luc Jacquet’s “March of the Penguins” as the documentary that hits it all; epic journey, humor, tenderness and suspense, as well as “an occasion for culture-war skirmishing. In short it provided everything you’d want from a night at the movies, without stars or special effects. It’s almost too good to be true.” With that I greet 2006.

malcom gladwell on the social life of paper.

I’m going to devote a series of posts to some (mostly online) texts that have been useful in my teaching and thinking about new media, textuality, and print technologies over the past few years. To start, I’d like to resurrect a three-year old New Yorker piece by Malcom Gladwell called “The Social Life Of Paper,” which distills the arguments of Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper’s book The Myth of the Paperless Office.
Gladwell (like Sellen and Harper) is interested in whether or not giving up paper entirely is practical or even possible. He suggests that for some tasks, paper remains the “killer app;” attempts to digitize such tasks might actually make them more difficult to do. His most compelling example, in the opening paragraph of his article, is the work of the air traffic controller:

On a busy day, a typical air-traffic controller might be in charge of as many as twenty-five airplanes at a time–some ascending, some descending, each at a different altitude and travelling at a different speed. He peers at a large, monochromatic radar console, tracking the movement of tiny tagged blips moving slowly across the screen. He talks to the sector where a plane is headed, and talks to the pilots passing through his sector, and talks to the other controllers about any new traffic on the horizon. And, as a controller juggles all those planes overhead, he scribbles notes on little pieces of paper, moving them around on his desk as he does. Air-traffic control depends on computers and radar. It also depends, heavily, on paper and ink.

Gladwell goes on to make the point that this while kind of reliance on bit of paper drives productivity-managers crazy, anyone who tries to change the way that an air traffic controller works is overlooking a simple fact: the strips of paper supply a stream of “cues” that mesh beautifully with the cognitive labor of the air traffic controller; they are, Gladwell says, “physical manifestations of what goes on inside his head.”
Expanding on this example, Gladwell goes on to argue that while computers are excellent at storing information — much better than the file cabinet with its paper documents — they are often less useful for collaborative work and for the sort of intellectual tasks that are facilitated by piles of paper one can shuffle, rearrange, edit and discard on one’s desk.
“The problem that paper solves,” he writes, “is the problem that most concerns us today, which is how to support knowledge work. In fretting over paper, we have been tripped up by a historical accident of innovation, confused by the assumption that the most important invention is always the most recent. Had the computer come first — and paper second — no one would raise an eyebrow at the flight strips cluttering our air-traffic-control centers.”
This is a pretty strong statement, and I find the logic both seductive and a bit flawed. I’m seduced because I too have piles of paper all over the place, and I’d like to think that these are not simply bits of dead tree, but instead artifacts intrinsic to knowledge work. But I’m skeptical because I think it’s safe to assume that standard cognitive processes can change from generation to generation; for example, those who are growing up using ichat and texting are less likely to think of bits and scraps of paper as representative of cognitive immediacy in the same way I do.
When I’ve taught this essay, I usually also assign Sven Birkets’ Into the Electronic Millenium, a text which argues (in a somewhat Lamarckian way) that electronic mediation is pretty much rewiring our brains in a way that makes it impossible for computer-mediated youth to process information in the same way as their elders. Most of them will agree with both Gladwell and Birkets — yes, there will always be a need for paper because our brain will always process certain things certain ways, but also yes, digital technologies are changing the way that our brain works. My job is to get them to see that those two concepts contradict one another. Birkets espouses a peculiar and curmudgeonly sort of technological determinism. Gladwell, on the other hand, with his focus on an embodied way of knowing, flips the equation and wonders how best to get technology to work FOR us, instead of thinking how technology might work ON us.
I can see why my students are drawn to both arguments: even though I don’t essentially agree with either essay, I often catch myself falling into Birket’s trap of extreme technological determinism — or alternately, thinking, like Gladwell, that because a certain way of doing things seems optimal it must be the “natural” way to do it.