Other transformative shifts in how we understand contemporary cinema include the migration of movies from theaters to the diverse screens where we now encounter them, from cell phones pulled from pockets to clunky Virtual Reality headsets and ...
THE VIDEO STARTS this way: a flurry of bluish dots assembles and disassembles against a black background, coalescing now and again to suggest a face or a hand, constellations of electronic snow drifting toward dissolution then reforming again in some new iteration of a body. And then the landscape: threads of colored light sketch stringy power lines, while the camera floats upward over a wispy topography also divested of any solidity. The city rendered here is an ever-evolving flux of points; the clear space and time of the cinematic image give way to the ebb and flow of points in a cloud.
These ephemeral bursts emanate from the 2008 music video for Radiohead’s “House of Cards” by director James Frost and technology director Aaron Koblin. The ethereal video holds a special place in music video history as the first to be created using high-tech scanning and laser systems to capture and then visualize chunks of 3-D information. Scanners, including the Lidar scanner used by Frost and Koblin, work by sending light pulses across a surface area and then measuring the time it takes for the light to return to the scanner. Each pulse of light that is emitted and then returned is placed within a representation known as a point cloud. Together, the points create a trace of the surface that they have measured. Frost and Koblin worked with scientists and technology experts from UCLA to make the video, inaugurating, whether they intended to or not, a shift in cinematic practice. The video’s point-cloud aesthetic eschews human perception and photographic representation as its foundation, turning instead to processes of scanning, tracing, and layering that relinquish the human body as their measure, and that forgo light as their foundation.
Radiohead’s “House of Cards” (dir. James Frost), 2008
Fast-forward a few years. In the Robot Skies: A Drone Love Story (2016) is a short project directed by LA-based speculative architect Liam Young and written by Tim Maughan. It uses imagery collected entirely by drones that were given a certain amount of autonomy about how to frame what they captured visually based on wind speed and the drone’s need to stabilize itself. The video chronicles the travails of a young man and woman who are forbidden to interact. Living in separate apartment towers, the couple finds ways to connect despite the aggressive surveillance of the hovering copters outside. Young gives us a dark vision of the near future, and it doesn’t take much to push further, to imagine a time when drones will make movies not for humans, but for other drones.
And one more example: several months ago, property developer Greenland USA unveiled ConvergenceLA, a 100-foot-wide, exterior LED media wall featuring a moving image visualization created by Los Angeles artists Refik Anadol and Susan Narduli in downtown Los Angeles. Roiling colors tumble about, creating dazzling abstract patterns that are not photographic representations, but visualizations of disparate data, including tectonic and climate information, all of it specific to Los Angeles. These public urban displays with bespoke visualizations are becoming increasingly prevalent, underscoring the shifting nature not only of images, but of architecture, too, as the walls around us become homes to yet another permutation of the cinematic, one that abandons mimesis in favor of transcoding.
These three projects take their place among many in demonstrating a shift within image culture, from the cinematic to the informational, from representation to computation, from pictures to data. Rather than using a camera to photograph images produced by light, these projects are created through new image production techniques — from the scanners used in the first, the imagery collected by drones in the second, and the visualization tools that transcode data into imagery in the third. As such, they constitute a very different act of representation, distinct from that of the photographic or the cinematic.
Other transformative shifts in how we understand contemporary cinema include the migration of movies from theaters to the diverse screens where we now encounter them, from cell phones pulled from pockets to clunky Virtual Reality headsets and fashion-backward Augmented Reality visors, from video installations in museums and galleries to those in outdoor public spaces. Similarly various technologies, such as drones, point not only to new ways to capture images, but also emerging cultures of movement and imagery, of information gathering and data tracking. In short, a collection of new image-making practices, technologies, and conditions of viewing embody a new era of the cinematic. And right along with these changes, a spate of recent books arrives to consider some of these shifts, grappling to find new words and conceptual paradigms adequate to name the tumult we call present-day cinematic art. “Post-cinema” has become the catch-all term to designate these changes and refers not just to new filmmaking techniques but also to a sense that our world and its flows of money and power have become too abstract to represent visually. Instead, we feel this kind of cinema: it feels disembodied, precarious, virtual, violent, and, on occasion, thrilling, provocative, and beautiful.
In Drone Age Cinema: Action Film and Sensory Assault, Steen Ledet Christiansen investigates the ways in which contemporary action films epitomize a non-human perception, arguing that rather than simply creating fast-paced and spectacular entertainment, action films, such as the Iron Man franchise, instead create a culture attuned to fear and war, with the world understood to be a target. Further, these films do not merely represent that fear-based culture; through sound, scale, and visual cacophony, they assault the bodies of their spectators, bludgeoning us into submission, in large part through their combination of live action and computer graphics that create dynamic — and impossible — bodies and spaces, or what Christiansen dubs “an assemblage of human and nonhuman sensations.”
But how does all of this relate to the drones in the “drone age cinema” of Christiansen’s title? He explains that just as a drone moves continuously through the air despite the boundaries and obstacles on the ground, so, too, do action films present space as continuous, dynamic, and inexorable: “The same sense of power, agency and mastery follows from both action cinema and drones,” he writes. He goes on to differentiate between traditional cinematic cues that politely orient viewers with point of view and spatial continuity with the lack of such cues in post-cinema, which opts instead to produce a sense of immersion and bodily entanglement with sound and image.
Christiansen uses an array of terms to name the visual cacophony on-screen, such as “crash cutting,” which is “impacting the viewer’s body directly through sheer speed of editing” (and as such is different from the traditional film editor’s use of the term to describe an abrupt or unexpected juxtaposition); “space-ramping,” where “there is a sudden burst of energy catapulted at us”; and the “flutter shot” that uses an out-of-phase shutter to create a visible stop-motion effect, causing an involuntary spasm in our bodies. Overall, he is describing the ways in which these images move beyond human perception by ignoring the conventions of visual organization and movement, replacing them with tactile, multiple, and dispersed modes that are more akin to a sensory assault than a peaceful afternoon at the movies.
Drone Age Cinema builds on earlier work, especially the longstanding critiques of cinema as a purveyor of war put forward by French theorist Paul Virilio; there is also reference to two key books chronicling the post-cinematic, namely Steven Shaviro’s Post-Cinematic Affect (2010) and William Brown’s Supercinema: Film-Philosophy for the Digital Age (2013). While Drone Age Cinema continues to explore even more terms and instances of action film assault, Christiansen’s argument is clear: “We experience through film, as it were, a new mode of sensing the world.”
The desire to name that new mode of sensing the world continues in Compact Cinematics: The Moving Image in the Age of Bit-Sized Media, in which editors Pepita Hesselberth and Maria Poulaki propose that it’s time to examine the full range of moving-image experiences that we encounter in a media-saturated culture, regardless of their specific origin (as television show, music video, YouTube short, or feature-length movie, for example). Hesselberth and Poulaki are interested in “new modes of engagement and forms of spectatorship, whether they be solitary, contingent, accelerated, fragmented, procrastinating, and/or productive.” They go on to explain why short-form work, spotted on mobile phones or the various screens encountered in everyday life, is so important:
Contemporary cinematics, we argue, retain the function of gluing attention between the fragments of everyday experience, even as the “suture” of classical cinematic continuity is transformed into a “stickiness” that demands the viewer to attune and respond to the loading and buffering of images in real time.
While the feature films of the past “sutured” viewers into the perspective of a single character throughout a coherent narrative experience, we now get instead a kind of stickiness that loosely connects radically divergent media experiences seen one after another. It is no mistake that “stickiness” is the same term used in web design to name those successful sites that attract viewers and keep them from clicking away for more than two or three seconds. This is cinema as it meets the reality of networked distraction.
Compact Cinematics includes sections on short-form narratives, archival projects, viewing practices, mobile media, and urban screens, with each investigating a different permutation of the cinematic in the post-cinematic moment. In “Countdown to Zero: Compressing Cinema Time,” Tom Gunning assesses LA-based avant-garde filmmaker Lewis Klahr’s use of time in his Two Minutes to Zero trilogy of short films, highlighting the squeezing of time across the three works. “Klahr never lets us forget the manic onrush of modern human time dominated by a sense of purpose and agency,” Gunning explains. He continues, “Rather than the release of ecstasy, his films evoke the compression of suspense and, even more, anxiety over time running out.” Here, Gunning uses a phrase that captures a very contemporary sense of time indeed, and in showing how Klahr’s temporal and spatial distortions function, he suggests implicitly that we might revisit the history of avant-garde short films and consider their contributions to a new iteration of the cinematic. That said, the last thing I want to do is click through Klahr’s films on my phone! Klahr’s work calls for a large screen, a darkened theater, and acute attention. I cannot and will not call them sticky.
The archives section of Compact Cinematics includes an essay by artist Natalie Bookchin, who describes her own project Long Story Short, which consists of a 45-minute film and multi-channel video installation and is part of a larger movement within cinematic experimentation that explores the role of the database. In her project, she creates a collective subject — a group of people talking about their experiences of poverty — and multiple formats for viewing the work. Similarly, the Urban Ecologies section explores collective experience in discussions of the proliferation of screens in urban space. Ulrik Ekman’s essay “Of Compactness: Life with Media Façade Screens,” for example, analyzes Nieto Sobejano’s Contemporary Art Centre in Córdoba, Spain. The building includes a complex media facade created by the Edler Brothers that, similar to the work of Anadol and Narduli, draws on data to create an almost ambient media experience of light, scale, and shape. The project comes to represent the potentials of the intersection of moving images and architecture, wherein our cinematic experience is not a story viewed on a screen but a form of collaborative co-creation with a sentient building that tracks us as much as we view it. These two essays point to another component of the post-cinematic, then: it is not tied to the perspective of a single protagonist but becomes multiple and mutable.
While the essays collected for Compact Cinematics are disparate and uneven, the book’s attention to the generally neglected ecology of short-form work that is so prevalent today, along with its insistence on a broad historical context that refuses to neglect the past as we examine the present and look to the future, make it vital. As with Drone Age Cinema, the attempts to name and frame a shifting context underscore how complex the changes are.
In Shard Cinema, Evan Calder Williams offers an appropriately fractured rumination on contemporary cinema, with attention to a specific visual trope, namely the shard. For Williams, the shard is that ubiquitous, free-floating fragment of computer-generated stuff seen in every effects-heavy film in which filmmakers and visual effects teams feel compelled to blow things up, rendering sublime tornadoes of destruction in loving detail, and at the same time, to demarcate empty space by filling it with visible dust.
Williams makes several compelling arguments to explain the significance of the shard and rationalize its prevalence. He argues, for example, that computer-generated images boast a specificity, precision, and locatability that can be visually troubling to the human eye, which expects a certain amount of messiness and imprecision. However, the decimation we see so frequently in blockbuster films pretends the opposite, offering “something that purports to spit in the face of that management, a chaos spun from absolute rationalization.” The contradiction implied here between the total rationality of the digital alongside the desire to render the irrational signals a key moment in contemporary culture. It embodies our own fears of the totally ordered and surveillant state, alongside a sneaking suspicion that the disorder around us traffics purposefully in obfuscation.
Williams goes on to show that the shard serves as an “allegory of technique,” by which he means that computer-generated images of destruction contain within them instructions on how they should be viewed. He writes, “They are elements in a gradual aesthetic education in how to watch and look at images not as a set of end products, finished commodities, and sealed deals but as diffuse processes that never properly finish, an array of techniques and experience in search of transmissible forms.” Here Williams makes a subtle point that tells us much about the current state of film production — now dubbed a workflow — and its distributed practices. Individual shots and frames routinely move around the globe where they are worked on by international teams. Similarly, the use of previs, the digital creation of various assets usually prior to production, contributes to the blurring of the boundaries that used to demarcate pre-production, production, and post-production. In short, then, the shard becomes a visual embodiment of the fragmentation of the filmmaking process itself.
Williams continues with his notion of the shard as an allegory when he likens the decoupling of perspective from a specific human-centered point of view — which is prevalent in digital games — to the perspective of the artist working with software to create the effects. To make his point, Williams compares the opening of 300 from 2006 with 300: Rise of an Empire, released eight years later, in 2014. He writes of the newer film:
Space is no longer presented as a semi-coherent volume, or even a determinable plane with suspicious depth. Instead, it is a liquid quality of attention that condenses and pools around individual gestures, magnetically sucked toward what compels it and causes the advance of time to itself almost halt, before being shoved away again to the next sight in a continual whiplash of redirection and speed ramps.
These sentences attempt to capture a very different cinematic experience that, like the workflows that produce it, is no longer photographic nor coherent in any traditional sense.
Finally, Williams makes one other key point. Building on a comment made by the VFX supervisor for Transformers: Dark of the Moon about the render time for some of the more spectacular sequences in the film, Williams does some math to speculate that the film could boast as many as 17,280 render hours of processing time. He comments, “It seems no stretch to say that shard cinema is one of the most blindingly dense encounters with time and money in the history of the species, even if we can hardly grapple with it in the theater or after.” Given this excess, he continues, these films have become our new cathedrals, where we sit and are stunned into submission. We become, in Williams’s words, “a dazed human stumbling through a pixel blizzard, looking for something solid to hold onto, simply agog at all that exists.”
Each of these books tackles a new era of the cinematic, offering perceptive readings of the evolution of the cinematic image as it becomes digital and computational. The assault of the action film, the diminution of space and time into a compact cinematics, and the celebration of the shard collectively constitute tropes that herald, almost didactically, the dissolution of traditional cinema and the haphazard formation of a post-cinema. Returning to the evanescent haze of “House of Cards” — not to mention the abundant recent projects created by Lidar scanners — these works cheerfully epitomize new visual forms and suggest that what we see on screens, and the ways in which we now behave in our disparate habits of watching and interacting with moving images, are not simply the bewildered behaviors of a distracted populace, but instead a form of learning how to be human in an age of post-humanity through a cinema that has become post-cinematic.
Holly Willis teaches classes in writing, film, and new media in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California.
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