Monday, March 31, 2014

History of Animation: Peter and the Wolf (2006)

Collaboration between Se-Ma-For and Breakthrough productions with the UK's Channel Four. Tremendous piece of synergy and craftmanship.  Definitely a high point in the tradition of Soviet puppet animation.

Star Wars Uncut and effects of Conversion on the Fan Film

Fans have been making their own video re-interpretations of the original Star Wars texts since their release. (An early example can be seen here). Ever since recording technology has been affordable enough to get into the hands of fans, this has been a type of media. 

The appeal of re-enacting an existing media artifact seems to function as a fulfillment of the “ago-old desire to live out a fantasy aroused by a fictional world…intensified by a participatory, immersive medium that promises to satisfy it more completely than has ever before been possible.” (Murray[1])  Though it seems in many cases these fans are acting out the double fantasies of the fictional world portrayed in the original text and the additional fiction of participating in the creation of that original text.  In the case of Star Wars, fan remakes allow fans to enjoy both the fantasy of Long ago in a galaxy far, far away, AND the fantasy of George Lucas directing a cast of actors in the creation of an artifact that the fan is deeply invested in. 

So long as the technology used to create these fan texts remained relatively cumbersome, most shared fan-made recreations of the text were straightforward and not intentionally self-reflexive. However, as technology has made the creation and distribution of these fan texts easier, and as an actual audience for fan art has formed online, the nature of fan-art “the thing itself” has matured to encompass a range of postmodern and poststructuralist possibilities.  Jenkins[2] might point out that video fan art as a medium has existed for almost 50 years, and that only technologies through which that medium is captured and distributed have changed.  It would be difficult, though, to argue against a very real evolution in what fan art is as it has changed from being something created for the “artists” own enjoyment to being something created for a broad and engaged audience.  The conversation has, in many cases become wittier and more intertextual, though as Jenkins points out, “When people take media into their own hands, the results can be wonderfully creative; they can also be bad news for all involved.”  The concept of an audience seems to bring out the best and the worst across a strata of creators.

Star Wars Uncut comes along as an interesting vehicle for fan art, both because of it’s collaborative nature, and because of its ability to show a broad scope of the realm of fan-films in a relatively condensed way. 

The idea of a feature-length collaborative creative endeavor organized entirely online through a fan forum is a strong illustration of Convergence as described by Jenkins.  “Convergence doesn’t just involve commercially produced materials and services traveling along well-regulated and predictable circuits.  It doesn’t just involve the mobile companies getting together with the film companies to decide when and where we watch a newly released film.  It also occurs when people take media in their own hands.  Entertainment content isn’t the only thing that flows across multiple media platforms.” 

Convergence of content flow inherently empowers audience voice, and (again according to Jenkins) “Audience work becomes more vocal and public.”  (Audience work referring, presumably, to the idea introduced by Dallas Smythe[3].) According to Jenkins, as technology changes the nature of spectatorship, “Convergence requires media companies to rethink old assumptions about what it means to consume media, assumptions that shape both programming and marketing decisions.  If old consumers were assumed to be passive, the new consumers are active.  If old consumers were predictable and stayed where you told them to stay, then new consumers are migratory, showing a declining loyalty to networks or media.  If old consumers were isolated individuals, the new consumers are more socially connected.  If the work of media consumers was once silent and invisible, the new consumers are now noisy and public.”

Star Wars Uncut seems to actually illustrate a spectrum of old-consumer relationships with the original text and new-consumer engagement with it.  Old-consumer style could refer to the “straight” segments, striving for maximum verisimilitude with the original text and it’s diegetic world.  A new-consumer end of the spectrum would be those segments that totally reinterpreted the text to create something new, either by reinterpreting the written dialogue (such as CP3O’s offer to assist Master Luke) or by reinterpreting the setting (usually involving heavy intertextuality, such as the Yellow Submarine sequence) , or by abandoning verisimilitude altogether to create something intensely self-reflexive. 

Across the 500+ 15-second-segments that made up Star Wars Uncut’s version of Star Wars, A New Hope, there was illustrated a breadth of engagement with the original text that created an audio-visual aid illustrating the broad possibilities for a single viewer’s experience encountering the primary text.  This reinforces Radway’s[4] insistence that a critic’s singular view of a text’s meaning is problematic.  “The behavioral explanations and sociological theories [critics] advance to account for [a] genre’s popularity have been produced, then, by a process that is hermetically sealed off from the very people they aim to understand.”  Radway proceeded to engage with a group of consumers who engaged with their texts in manners very similar to one another, how much more true is her emphasis on the role of reader/viewers in creating meaning when considering a group with disparate ways of engaging with a text? 

The appeal of the Star Wars Uncut project for its participants seems likely to have been diverse, however the appeal of such a participatory medium is well articulated by Murray in that “the enchantment of the computer (by which this film project was initiated, distributed, and in many instances produced) creates for us a public space that also feels very private and intimate. Computers are liminal objects, located on the threshold between external reality and our own minds.”  While not all participants interpreted participation in the same way, the 15 second limit functioned as a “mechanism of participation” that limited the ability of any particular clip to stray too far from the original text to render the narrative unfollowable.  This functioned in some ways like the “explicit mechanism of participation” (In LARP/Live Action Role Play) that serve to “sustain the illusion of a fictional world.”

The downside of this mechanism, is that 15 second intervals are painfully frequent for a viewer of the finished text.  The continual alienation of the audience, having to re-orient themselves within the frame of the narrative as settings, actors, costumes, styles and tones constantly change, makes me think that this is only a stop along the road of increased audience participation in media convergence.  I expect that platforms allowing audiences and fans to participate in the creation of more fluid and sophisticated fan fictions are in the near future.

[1] Murray, Janet Horowitz. "Immersion." Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: Free, 1997. 97-125. Print.
[2] Jenkins, Henry. "Introduction: "Worship at the Altar of Convergence"; A New Paradigm for Understanding Media Change." Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York UP, 2006. 1-24. Print.
[3] Smythe, Dallas Walker. "On the Audience Commodity and Its Work." Dependency Road: Communications, Capitalism, Consciousness, and Canada. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Pub., 1981. 22-51. Print.
[4] Radway, Janice A. "Introduction." Introduction. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1984. 1-18. Print.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Hollow Documentary as New Media and Procedural Rhetoric

Elaine McMillian’s Interactive Documentary experience, “Hollow Documentary”[1] is an interesting piece of transmedia storytelling.  With a large amount of give-and-take between visible traditional mediums (photographs and videos) and the invisible technological platforms that support and showcase them.  Together, and along with more interactive mediums like data-collection charts and graphs, they create an overall user-experience that shares some elements with the procedural rhetoric described by Ian Bogost.[2] 

The project certainly utilizes the new media logic described by Manovich[3], that it “privileges the existence of potentially numerous copies, infinitely large number of different states of the same work, author-user symbiosis (the user can change the work through interactivity), the collective, collaborative authorship, and network distribution (which bypasses the art system distribution channels.)”  Though it appears that by bypassing those very distribution channels the creator has found herself with an economic conundrum.  The site costs upwards of $700 each month to maintain, and too few people are willing to pay to access or support something that is, by nature of its platform, “free.”  This is a first sense in which McMillian’s project shares characteristics with Bogost’s examples of procedural rhetoric.  As the singular “author” of this piece, she fits his “concept of authorship incorporate[ing] another feature of art more broadly: the pursuit of a particular truth irrespective of the demands of reception or sales.”

Ultimately McMillian’s project is a intermediary example of new media, because so much of the content has been produced in traditional, more linear-fashion, and certainly with a near-minimum of technological involvement.  This is an example of Manovich’s description of “Human-computer interface com[ing] to act as a new form through which all older forms of cultural production are being mediated.”   Manovich seemed to lament that “Software is used in some areas of film production but not in others.  While some visuals may be created using computer animation, cinema [still] centers around the system of human stars whose salaries amount to a large percent of a film budget… the computer is kept out of the key “creative” decisions, and is delegated to the position of a technician.”  While the “stars” of this piece were not of the “large-percent of a film budget” variety, the footage filmed of and by them was still created using a minimum of technology and software.  This, along with the linear, unidirectional movement of the web-navigation of the Interactive Documentary both combine to limit the ways in which this project applies to a variety of definitions of new media.  However, Manovich allowed that “Both then and now, the filmmakers used new filmmaking technology to revolt against the existing cinema conventions that were perceived as being too artificial.  Both then and now, the key word of this revolt was the same: “immediacy.””  And “immediacy” is something this project capitalizes on profoundly.

This project cannot be perfectly applied to Bogost’s definitions of proceduralist rhetoric either, because while Bogost claims that “A proceduralist rhetoric makes a claim about how something works by modeling its processes in the process-native environment of the computer rather than using description (writing) or depiction (images),“  This project and its platform attempts to create a claim about how something works by creating an immersive experience that certainly requires the user’s navigation of the experience, but also relies heavily upon words, images, and an often-didactic style to set clearly defined parameters for the user’s interpretation of their experience.

Still, the project does succeed at a level of emulation of other of Bogost’s criteria, such as that “A proceduralist rhetoric does not argue a position but rather characterizes an idea.  These games say something about how an experience of the world works, how it feels to experience or to be subjected to some sort of situation.”  By creating a rather cultural-studies-centric platform giving voice to the under-represented communities of a “dying county,” this project attempted to make an “experience of the world” available for the exploration of its audience.  And it is certainly left up to a viewer to put all the pieces the documentary makes available together into a picture of a whole experience or reality, or social message.

In this sense the documentary succeeds at two more of Bogost’s criteria for Proceduralist rhetoric, that the “goal of the proceduralist designer is to cause the player to reflect on one or more themes during or after play, without a concern for resolution or effect,” and that “These games pose questions about life and simulate specific experiences in response, but those experiences rarely point players toward definitive answers.”  McMillian’s documentary hints at constructive efforts being made to vitalize these communities, but doesn’t pose any answers for the heavy overarching questions and problems she presents.  The impossibilities of unemployment and drug use are left for the viewer to wrestle with, and make sense of. Because there is not a single narrative, and no definitive “end” to the documentary project (they continue to collect photos, videos, tweets, and statistics on ancillary websites)[4], the platform itself renders an answer or resolution or “ending” impossible.

While it might have been more applicable had the platform allowed for more difference in individual user experience with this text, this is certainly an artifact that engages with its audience in a manner Bogost would attribute to Art, and ultimately to Proceduralist Games.  Despite the fact that scrolling through this documentary provides essentially the same experience for every viewer (with only the option to click or not click on the hyperlinks that pass through in a set order), it is a text that requires engagement and invites change in its audience.  “Art has done many things in human history, but in the last century especially, it has primarily tried to bother and provoke us.  To force us to see things differently.  Art changes.  Its very purpose, we might say, is to change, and to change us along with it.”

[2] Bogost, Ian. How to Do Things with Videogames. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2011. Print.
[3] Manovich, Lev. "New Media from Borges to HTML." The New Media Reader. Comp. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2003. N. pag. Print.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

History of Animation: Tale of Tales

by Yuri Norstein

Nobody does melancholy dreamlike as well as the Soviets.

Positioning the Spectator in Bamboozled

At the end of his essay, Black Spectatorship: Problems of Identification and Resistance, Manthia Diawara[1] proposes that “one of the roles of black independent cinema, therefore, must be to increase spectator awareness of the impossibility of an uncritical acceptance of Hollywood products.”  Spike Lee appears to have taken this to heart, as he mixes satirical elements from texts like Sunset Boulevard and Vanity Fair to create a devastating look at the problems of black representation in media and in media production.

Lee clearly views himself as one of Frantz Fanon’s “intellectual elite”[2] amongst the empirically oppressed.  His work here seems directed at inciting uncomfortable introspection and ultimately paradigmatic shifts in the narrative treatment of black people.  Fanon said the “native writer (would) progressively (take) on the habit of addressing his own people,” creating a “Literature of Combat” that calls on the people to fight for their “existence as a nation.”  In this case the fight seems to be for their “existence as a(dignified)culture.” Which, as Diawara also pointed out, cannot simply try to embrace a pre-colonialized version of itself, nor can it mimic the structure of the culture that colonized and oppressed it.  It must involve an awareness of it’s own history and oppression, and find a way to make something unifying compelling, and propelling out of them. 


But in contrast with Fanon’s textual suggestions, Lee’s film seems to primarily indict black people themselves for their own toleration and furtherance of negativity regarding their race.  (Rather than inciting black people to revolt against external oppressors, there seems to be something more internal to his scrutiny) There are only two white characters who appear in more than once scene, and each of them tries (unsuccessfully as portrayed by Lee) to identify as black.  The “black” that each of them identifies with are stereotypical reductions of race that Lee tries hard to decimate.[3] Primarily, then, Lee is grappling with what “Black” identity does and should mean.  Though he doesn’t come up with an answer in this text, he explores an entire spectrum of essentialist stereotypes that should not be limiting the parameters of Black Culture in the US, but which are consistently reinforced from without and from within.

One of the more interesting ways that Lee frames these negative ideas of “Blackness” as false and oppressive, is by careful use of the cinematic tool discussed by Stam and Spence[4] – that of “circling.”  It happens repetitively in the film that the characters being visually identified with in a scene are suddenly assaulted or threatened from an unanticipated, seemingly unprovoked external force.

The first incident of circling is rather mild – as Delacroix feels singled out an oppressed when he is late to his work meeting because neither he nor his (Black) assistant were informed about it.  He is accused of pulling a “Rodman” which is clearly a parallel drawn based more on race than on performance.  Combined with the information that surfaces regarding Delacroix’s failed attempts at creating positive or dynamic television shows about Black characters, this circling establishes Delacroix and Sloan’s workplace as an environment prohibitive for their success based on their race and the assumptions about it carried by their non-black coworkers. 

The second instance of circling is when Manray and Womack are suddenly required to evacuate the vacant building they’ve been living in.  This scene seems largely intended to explain their willingness to take on the assignment from Delacroix of wearing blackface and participating in a minstrel show.  But it also demonstrates assumptions made by (white) police officers about black people that go unchecked in this scene and are reinforced in the final circling by police toward the end of the film.

Another scene that takes on the assaultedness of a circling is when Sloan, Manray, and Womack are watching the premiere of their show on television and are stunned by the sponsored television ads attached to their show.  Lee accused “a lot of gangster rap music videos (of being) minstrel shows in themselves,” and this parallel becomes overt with the ad for the alcoholic rocket-shaped drink and it’s heinous depictions of debase black stereotypes.  Bot h types of minstrel shows here are equally guilty of what Stam and Spence called “making the inhabitants of the Third World objects of spectacle for the First World’s voyeuristic gaze.”

The most overt “circling” scenes are the most violent.  When Manray is abducted by the Mau Mau, we are at the end of a scene where we are made to identify with him more than at any previous point in the film.  Through sympathetic use of music and silence, a refusal to apply the blackface, and more close-ups than usual, he is at his apex of seeming most human when he is poorly treated and evicted from the television studio.  That he is immediately thereafter abducted by the Mau Mau, (who are ironically always seen drinking the rocket drink that sponsored the Mantan Minstrel show) and then slaughtered by them in a scene that is both a visual and a figurative “circling” is very telling about Lee’s frustration with groups that conflate violence with Blackness.


That violent scene is also created, visually and aurally, to draw a strong parallel to the actual minstrel show.  It is also broadcast on television – creating a strong parallel between Mantay’s exploitation in the Mantan Show and the accusation by Lee that Violence-oriented Black rappers are essentially creating a modern disgraceful equivalent of Minstrel Shows.  In their attempt to express their frustration with the representation of Blacks in minstrel shows, the Mau Mau merely create a more violent copy of the same thing. 

That this scene is immediately followed by a subsequent circling in which the Mau Mau are slaughtered in direct parallel with the previous sequence by the police.  That the one white-skinned member of Mau Mau is not shot, but rather taken into custody while the rest of the group is shown (in medium close-ups) lying dead and bleeding on the ground indicates that both the police and the Mau Mau have adopted similar beliefs that Blackness equals violence, even if they are manifest in different types of behavior. 

Delacroix is then twice circled – once by his blackface paraphernalia in a surreal and more symbolic scene, and then directly by Sloan, who tries to force him at gunpoint to watch the video clips of blackface and stereotypical Black comedy on the tape she had previously compiled.  His noncompliance leads to an escalation in which she shoots him and leaves him dying, forced in his last moments to watch the harrowing tape.  Ultimately we are left with the weight of a Shakespearean “All are Punished.”

It is interesting that Lee did not provide a positive counterpoint to his guilty cast of racist Blacks.  He doesn’t appear to be proposing a solution, only specifying a problem.  In many ways he is pointing out that Racial equality is not yet a moot point, and that post-post-colonialist attitudes, such as that voiced by the VP character Dunwitty that “Who wants to be politically correct these days anyway?”  are hugely problematic.  The thrust of his argument seems to parallel Angela McRobbie’s[5] concerns about post-feminism: that an emancipatory movement is being deemed “out of touch and out of style” by even those who need to be emancipated before any type of equality is ever actually achieved.  Racism, especially as defined by Stam and Spence is still an issue, “The generalized and final assigning of values to real or imaginary differences, to the accuser’s benefit and at his victim’s expense, in order to justify the former’s own privilege or aggression… always a rationale for an already existing or contemplated oppression.”   Lee clearly implicates Blacks and their participation in music and television as being unacceptably racist.  He has created a difficult text intended to demand resistance from its reader and to evoke introspection about what else they ought to be resisting.

[1] Diawara, Manthia. "Black Spectatorship: Problems of Identification and Resistance."Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Comp. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. 892-900. Print.

[2] Fanon, Frantz. "From: The Wretched of the Earth, From: On National Culture; Reciprocal Bases of National Culture and the Fight for Freedom." The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Comp. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 1437-446. Print.

[3] Lee said in interview: “History is filled with white people who have tried to become blacker.  Take Elvis Presley… even today, groups like N’Sync and the Backstreet Boys.  Culture is for everybody, but there is a difference between appreciating a culture and appropriating a culture.”

[4] Stam, Robert, and Louise Spence. "Colonialism, Racism, and Representation: An Introduction." Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Comp. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. 877-91. Print.

[5] McRobbie, Angela. "Postfeminism and Popular Culture." Feminist Media Studies 4.3 (2004): 255-64. Print.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Punishing Feminine Desire in Vertigo

In Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Scottie Ferguson is performed as a quintessentially Freudian Male, with deeply narcissistic impulses pervading his relationship with the 2(3) women in the film he maintains relationships with.  Though as Mulvey[1] points out, his narcissistic voyeurism creates a perfect opportunity for both the scopophilic pleasure and the narcissistic impulse of the cinematic audience.  For both Scottie and for the audience he carries with him, Madeleine/Judy is the object that brings that scopophilic pleasure in looking.

While Scottie’s rather pathological infatuation with Madeleine is treated sympathetically as par for the course, (after all, he’s given the task of spying on Madeleine and Linda Williams[2] explains that, in cinema, too look is too desire.) But the desires of the women in the film (Midge, Madeleine / Judy) are all punished in the course of the film.  While their desires are not treated as inexplicable (they are, after all, falling in love with the normative heterosexual hero/optimized alter-ego of the viewer) they are not treated as justified in their desire in any instance.  Whereas Scottie’s only potential turpitude, pursuing a married woman, is blotted out by the revelation that he’d really been interacting with Judy, pretending to be Madeleine. 

In his desire, and his three-dimensional action as he pursued Madeleine-then-Judy and then manipulated her as an object-to-be-viewed for his pleasure, all the narrative devices seem to sympathize with him.   Only an analysis removed from the language of the screen might find him rather guilty of Judy’s accidental death.  By contrast, Midge is punished for her unreciprocated desire by continual dehumanizing rejection, especially after her satirical self-portrait is poorly received, and ultimately by Scottie refusing to recognize her or return her gaze during his hospital stay. Scottie clearly views her as a mother figure (even calling her mother), and treats her advances as Oedipal.  Theoretically Judy as Madeleine is punished for desiring Scottie by being separated from him after the murder of the real Madeleine is completed.  While Judy’s death at the end of the film is also a narrative punishment for her complicity in Madeleine’s murder, it is also more effectively a punishment for her desire for Scottie, and for the wrenches she threw in his scopophilic enjoyment by allowing him to “fall in love” with a non-entity.


That non-entity is telling.  At the end of the film we still know next to nothing about Madeleine Elster or Judy Barton, both dead.  We are acquainted only with how their deaths have impacted Scottie.  As Mulvey quoted Budd Boetticher, “What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does.  In herself the woman has not the slightest importance.”  Any further backstory or explanation of Judy Barton’s relationship or interactions with Gavin Elster might have made her more of a three-dimensional character, but in this narrative she functioned purely as an object for exhibitionist pleasure, so such character development was foregone.

In a way, Scottie is excused for having fallen in love with a murderer, because as she was pretending to be Madeleine, and portraying a person given to fits of possession or insanity, that insanity had the same effect that “blindness” had on the silent-film heroines discussed by Williams.  Her trance-like state portrayed the same lack of autonomy and desire that Williams correlated to literal or figurative blindness in virginal heroines.  The Madeleine/ Judy character doesn’t even speak until almost 40 minutes into the film.  She is simply viewed, and is certainly on display (on about 6 levels). With her bleached blonde hair and her white coat, she oscillates between appearing virginal and ghostly.

Judy’s guilt narratively justifies Scotties’ rather bizarre behavior. Mulvey explained that “The power to subject another person to the will sadistically or to the gaze voyeuristically is turned onto the woman as the object of both. Power is backed by a certainty of legal right and the established guilt of the woman.”   Thus her role as a murder-accomplice becomes symbolic of the threat of castration.  The guilt or shame universal to women.

“The male unconscious has two avenues of escape from this castration anxiety: preoccupation with the re-enactment of the original trauma (investigating the woman, demystifying her mystery), counterbalanced by the devaluation, punishment, or saving of the guilty object.”  Mulvey here describes every motivation of Scottie’s character in the second half of the film.  As he finds Judy, then literally forces her to re-enact the death of Madeleine.  He also punishes her as a guilty object, both through the process of grooming her to re-perform her role as Madeleine, and then by making her re-enact Madeleine’s death with him by going to the top of the tower, and ultimately by placing her where she would re-enact Madeleine’s death with her own death.

But Judy’s guilt never takes too much precedence.  If she were too inexcusably wicked she’d be more powerful or more interesting than Scottie.  Her threat is lobotomized, to where she’d be almost sympathetic if she were allowed to be real.  But the softening of her guilt ultimately functions only to justify Scottie’s attraction to her as an object, and his exhibition of her to the audience.  “The beauty of the woman as object and the screen space coalesce; she is no longer the bearer of guilt but a perfect product, whose body, stylized and fragmented by close-ups, is the content of the film and the direct recipient of the spectator’s look.”

Judy is even seen to be participating in her exhibitionism (both as Madeleine and as Judy) willingly, with the motivation of desire for Scottie.  Once she actively pursues this desire, telling Scottie she’ll conform to all the changes he demands if he’ll “just like me.”  Then Scottie’s masochism kicks into high gear.  That this scene coincides with the necklace clue that allows Scottie to solve Judy’s mystery, and punish her for it, suggests that perhaps Judy was being punished for desiring Scottie, and for having foiled his sadistic infatuation by having attracted him under false pretenses and having rendered the already threatening female object too threatening by making it a deceit.

[1] Laura, Mulvey. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. N. pag. Print.

[2] Williams, Linda. "When the Woman Looks." The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Austin: University of Texas, 1996. 15-34. Print.