Theorizing Spectatorship: Textual Analysis Essay

How have digital screen technologies shaped and influenced cinema in a ‘post-cinematic’ context? In your answer, you should consider one or more concepts or terms studied on the module, which reflect on the nature of post-cinematic media (e.g. remediation, premediation, hypermediation, glitch, hybridity, convergence, interactivity, affect, authenticity, etc.).

 In this essay I will be discussing how forms of newer media like Television and the Internet have influenced cinema in a ‘post cinematic’ context. While focusing on two films, Memento (2000) and Paranormal Activity (2007), I will consider how concepts like interactivity, remediation and affect are a large part of the nature of films being released in the 21st Century. Using texts from theorists Grusin, Shaviro and other sources, I will argue whether these technologies and concepts have transformed cinema in the modern age and to what extent.

 

It’s the 21st Century, and cinema is evolving rapidly in the Digital Age.  In his written essay entitled DVD’s, Videogames, And The Cinema Of  Interactions, Richard Grusin describes his feelings on the current cinematic moment by saying: “I do not mean to suggest that film will disappear in the face of videogames and other digital media, but it will continue increasingly to be engaged with the social, technological, and aesthetic forms of digital media” (pg.69).  For example, where once we could watch movies only at the cinema on the big screen, we can now watch our favorite films on a phone, or a tablet computer. We are no longer limited to travelling to a theatre; we can watch our media anywhere, at anytime. Television shows have increased in such high quality compared with two decades ago, no longer playing second best to feature- films. Shows like Breaking Bad and Homeland are examples of how T.V has arguably surpassed cinema in storytelling. Videogames have become a huge part of the entertainment landscape as well, with games such as the annual Call Of Duty regularly surpassing movie blockbusters in profit.

Steven Shaviro is the theorist that coined the term “post-cinematic”, in describing how film “gave way to television as a “cultural dominant” a long time ago, in the mid-twentieth century; and television in turn has given way in recent years to computer and network based, and digitally generated “new media”. He goes on to say that “film has not disappeared, but has been transformed over the past two decades from an analog process to a heavily digitized one” (pg.1).  Shaviro’s use of the term “cultural dominant”, as he explains in his online blog The Pinocchio Theory, was used by Frederic Jameson, to describe when a former dominant medium – as Film was in the 20th Century – is ‘surpassed’ by new media, not necessarily in technological terms but in aesthetic and cultural significance. As Shaviro describes of the films he analyses in his book, and the films I will be discussing also provide evidence in favor of this theory, the common trait these films all exemplify is “the structure of feeling”. This feeling Shaviro and the audience has is due to the ‘post-cinematic’ affect.

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Memento, a psychological thriller directed by Christopher Nolan, tells the story of Leonard Shelby, a former insurance investigator who suffers with short term memory loss after sustaining brain damage from a head injury that he received while intervening in an assault on his wife. His mission becomes trying to find his wife’s murderer. To be able to just simply live his life is a difficult process. Everyday he makes notes, and takes Polaroid pictures of important people, locations etc. His body is tattooed with writing of facts about himself and his life.

Remediation refers to “the representation of one media in another”(Bolter & Grusin, pg.46), and photography plays a large part in Memento. The still image is what preceded the moving image, so films are in their very origins photographs, or ‘stills’, and each of these stills make up a reel of film. Film is a remediation of photography, yet photography is part of film. Memento uses this other form of media to represent what Leonard believes is the objective truth, as opposed to memories which are unreliable. In a scene around twenty-three minutes into the film, Leonard meets Teddy -an undercover police officer we suspect is Leanords’ wife’s killer – at a café. They banter and then start to disagree over what is more reliable: Leonard’s Polaroid’s, notes and tattoos, or memories. He argues:  ” Memory’s unreliable … Memory’s not perfect. It’s not even that good. Ask the police; eyewitness testimony is unreliable … Memory can change the shape of a room or the colour of a car. It’s an interpretation, not a record. Memories can be changed or distorted, and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts.” While he obviously acknowledges the subjective mediation of memory, he does not apply the same logic to what he considers “facts”. In turn, this drives him to many wrong conclusions on his quest to avenge his wife.

Society today is a world of uncertainty. Director Christopher Nolan makes Leonard a character who embodies the symptoms of a rising consumerism that contributes to feelings of  isolation, alienation and detachment from society;  where anxiety, emotional disorders,  and breakdowns of family and marriage have become a very common feature. This is ‘the structure of feeling’ or affect of post-cinematic cinema that I believe Shaviro is referring to: it’s cinema that reflects our concerns and thoughts as a society, going beyond technology and instead focusing on cultural significance. Remediation and mediation are integrated into the themes of the film: the reminder that memory is subjective mediation, and the remediation of photos in a film used to great effect in the appearance of Polaroid’s, to deceive and mislead the viewer, just as Leonard’s subconsciously deceiving himself. With Leonard being an unreliable narrator, Memento is truly post-modernistic.

The movie can be described as noir thriller, which is a hybrid of two popular genres. Hybridity is a common concept for post-cinematic film: not only a more likely box-office success but also a more open way of film-making that has been occurring since the 1920’s. Today, hybridity is a thriving staple of modern cinema. While Noir usually has formal features like the utilization of narration and flashbacks, Memento is furthermore told in a reverse, non-linear narrative. The story is divided into small segments, inter-cut with monochrome segments that tell the story in chronological order. On the Special Edition DVD, the viewer is allowed in the menu to attempt to put these segments in order to make sense of the narrative, which is a simple form of interactivity in today’s media. DVD’s and other home media like the VHS, that revolutionized home viewing of media, have the ability to allow the viewer to interact with their entertainment, whether it be through a playable quiz bonus feature on a DVD, or in 2014 to bookmark a favourite scene on a Blu-ray Disc, or even connect to the Internet through the disc to access the film’s online features such as featurettes and behind the scenes footage that are viewable online only. This is what is known as ‘convergence’, where different forms of media, in this case the Blu-ray and the Internet, work together to supply the viewer with more bonus content for the viewers entertainment desires.

In his book Cinema In The Digital Age, theorist Nicholas Rombes examines how the digital era has altered the fate of cinema. In the chapter entitled Simultaneous Cinema, Rombes looks at how digital cinema has taken over from traditional cinema’s process of indicating ‘simultaneous events using crosscutting or parallel montage’ (pg.115), to now indicating these events through what Gene Youngblood calls ‘Parallel event-streams’. Youngblood explains: “Digital code offers formal solutions to the ‘tense’ limitations of mechanical cinema. Past, present and future can be spoken in the same frame at once’ (pg.158). Rombes references Professor of Computer Science and author of The Language of New Media  Lev Manovich, who explains how digital cinema operates on ‘database logic’ (pg.123-128) which allows for the arrangement of that database in ways that change not only the screen, but the very ways in which time is represented. In Memento, this happens on the level of both content and medium. The film is all about feeling lost, which is a condition the viewer feels on the DVD. The DVD contains no traditional menu, instead the viewer has a myriad choices with little instructions on how to navigate.

In the opening scene of the film (which is actually the end of the film chronologically), Teddy tries to remind Leonard (or Lenny as Teddy calls him) who he is. After Lenny and Teddy meet at the Discount inn where Lenny lives, they both take Lenny’s car to an abandoned factory. Lenny is tracking down someone he doesn’t recall, as Teddy watches in delusion as Lenny inspects a truck parked outside the factory, and then follows Lenny inside on foot into the abandoned building. Lenny walks inside, brushing aside a plastic sheet hanging from the ceiling. As he looks down at a Polaroid of Teddy, he flips the picture over and on the back text reads – which Lenny narrates- “Don’t believe his lies. He is the one. Kill him.” Lenny then attacks Teddy, pointing a gun at him while Teddy pleads with Lenny as Lenny tries to reinforce his identity: ” I’m Leonard Shelby, I’m from San Francisco and I’m-” Lenny exclaims. Teddy interrupts: “That’s who you were, not what you’ve become“.

What Lenny has become is in fact a serial killer. Since being brain damaged, his mind resets each time he kills another person who he has decided will be his wife’s murderer. He is stuck in a loop, which drives him to continuously hunt down someone else who is meant to have attacked his wife, even when his wife’s attacker – as Teddy explains at the end of the film (or the beginning of the story) – is already dead, killed by Lenny himself. The simple fact is Lenny chooses not to remember how his diabetic wife died: his wife, who couldn’t deal with his ‘anterograde amnesia’ had him inject her with an overdose of insulin to see if he would realize he was killing her and his memory would come back making him stop. He does not, and she dies. As experimental filmmaker Malcolm Le Grice writes, ‘a major characteristic of digital systems is the fundamentally non-linear way information is stored and retrieved’ (pg.315). This is the ‘database logic’, where data retrieval and storage is a cycle, and Memento is a perfect example of how digital systems have informed the very ‘loop’ nature of the film’s narrative. Similar to a first-person videogame, where you are in the shoes of the character on screen, in Memento you are living and identifying through Leonard’s eyes. It’s a truly original film informed by the digital age.

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Paranormal Activity, directed by videogame programmer Oren Peli (who also wrote, co-produced, photographed and edited the film) is a supernatural horror about a couple, Micah and Katie, who are experiencing paranormal activities in their home. The entire film is shot in ‘found footage’ style, with cameras set up by Micah to help document whatever is haunting them.

In the opening scene, an intertitle reads: “Paramount Pictures would like to thank the families of Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston and the San Diego Police Department”.  After we have a shot of a rock band playing music on TV, and then see our cameraman Micah, smiling in front of a mirror while showing us his handheld professional film camera. From the beginning, the intertitle positions the film as aware that it is a major film studio release, while also suggesting this recording is police evidence to be considered as ‘authentic documentation of a real event’ (Heller-Nicholas, pg.132).  From the release of The Blair Witch Project (1999), the found footage filmmaking style has become increasingly popular amongst today’s audience. As film studios are well aware, piracy is a problem that has to be reduced. This type of film came to fruitition in an effort made by the MPAA to tackle the huge increase in P2P file sharing so prevalent in the U.S. As a way of imaginatively finding a new product that could discourage illegal downloading of films, these ‘faux footage horror’ films – as Caitlin Benson-Allot describes in her book Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens – blend ‘the parallax spectatorship of avant-garde found footage films with the cinematographic conventions of reality television’ (pg. 168). Paranormal Activity uses the ‘parallax effect’ which Faye Ginsburg explains to be a metaphor of how new ‘indigenous media’ (including ‘found footage’, YouTube Videos etc.) has risen from a ‘historically new positioning of the observer behind the camera so that the object-the cinematic representation of culture – appears to look different than it does from the observational perspective of ethnographic film’.

Throughout the film, Micah places the camera on top of a tripod in the bedroom, for video recording of any event while they sleep. The end sequence (last three-four minutes) of the film is shot entirely from this surveillance point of view, as we watch Micah and Katie sleep. The time stamp on the recording at points fast-forwards, for example when Katie walks to Micah’s side as he sleeps and then and then resumes real-time again. This self-awareness of edited or sped-up footage is another sign of the immediacy we crave as society today. We are constantly taken to where the action occurs: a now common tool we have at our disposal when watching television, or digital media on the Internet. We can pause, rewind and more; abilities we do not have at the theater or cinema. Sebastian Lefait suggests Paranormal Activity offers “a reflection of the state of cinema in a surveillance world” (pg.89).

Returning to Shaviro’s theory on how digital technologies have affected post-cinematic cinema, Paranormal Activity answers this question: the film is produced with and focuses on low-cost digital technology. The film is inspired by traditional horror film features – spatial invasions by the supernatural, the slow tense build up between action- but it converts this concept into a film driven by new digital technologies. At the core of Paranormal Activity and post-cinematic cinema in general, is this ability and imagination that tackles “the question of how to navigate the private spaces of this new media landscape” (www.academia.edu).

To conclude, new technologies and digital media have meant a complete rethinking of what a film is to society today.  Whether it be the invention of the Internet; that allows the public to share their own entertainment content made with low-cost cameras or even smartphones which is Paranormal Activity’s raison d’être, or home media such as the revolutionary VHS tape that meant since the 1980’s the ‘average U.S viewer has watched more movies on video than in theatres’, or videogames that can influence films like Edge of Tomorrow (2014) with their ‘reset and do again’ narrative, and even scientific databases that inform the ‘loop’ narrative of Memento. However, one fact is certain: films are not dying or being replaced, they are evolving with us. That is ‘post-cinematic’ cinema.

  

Bibliography

Benson-Allot, C. (2013)  Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens, Los Angels: University of California Press

Bolter, J.D., Grusin, R. (2000) Remediation: Understanding New Media, Cambridge: MIT Press

Ginsburg, F. (1995) ‘The Parallax Effect: The Impact of Aboriginal Media on Ethnographic Film’ in Visual Anthropology Review, Volume 11, Issue: Fall, Arlington: University of Virginia

Grusin, R. (2006)  ‘DVD’s, Videogames, And The Cinema Of  Interactions’ in Ilha do Desterro, Issue: July/Dec (Winter/Summer),  Florionapolis: Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina

Heller-Nicholas, A. (2014)  Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality, North Carolina: McFarland

Lefait, S. (2013) Surveillance on Screen: Monitoring Contemporary Films and Television Programs, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield

Le Grice, M. (2001) Experimental Cinema In The Digital Age, London: British Film Institute

Manovich, L. (2001)  The Language of New Media, Massachusetts: MIT Press

Rombes, N. (2009)  Cinema In The Digital Age, New York: Wallflower Press

Shaviro, S. (2010) Post-Cinematic Affect, Ropley: O Books

Youngblood, G. (2003) ‘Cinema and the Code’ in Jeffrey Shaw and Peter Wiebel (eds) Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary after Film, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 156-61

 

Netography

Rombes, N. (2011)  Roundtable Discussion about the Post-Cinematic in Paranormal Activity and Paranormal Activity 2,

URL: http://www.academia.edu/966735/Roundtable_Discussion_about_the_Post-Cinematic_in_Paranormal_Activity_and_Paranormal_Activity_2 , accessed 20th December 2014

 

Shaviro, S. (2011) What is the post-cinematic?

URL: http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=992 , accessed 19th December, 2014

 

Filmography

Edge Of Tomorrow (2014)  Directed by Doug Liman, USA

Memento (2000) Directed by Christopher Nolan, USA

Paranormal Activity (2007) Directed by Oren Peli, USA

 The Blair Witch Project (1999) Directed by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, USA

 

 T.V References

 Breaking Bad (2008-2013) Created by Vince Gilligan, USA

Homeland (2011- Present) Created by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, USA

 

Gameography

Call of Duty (2003-Present) Published by Treyarch, Activision, USA

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