Digital Culture Notes: Part Two

E-Books, iPads and Digital Things


Much has been made of the iPad’s possible influence on the future of reading and writing. Many of the fears about the disappearance of physical books are justified just as the worries about the future of newspapers needs to be taken very seriously. There is no doubt that we have entered an unstable period of change as various traditional forms of media shift to accommodate the impact of the Internet and digital culture in general.

However, the idea that books will disappear or that newspapers will lose their relevance because they may have to shift to devices like the iPad is naïve at best and alarmist. After all, books are really just pages and pages of discourse sometimes fictional, often not. All the genres that make up what we call the modern novel are not dependent on the physical boundaries established by traditional book production. In fact, an argument can be made that the process through which books have been brought to the attention of the reading public (ads, publicity campaigns and so on) are more in danger of dying than the books themselves. There is only one way in which books will die, and that is if we cease to speak or if we shift so dramatically to an oral culture that the written word becomes redundant.

An argument could be made that people inundated by many different forms of media expression will relegate books to the attics in their homes and in their minds. And a further argument could be made that the decline of reading has been happening for some time, if we look at the number of books sold over the last decade. There is a real danger that books and the reading public will shrink even further.

Nevertheless, my sense is that reading has morphed onto the Web and other media and that reading is more about glances and headlines than in-depth absorption of texts. We now have a multimedia space that links all manner of images with texts and vice-versa. The nature of content is shifting as are the venues in which that content can be read. The design of graphical spaces is often more important than words. Texts on the iPad can be embedded with moving images and sounds and so on, in much the same manner as we now do with web pages. However, this phantasmagoria of elements is still governed by language, discourse and expression.

Matt Richtel has an article in the New York Times that examines the interaction of all of these divergent media on users. “At home, people consume 12 hours of media a day on average, when an hour spent with, say, the Internet and TV simultaneously counts as two hours. That compares with five hours in 1960, say researchers at the University of California, San Diego. Computer users visit an average of 40 Web sites a day, according to research by RescueTime, which offers time-management tools.” Richtel suggests that the intensity of these activities and the need to multitask are rewiring the human brain. I am not able to judge whether that is true or not, but irrespective it would be foolhardy not to recognize that all of this activity increases the speed of interaction. Clearly, reading a non-fiction book is not about speed and books in general cannot be read in the same way as we read web pages, especially if we are looking at book content on mobile phones.

The same can be said for newspapers, which over the years have been designed to entice readers into reading their pages through headlines in order to slow down the tendency to glance or scan. This tells us something about the challenges of print. We tend to assume that the existence of a newspaper means that it is read. But, there has always been a problem with attention spans. Newspapers are as much about a quick read, as are web pages. Newspapers are generally read in a short time, on buses or trains — talk about multitasking.

As it turns out this is very much the same for many genres of the novel from thrillers to the millions of potboilers that people read and that are not generally counted when reference is made to the reading public. In fact, the speed of reading has accelerated over the last hundred years in large measure because of the increased amount of information that has become available and the need to keep up.

This is where e-books and the iPad come in. E-books are an amazing extension of books in general, another and important vehicle for the spread of ideas. The iPad will make it possible (if authors so desire) to extend their use of words into new realms. Remember, when the cinema was invented in 1895 among the very first comments in the British Parliament was that moving images would destroy theatre, books and music. Instead, the cinema has extended the role of all of these forms either through adaptation or integration. Writers remain integral to all media.


Lost and Popular Culture (A guest article by Katie Burnett)

Before there was Lost, there was the original Beverly Hills, 90210.

First day of school, West Beverly High, 1990: Brenda and Brandon Walsh from the television show 90210 transplants from Random Town, Minnesota have no idea what they will be up against in Beverly Hills. Ten years later, the show ends with two beloved characters getting married which sweetly ties up the show in an unpretentious manner.

I found the show less interesting after high school graduation, because I only cared about Brenda and Kelly Taylor, as evidenced by my Brenda and [Kelly Barbie dolls](, bought in the 90's in Florida. When Brenda and Kelly chopped their hair off, I chopped off their Barbie's hair, making them hideous and completely un-sellable should I ever choose to part with them (if I could find them — I suspect they're with my Babysitters Club collection "in the basement".)

I really loved Beverly Hills 90210, yet for a million dollars I can't remember the character that Tiffany Amber Thiessen played (OK I just looked it up — it was Valerie Malone — phew). I believe what [IMDB]( says since I have no memory of people calling out "Valerie". But I was completely wrapped up in that show. Ironically and to my surprise, I cannot name one secondary character.

OK, so the show started twenty years ago and ended in 2000 (apparently my family let an eight year old watch this show). Whose memory is that good, especially with respect to television?

I have found that when a show ends no one is ever pleased and most of our questions remain unanswered. In some ways, that's half the fun — we're left to discuss and wonder for years about our favorite characters what they did with their lives and where would they be now if a pathetic attempt at a reboot of the show were attempted? (e.g., the present day version of 90210).

By comparison, if I can't name every single character on Lost ten years from now then I will deem myself a failure as an observer of popular culture. And while the original 90210 can't be compared to Lost, it was an iconic show that I, and millions of other young people watched in its entirety for the duration of its run.

Shows come and go, but Lost is different. To me it stands out. The show practically cured me of my fear of flying — OK, a crash wouldn't be ideal but if it got me to the Island and if it got me to Jack/Sawyer/Desmond, well, I wouldn't complain. And a mango diet sounds good right about now.

Lost started as a "what if" — what if people crashed on an island that was a little different, a little weird? I wasn't hooked until the second season. I was in a hotel room waiting for a flight from London to Vancouver and there was an episode on one of the four British channels. Its title was "The Other 47 days". I have a strange thing about TV shows — I don't like the introduction of new characters.

I inevitably don't love them as much as the original characters. I'm bitter towards them, defiant, wondering why they were suddenly brought into *my* show. Well, as a good Lost lover would know, "The Other 47 days" involved only new characters — and yet I was transfixed. It never occurred to me that there were other survivors of the crash, and I had no idea what their experiences would be like. I went back to Vancouver thinking, "I should get back into Lost". Coincidentally, I was completely jet lagged and staying at my parent's house. My parents had taped the Season 2 finale. I decided, in the middle of the night to just watch it — why not? I didn't understand a thing but between this new hot Scottish fellow and some random button-hatch-thing, I decided I was completely back on the Lost train and immediately bought Season 2 in its entirety and watched it over a very short period.

What other show has had the courage to play with plot lines and characters like this one? If someone had suggested that one of the key locales for the show would be a hatch with a man inside pressing a button every few minutes in order to save the world, I would have laughed. Yet we (most of us?) accepted this reality once we start watching, and I think we (all of us?) fell wholeheartedly for Desmond as a result (male or female, who DOESN'T like Desmond? Definitely the most likeable guy on the planet). And, was Desmond part of the original cast? No. Do I have unwavering love for him? Yes. Does this mean I should accept new characters into my life on TV shows? I guess (grumble grumble.)

The series finale ended six years of turbulence. I've been on 14 hour flights, and even a few minutes drives me nuts. Lost has been a turbulent experience. Lost is about stress and anxiety and it has made me scream and cry and wish I had never started watching it. I don't know what the Island is, but I think I know what it means to me, and it's not just a meeting place of attractive, shirtless men.

I have watched many people I love on the show die: Charlie, Daniel Faraday, Charlotte, Alex — even Juliet, whom I was adamantly against for so many years. I hated her even more when she shacked up with Sawyer, yet she wasn't worried because she knew I would love her eventually. And I did; and I cried when a) I thought she was dead at the end of Season 5 and b) when she did die at the beginning of Season 6. I don't even want to touch on Jack's death because I am in denial. Maybe one day, but not today. Complete and utter denial.

I had so many questions I assumed would get answered in the final season until I realized I didn't really need answers. Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindeloff, the writers of the show want us to keep the questions coming. They want us to debate the show and its outcome for years, if possible. They want to leave us with question marks surrounding all the mysterious elements that made up the show.

Once you accept Lost, once you know that there is a Smoke Monster, polar bears, a giant wheel that can hide the Island and also allow people to escape it you give yourself the freedom to simply enjoy the world created by the writers and director. How and why would Daniel Faraday's mother kill him in the past? Well, I was never going to get an answer to that. Is Richard Alpert finally mortal now that he has a gray hair? How could I have hated Ben so much and by the end love him like a dear old friend?

But these are just questions, and they have allowed me to think about so many possible outcomes to the story. And Lost is about the debate between outcomes, reality and myth. The frustration we feel is also part of the joy that the story has brought us. We will always have so many questions, but isn't that the point? To question everything around us, to question each other? What other (network) show has brought up up so many different ideas and points of view and left so many stories dangling?

Lost will live on as a show that divided people, but its true followers know that it's an exemplary show that took us far away from what we thought it would ever be when it began. If it had been a simple show about people crashing and trying to live together, without all of the supernatural forces in play, would the intrigue have lasted six brilliant seasons? Sure, I would have loved a few more episodes of the castaways just sitting around, cooking fish and rice, arguing, but Survivor got pretty old after a few seasons. We got more than we bargained for and for that I am grateful.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Are social media, social?

Warning: This is a long article and not necessarily suitable to a glance. (See below on glances.)

I have been thinking a great deal about social media these days not only because of their importance, but also because of their ubiquity. There are some fundamental contradictions at work here that need more discussion. Let's take Twitter. Some people have thousands of followers. What exactly are they following? And more crucially, what does the word follow mean in this context?

Twitter is an endless flow of news and links between friends and strangers. It allows and sometimes encourages exchanges that have varying degrees of value. Twitter is also a tool for people who don't know each other to learn about shared interests. These are valuable aspects of this tightly wrought medium that tend towards the interactivity of human conversation.

On the other hand, Twitter like many Blogs is really a broadcast medium. Sure, followers can respond. And sometimes, comments on blog entries suggest that a "reading" has taken place. But, individual exchanges in both mediums tend to be short, anecdotal and piecemeal.

The general argument around the value of social media is that at least people can respond to the circulation of conversations and that larger and larger circles of people can form to generate varied and often complex interactions. But, responses of the nature and shortness that characterize Twitter are more like fragments — reactions that in their totality may say important things about what we are thinking, but within the immediate context of their publication are at best, broken sentences that are declarative without the consequences that often arise during interpersonal discussions. So, on Twitter we can make claims or state what we feel with few of the direct results that might occur if we had to face our ‘followers’ in person.

Blogs and web sites live and die because they can trace and often declare the number of ‘hits’ they receive. What exactly is a hit? Hit is actually an interesting word since its original meaning was to come upon something and to meet with…. In the 21st century, hits are about visits and the more visits you have the more likely you have an important web presence. Dig into Google Analytics and you will notice that they actually count the amount of time ‘hitters” spend on sites. The average across many sites is no more than a few seconds. Does this mean that a hit is really a glance? And what are the implications of glancing at this and that over the period of a day or a month? A glance is by definition short (like Twitter) and quickly forgotten. You don’t spend a long time glancing at someone.

Let’s look at the term Twitter a bit more closely. It is a noun that means “tremulous excitement.” But, its real origins are related to gossiping. And, gossiping is very much about voyeurism. There is also a pejorative sense to Twitter, chattering, chattering on and on about the same thing. So, we are atwitter with excitement about social media because they seem to extend our capacity to gossip about nearly everything which may explain why Justin Bieber has been at the top of discussions within the twitterverse. I am Canadian and so is he. Enough said.

Back to follow for a moment. To follow also means to pursue. I will for example twitter about this blog entry in an effort to increase the readership for this article. In a sense, I want you the reader, to pursue your interest in social media with enough energy to actually read this piece! To follow also means to align oneself, to be a follower. You may as a result wish to pursue me @ronburnett.

But the real intent of the word follow is to create a following. And the real intent of talking about hits is to increase the number of followers. All in all, this is about convincing people that you have something important and valuable to say which means that social media is also about advertising and marketing. This explains why businesses are justifiably interested in using social media and why governments are entering the blogosphere and the twitterverse in such great numbers.

Here is the irony. After a while, the sheer quantity of Twitters means that the circle of glances has to narrow. Trends become more important than the actual content. Quantity rules just like Google, where the greater the number of hits, the more likely you will have a site that advertisers want to use. Remember, advertisers assume that a glance will have the impact they need to make you notice that their products exist. It is worth noting that glancing is also derived from the word slippery.

As the circle of glances narrows, the interactions take on a fairly predictable tone with content that is for the most part, newsy and narcissistic. I am not trying to be negative here. Twitter me and find out.

Part Two

Cine-Tracts Issue Number 2

Cine-Tracts was one of the first Journals of Film and Cultural Studies published in Canada. The Journal was published from 1976-1983. In total, there were seventeen issues. No support was ever received for its publication except for the seventeenth issue. The journal survived on the energy of a few people and about 2,000 subscribers worldwide. Run your cursor over the image below to view the journal in full screen mode
Connect here for more issues.

History's Folds

The brilliant French philosopher, Michel Serres proposes in recent publications that one of the best ways of understanding history is to think about human events as a series of interconnected folds, a networks of networks in which events that may have taken place thousands of years ago are still connected to the present through human memory and human artifacts.

The folds of which Serres speaks can be visualized as a series of pleated pages in which different points touch, sometimes arbitrarily and other times by design. The metaphor that Serres has developed has another purpose. In order to understand the technologies, social movements and cultural phenomena that humans have created, each point of contact among all these pleats needs to be drawn out in a detailed and narrative manner. Although Serres does not describe this method as stream of consciousness that is sometimes how it reads, to the point where the simplest of objects becomes the premise for an expansive narrative.

For example, (adapting Serres’s method) the notion of networks needs to be understood not only as a function of technology and communications systems, but also through the efforts by nearly every culture and every generation to develop a variety of bonds using any number of different means from language to art to music to political, religious and economic institutions. This suggests that the Internet, for example, is merely a modern extension of already existing forms of communication between people. And, while that may seem obvious, many of the claims about the Internet suggest that it is a revolutionary tool with implications for the ways in which people see themselves and their surroundings. More often than not, its revolutionary character is related to obvious characteristics like speed of communications, which may in fact be no more than a supplement to profoundly traditional modes of information exchange. The intersection of the revolutionary with the traditional is essential to the success of any new and innovative technology and may be at the heart of how quickly any individual innovation is actually taken up by individuals or by society as a whole.

One of these mornings

A beautiful film about the most important election day in American History in 2008. Filmmaker, Valery Lyman describes her goals in making the film in the text below. Click the link here to view the film. It is well worth it.

"I knew the feeling would be big as people went to vote for Obama, and wanted to make a real time recording of it. So I set up a phone line and asked people all over the country to call in right after they voted, saying whatever was on their minds. The idea worked. Some friends but mostly strangers, young and old, people called in from all over the country and while it all still hung in the balance, before results were tallied or anyone had the luxury of speaking in the past tense.

In my work I have often sought to describe an historical moment through the faces and voices of regular people who are experiencing it. I take to the streets, recording with my camera and genuinely seeking the thoughts and feelings of these ordinary folks, and then distill this documentary material into a poetic expression of that particular historical moment. This film is such an endeavor.

This film is not about Obama. Certainly it's not an advocacy or even a political film. It's about us. This film is a portrait of the feeling in the country on November 4, 2008. Regardless of what follows - whether Obama's Presidency is a failure, disappointment, or tremendous success - that day was a singular moment in American history. It is this spirit, as it was, that I have attempted to capture and preserve."

From Quantum of Solace to Sherlock Holmes

The novels of Ian Fleming have been around for a very long time. James Bond has been given life in so many forms and with so many different actors that is might be fair to suggest that the films (and Fleming’s novels) are among a small number of foundational stories that say a great deal about our culture and values. I will not dwell on this point. Suffice to say, that my viewing of Quantum of Solace, the latest Bond was profoundly influenced by what I have just said. The key metaphor that I want to draw from the film is the balance between fallibility and infallibility that is at the heart of Bond’s attraction as a hero. In an era characterized by the never-ending presence of terrorism, war and violence against innocent civilians, there were two moments in this film that said more to me than the entire film itself. The first came after an endless chase between Bond and a villain which led both men into an open-air arena with thousands of people attending a horse race. The villain fires his gun at Bond and hits a civilian. The film pauses for a backward glance and then returns to the chase.

This raises some important questions. We witness the injured woman falling and so the film feels morally inclined to show the effects of the villain’s violence and ineptitude. But, should Bond not have stopped to help her out? Aren’t heros supposed to be capable of engineering a good outcome to everything that they do? Is the new Bond of the last few films and especially this one really a tragic hero? And, is the death of a civilian merely one part of that tragedy? The answer to these questions can be found in the ways in which justice is defined not only within the film, but within our culture as a whole. In Bond’s world (and among many contemporary movies), the roots of evil are always encapsulated within a broader context of conspiracies driven by megalomania, the desire for absolute power and greed. The overarching goal therefore has to be to destroy the source of evil even if the innocent have to suffer. The villain is more important than the injured woman and what would otherwise be a moral conundrum becomes a passing moment in an endless battle.

The second characteristic of the film that is of interest to me is the way in which Bond escapes all injury during a series of spectacular encounters between himself and the seemingly endless world of evil. Every form of transportation is used to highlight his superhuman abilities and most of his encounters mirror previous challenges in previous films. The film tries to create a sense of potential weakness in his abilities and in the confidence that his boss “M” has in his character. This is all a charade of course, because he would not be Bond if he did not triumph. The ebb and flow between his weaknesses and his strengths opens up a small window for some discussion of the ethics of his violence but this too is no more than a plot vehicle. In the end, Bond triumphs notwithstanding his own lack of a moral framework for his actions.

This is of course the central challenge of the war on terror, itself a metaphorically terrifying and deeply contingent way of solving issues of far greater complexity than the term ‘war’ suggests. So, it was not a surprise to me to recognize that the new Sherlock Holmes film was really a meditation on absolute power, fear of new technologies and on the role of magic and religion in determining people’s actions. Yet again, Sherlock played by Robert Downey seems to evade every form of violence directed his way. He transcends, as in the comic books, every challenge he faces including a series of dockside explosions that throw him all over the place. So, although the war on terror is very much about our general fragility and vulnerability, we have new and recycled heros who are able to withstand whatever is thrown at them. The irony is that the moral centre that is needed to progressively engage with violence has shifted as terrorists have targeted more and more civilians through their most powerful weapon, suicide bombing. Very few contemporary films deal with this issue nor do they explore the issues of inflicting pain on suspects or perpetrators. Torture is present in both films but without much fanfare and even less concern for its implications. The reality is that for better or worse, the moral fibre of contemporary culture is being challenged by events that seem even less rational (if that is possible) than just a few years ago. The challenge is how to bring this theme into the foreground of popular forms of storytelling.

Up In The Air with Avatar

"Being in the air is the last refuge for those that wish to be alone." Jason Reitman) There are profound connections between Avatar and Up in the Air. Both movies come at a time that can best be described as dystopic. From Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries mired in war to the deepest and most serious recession since the 1930's, to the ongoing crisis of climate change, the first decade of the 21st Century has been characterized by waves of loss, violence and instability.

What then allows any individual to compose their identity and to maintain their sense of self as the air around the planet gets thinner and thinner? How does the imagination work within a dystopia?

Up in the Air explores the tropes of loneliness and travel -- the in-between of airports and hotels, those places that are not places but nevertheless retain many of the trappings of home without the same responsibilities and challenges. There are consequences to being on the road 300 days of the year and among them is the construction of an artificial universe to live in like the metal tubes we describe as airplanes. One of the other consequences is that frequent travelers have to build imaginary lives that are fundamentally disconnected from intimacy and genuine conversation.

Ironically, Avatar imagines a world that is for a time dragged into the dystopia of 21st century life and where at the end of the day, a new vision is constructed. Avatar's use of 3D will be the subject of another article soon, but suffice to say that the worlds James Cameron constructs through motion capture and animation are among the most beautiful that the cinema has ever seen.

Hidden behind both films is a plaintiff plea for love and genuine relationships. Avatar explores this through tales of transmigrating spirits and animistic notions that transform animals and nature itself into a vast Gaia-like system of communications and interaction. The N'avi are a synthesis of Cameron's rather superficial understanding of Aboriginal peoples, although their language is a fascinating blend created by Paul Frommer from the University of Southern California.

The flesh of avatars in the film are not virtual but as the main character, Jake Sully discovers, the N'avi are the true inheritors of the planet they live on, a exotic version of early Earth called Pandora. In Greek mythology Pandora is actually derived from 'nav' and was the first woman. The Pandora myth asks the question why there is evil in the world which is a central thematic of Avatar.

Up in the Air asks the same question but from the perspective of a rapacious corporation which sends its employees out to fire people for other companies or as the main character, Ryan Bingham says to save weak managers from the tasks for which they were hired. The film also asks why there is evil in the world and suggests that any escape, even the one that sees you flying all year doesn't lead to salvation.

Both films explore the loss of meaning, morality and principles in worlds both real and unreal. Avatar provides the simplest solution, migrate from a humanoid body and spirit to a N'avi to discover not only who you are but how to live in the world. **Up in the Air** suggests that love will solve the dystopic only to discover that casual relationships never lead to truth and friendship.

These are 21st century morality tales. Avatar is a semi-religious film of conversion not so much to truth but to the true God, who is now a mother. Up in the Air teaches Ryan that life is never complete when it is entirely an imaginary construction.

It is however, the reanimation of the human body in Avatar that is the most interesting reflection of the challenges of overcoming the impact of this first decade of the 21st century. Jake Sully is able to transcend his wheelchair and become another being, now connected to a tribe. He is able to return to a period of life when innocence and naivete enable and empower — when the wonders of living can be experienced without the mediations of history and loss. This of course is also the promise of 3D technology, to reanimate images such that they reach into the spectator's body, so we can share those moments as if we have transcended the limitations of our corporeal selves.

James Cameron's digital utopia, full of exotic colours, people, plants and animals suggests that escape is possible in much the same way as Ryan Bingham imagines a world without the constraints that are its very essence. 3D technology promises to allow us to transcend our conventional notions of space and time but it cannot bring the earth back to its pristine form nor reverse engineer evolution or history. At the same time, Avatar represent a shift in the way in which images are created, in the ways in which we watch them and also in the potential to think differently about our imaginations and about our future. (Imagine a 3D film about the destruction of the Amazon!)



Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag

The following short piece from Susan Sontag challenges some fundamental notions of art, criticism and cultural theory. Well worth a read. (RB)

The earliest experience of art must have been that it was incantatory, magical; art was an instrument of ritual. (Cf. the paintings in the caves at Lascaux, Altamira, Niaux, La Pasiega, etc.) The earliest theory of art, that of the Greek philosophers, proposed that art was mimesis, imitation of reality.

It is at this point that the peculiar question of the value of art arose. For the mimetic theory, by its very terms, challenges art to justify itself.

Plato, who proposed the theory, seems to have done so in order to rule that the value of art is dubious. Since he considered ordinary material things as themselves mimetic objects, imitations of transcendent forms or structures, even the best painting of a bed would be only an “imitation of an imitation.” For Plato, art is neither particularly useful (the painting of a bed is no good to sleep on), nor, in the strict sense, true. And Aristotle’s arguments in defense of art do not really challenge Plato’s view that all art is an elaborate trompe l’oeil, and therefore a lie. But he does dispute Plato’s idea that art is useless. Lie or no, art has a certain value according to Aristotle because it is a form of therapy. Art is useful, after all, Aristotle counters, medicinally useful in that it arouses and purges dangerous emotions.

Continue reading…

True Blood (2) and the Culture of Vampires

Vampires have become an important part of our current cultural milieu. They exist in various guises and over a number of different media. This is not an accident but a reflection of the zeitgeist that we are living in.

Various commentators have suggested that the reappearance of vampires both as heroes and villains of numerous books and films and television shows suggests an obsession with immortality. Others have referenced Bram Stoker's Dracula which was published in 1897. There are further references to the folkloric origins of the vampire both as metaphor and myth. Combine all of this with further references to the supernatural, the church, demons and monsters and reality seems to be a rather boring and mundane place. And that is precisely the point.

The 'undead' appear in all cultures and there is an obsession with the afterlife in most religions. Vampires don't so much reference immortality as they do history. One of the characters in True Blood, Eric is over a thousand years old. We even see him on the battlefield moments before he is killed by his 'maker' and becomes a vampire. Presumably, since vampires can be anywhere on the earth, they are not only immortal but all knowing. Their knowledge does not let them change their reality. They are stuck inside and outside of history.

However, modern stories of vampires are less transparent, with the vampires actually experiencing some measured conflict not only about their status, but also about their state of mind as well as their emotions. This was brought to the foreground in Buffy the Vampire Slayer with the vampire character of Angel. Somewhat like Bill Compton in True Blood, Angel falls in love with a human and the entire show circles around the existential angst that Buffy and Angel experience as their emotional attachment ebbs and flows. These shows are also connected to the endless procession of TV series which use the supernatural to solve mysteries and murders as in The Mentalist or where the supernatural becomes a source of danger as in Heroes.

The roots of superstition are complex and profoundly intertwined with paganism and spiritualism. One of the most important psychological elements in superstition is projection. Something or someone outside of oneself is responsible not only for our state of mind but for the events in our lives. This sense that control has been lost and that it will be very difficult to regain control is at the heart of nearly all the modern stories that have vampires as their main characters.

Vampires can only reproduce by killing and can only survive on more killing. That sounds a lot like modern definitions of terrorism and is a fair definition of war in general. But, the real underlying fear here is that our society has fallen into a cycle defined as much by anarchy as by societies that no longer clearly know which direction they are headed in and why conventional solutions to differences and crises lead nowhere.

Vampires reflect a deep and embedded nihilism that displaces responsibility for what is happening in the world onto someone else living or dead. After all, from global warming to terrorism to economic collapse, these are not the best of times. Vampires of course cannot see the sun and natural light is their enemy. Darkness, the time of nightmares and dreams and of danger and fairy tales is when they rule.

True Blood which is a critique of vampires and religion and actually links the two is also a brilliant exploration of what happens when magic and sorcery do in fact take over. The results range from endless loss to hope in the midst of decay. In True Blood, the rather medieval charms of shapeshifting are added to the more sinister challenges of witchcraft. In all cases, the universe is out of control and people, normal people if there are any, are always confronting monsters within and without.

The vampires in True Blood actually have a centralized governing structure with a hierarchy and clearly laid out responsibilities. The fact that the male and female vampires can make love to humans even though they are 'dead' suggests quite optimistically that even in a dystopic time sex and love don't die. This is also the central thematic of the Twilight series by Stephanie Myers.

All of this is fundamentally an attack on modernism, on change and on societies which seem to have lost any connections to their roots. There is a deep nostalgia in Bill Compton's face and demeanor. He wants love even though he is dead. He wants to have an impact on a society that discriminates against him. He wants truth where there are only lies. He is charmingly naive and cynical at the same time. He is both young and profoundly aged. He can magically appear from nowhere and move at the speed of light. But, none of this changes the profoundly decayed society that he inhabits. The circle of fear and retribution will only repeat itself. He is history's worst enemy. A great deal is learned only to be lost over and over again. This timeless world of ghosts and screams and fear represents the apotheosis of contemporary angst. Once again as with Six Feet Under, Alan Ball the creator and director of True Blood is a true historian of our times.

Michael Jackson, Race to the Moon and Alex Ross

Greg Tate a writer at the Village Voice has an excellent article on Jackson entitled, [Michael Jackson: The Man in our Mirror](

[Above and Beyond: The Apollo Space Race to the Moon]( is an article by André Balogh that explores and contrasts the differences between what happened in 1969 and the present period. A terrific read.

Alex Ross wrote a wonderful book entitled: The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. His [blog]( has some great entries on it.


UP the new 3D animation from Pixar is at one and the same time a simple and beautiful love story and an exploration of the medium of animation. 3D is used here not as an effect but as an enhancement, a way of transforming the artifice and artificiality of animation into a narrative of an old man's love of his deceased wife. The old man struggles with modernity, with change and with urbanization. His search for a lost Eden is really a search for his lost childhood. In fact the film is about the symbols and objects that make up and give meaning to life at any age. Well worth a visit to the theater.


The Dark Knight

There are films and then there is cinema. The difference is not in the degree or strength of the entertainment. The fundamental difference is in the script, in the writing. Juno was such a film, differentiated largely by the superb cadence of its dialogue, but its narrative simplicity worked against it being anything more than a momentary, although quite pleasurable experience.

The Dark Knight is cinema, driven forward not only by a script that is as rich in literary references as it is suffused by moral dilemmas, but also by the director Christopher Nolan's profound understanding of visual storytelling. In between explicit references to 9/11, terrorism and George W. Bush, Dark Knight develops an argument, in collage/montage form, about the moral implications of violence practiced not so much by those who are evil, but by those who are stewards of the law.

When the cinema works, pleasure and shock co-exist in an almost continual tension with plot, images and sound. I found myself floating in and out of the film, racing to solve its problems and yet at the same time challenged by its brutality. This is not a film with a main character in the traditional Hollywood sense. Batman is a conduit for the fears and hopes of a population. The essence of this film will be found in its philosophical dilemmas — sounds strange, but in a quite self-conscious manner, Nolan asks us all to face the consequences of our own reactions to the arbitrary death of loved ones. But, can death be anything other than arbitrary?

When (as he often does) the 'Joker' laughs about chance, he is laughing at the rather blind reaction of people to the dystopia they share. Blind because it is in the character of a dystopia to be unable to see solutions and it is precisely the purpose of terrorism to cloud people's judgments about the future.

Given the circumstances, events and challenges of the last decade, the clear lack of a moral centre to so many of the choices made by so many different governments and the ever-present threat of terrorism, it is not surprising that Batman who is ultimately good, becomes an outcast. It is also not surprising that Nolan casts the Joker as the ultimate incarnation of what terrorism has come to mean since 9/11.

Terrorism is by its very nature without morality. It is an ethical black hole. Dark Knight explores what happens when that black hole sucks "good" people into its orbit and how they deal with the pain of loss.

At its heart the film explores the relationship between ideology and action, between closed systems of thought and the messy space occupied by democracy and its institutions. It is as critical of the police as it is of politicians, but always in the spirit of choice. We get to choose when the criticism means something and when it is arbitrary.

Nolan is so smart that he reconstructs the assassination of John F. Kennedy, in this case a speech by the Mayor, so that the shots that ring out from a book depository- type building melt into the chaos of a violence that has become viral. But, he also asks when does violence become foundational to our everyday thoughts and what happens when people no longer distinguish between morality, law and anger?

The key to the 'Joker' is his disguise and the fact that he believes he knows what is wrong not only with those he kills but with those who fight him. In a series of monologues that sound like they have come from a drunken sailor, the 'Joker' builds his rationale for the fall of human beings from any state of grace.

In the end, however, faced with the moral dilemma of choosing to kill others to save themselves, the 'Joker's' test subjects (who are on two different boats) choose life even at the cost of their own deaths.

This redemption sets the stage for Batman to become the ultimate outcast, a man whose goodness must be distorted so that he can become yet again the conduit for order and law. He takes the blame for everything that has gone wrong with all of the Christian overtones that that suggests.

A must see. A different opinion about the film can be found here.

Note: For anyone tired of dystopias and death and terror and war and oil prices and a decaying environment and so on, go to Mama Mia.


Also watch this video

Lost and Indiana Jones

I have been thinking about the relationship between the new Indiana Jones movie and the television show, Lost. The season finale of Lost connected the dots between the six survivors of a still unexplained airplane crash (which is at the origin of the show) and their 'exile' on a strange island that by the end of the show this season had disappeared into the ocean.

The six, who also happen to be the main characters, are to varying degrees suffering from a series of physical and psychological ailments as they struggle to survive in the 'real' world. They attribute all of this to the pain of being away from the island and to its magical qualities which were disrupted by their departure. In particular, Hurley has descended into a psychotic state. Jack has become a drug-addicted depressive and Sayeed has become an executioner as he takes vengeance on all those who might be associated with the death of his wife. (Warning, none of this makes sense if you have not been watching the show!!)

The island's powers seem to live inside Ben (who has also left through a magic portal frozen in ice underneath the island). He has become obsessed with killing the main antagonist and seemingly the agent of everyone's problems, a man by the name of Widmore (an all-powerful character drawn more from James Bond movies than a police drama or mystery show). Ironically, Widmore's daughter Penny has been searching for her lost lover for years, Desmond, who also happens to have landed on the unnamed magical island deep in the pacific as a result of a boating accident. (They do find each other, although that particular scene in the season finale is rather pathetic. )

If this sounds convoluted, it is. Part of the problem with Lost and the reason that its audience has shrunk, is the complexity of the plot and the continual way in which every story is extended into another story and so on. There is never any closure and there wasn't one at the end of this season as well. At the same time, it is the messiness of the narrative that makes it not only interesting, but a bit of experiment in television drama. The narrative is driven by the same elements that we have become so used to in both film and television early in the 21st century — evil that gets more powerful meets people of integrity who fight for truth and what is right. (See Heroes for another example of this, but there are many other shows as well.)

Lost experiments with all of this by sometimes inverting good and bad and by creating a deep ambivalence about why people act as they do irrespective of their negative or positive characteristics. Lost also experiments with the history of the characters in what can best be described as a psychoanalytic manner unveiling more and more about their past. Their personal history becomes a laboratory of human behaviour in which the audience plays researcher and analyst.

One of the key characteristics of Lost is the use of tunnels and portals and underground installations which are both mysterious and somehow full of technology. Lost endlessly explores Alice's hole in the ground both metaphorically and literally. The foundations of the island seem to be built on a series of basements that lead to other worlds. This is of course a central element in children's stories but has also become a defining element of many contemporary films. The portal in the Narnia series would be the most current example, but there are many others including Harry Potter and of course the many films that are now based on comic books.

The latest Indiana Jones film also centres on caves and underground installations within which there are artifacts that reveal some historical truth or connection to the present. Archeology meets anthropology and both connect to history and to adventure. The early part of the film is fascinating because it takes place at ground zero in Nevada where the first atomic bombs were tested in the 1950's. Further mention of Eugene McCarthy and the witch hunt for communists situates the film within a critical historical narrative (and is perhaps why it was so well received at Cannes). In addition, Indiana Jones brings ET into the narrative as Steven Speilberg and George Lucas play with their own work as well as that of other filmmakers. They generate a phantasmagoria of cinematic references that suffuses nearly every element of the film and all of this is made possible by a variety of portals which progressively reveal more and more about the causes of history in general and about the role of images in particular.

Mystery meets truth meets pseudo-science in a dance of questions about the unknown forces that really rule the world, from god-like spirits to angels. In Lost those forces are explained (somewhat) through the appearance and disappearance of the dead (like Clare and Jack's father) incarnated by a biblical character with the name of Jacob who is only visible to those with the power to see him. His messages are certainly understood by the key characters like Locke. For Indiana Jones the unknown forces are often old civilizations like the Mayan which are wrapped in riddles that can only be solved through a fight with evil or the accomplishment of some near impossible task or challenge. The film takes place in the 1950's so inevitably it is the Russians who represent evil. Cate Blanchett plays a horrible Soviet acolyte of Stalin's who is searching for absolute power. There are an abundant number of cliches, but Blanchett is simply channeling numerous characters in hundreds of films as opposed to simply being THE evil one. In this, both Lost and Indiana Jones are trying to be critical, even analytical but in both cases, the mysteries of history are really insoluble. This notion that we cannot understand why certain events happen is repeated so often that it almost becomes a mantra. The mantra reads like this: History and people's roles in history cannot be explained by rationality and in the end cannot be explained at all.

The world is wrapped in mystery because humans don't recognize how their understanding of reality is inherently distorted by forces which they cannot control. Human agency is both fragmentary and a figment of our collective imaginations. There will always be other powers greater than that of humans which will determine the outcome of events, their direction and impact. This deference to mysticism and spirituality and finally to religion is at the heart of the work of Lucas and has always been central to Speilberg's films. The startling similarity between the island in Lost disappearing as a round disk into the ocean and the appearance of a spaceship that it also disk-like in Indiana Jones is not an accident. The fact that both use portals in a play with magic realism is also not accidental.

Ironically, the world is a broken place because irrationality has taken hold and the only explanation both Lost and Indiana Jones offer is that the irrational is fundamental to the human psyche. All that is left to conquer, even examine, is the dream-like space of the unconscious manifested in the mutterings of Hurley and in the metaphoric resonances of dead languages. Coincidence, chance, sorcery and the accidental are at the heart of a dadaesque swirl of stories that ultimately produce protagonists and audiences without any control over their lives — a dire message in these very difficult times.

Gray's Anatomy (Season Finale)

Okay, so Shonda Rimes tells fairy tales. Her characters all speak with the same hesitant inflection, the same stutter and most of the time, they are self-absorbed and narcissistic. But, Rimes is also clued into the temper of the times and the need for integrity and truthfulness when so much of the public and political sphere is bereft of truth and integrity. Rimes for better or for worse "feels" the temper of of this historical period in a way that most television writers cannot, lost as they are in strange plots or repetitive narratives that hint at truth without understanding its foundations. There is a moment and it is brief, in the season finale of Gray's Anatomy, when the Chief asserts his leadership, his manliness and his integrity with enough force to reclaim his wife and his marriage. It is a poignant expression of the confusion between what we know about ourselves and our desire to live in an enchanted kingdom where deferred desires finally become real.

This year's finale is about childhood, about the losses, pain and learning that children experience without really understanding that they are forming the base upon which their adult lives will endure. Childhood for Meredith Gray is the discovery of her mother's real reason for trying to commit suicide (to attract attention) and Alex's revelation that he had tried to take care of his dying mother and failed to save her. Childhood is about pains that come and go without the perspective to recognize their impact. This show is about the success of psychiatry and the talking cure (Meredith finally understands her relationship with her mother.). It is about scientific experimentation (its mistakes and successes), but mostly it is about developing in the words of Miranda Bailey, a big picture view of the world. It is about stepping back from the seemingly endless swirl of everyday life with enough force to recognize not only complexity but also and more importantly, how to tell yourself a story in which you are both heroine and failure, but nevertheless can succeed.

In this context, honesty becomes a tool for self-effacement and for ego. The contradiction is obvious. You cannot at one and the same time be on top of the world and your game without also chipping away at your presumption that you know yourself well enough to understand what you are doing and why. Rimes balances between pop psychology and insight, between an Oprah-like obsession with reducing the world to a series of simple equations, to recognizing that fairy tales make the world go round. Rimes is the antithesis of the characters she creates. Her characters are immersed in the contradictions of a medical world that engages with death and disease while also pursuing dreams of perfection. For Rimes, perfection comes from the endless pursuit of the right story through a combination of dialogue rhythm and music. Every time that Rimes solves one part of the fairy tale another challenge rears its head.

Rimes's world frees patients from encasement in concrete (both psychological and physical), brings love to people where and when it is needed, and finally allows men to combine new forms of sensitivity with enough verve to remain at least partially macho. If all this sounds like a bit of a mess, then Rimes's has captured what other television shows cannot, the fact that fairy tales are always immersed in the detritus of what they leave behind just as most stories are not solely about the lives of the people they depict. Television is obsessed with narrating the clash between childhood dreams and adult failures (see this season's episodes of Lost). Gray's Anatomy in contrast revels in the romantic pain that comes from self-recognition. Narcissism it seems reveals an endless series of mirrors, none of which really capture the truth with enough depth to complete the story of any one character. This only happens when television series come to an end.

Calendar: Between the Borders of Cultural Identity, Atom Egoyan's Calendar

To look:
at everything which overflows the outline, the contour, the category, the name of what is.

All appearances are continually changing one another: visually everything is interdependent. Looking is submitting the sense of sight to the experience of that interdependence. To look for something (a pin that has dropped) is the opposite of this looking. Visibility is a quality of light. Colours are the faces of light.

(John Berger, “On Visibility,” in The Sense of Sight)

Calendar, in which Atom Egoyan plays the role of a photographer whose assignment is to take twelve pictures of historic sites in Armenia for a calendar. Arsinée Khanjian plays his wife, guide and interpreter. The film takes place in Armenia and Toronto.

I have come to realise that Atom Egoyan’s films must be understood as the continuing construction of an open ended oeuvre. All of his films are inter¬linked. Sometimes, it seems that he is writing an extended essay on the cinema and television (Family Viewing and Speaking Parts). Other times his films are like extracts from a series of diaries about images, loss and a postmodern context bereft of meaning (Next of Kin, The Adjustor and Calendar). His films search through the living ruins of modern cultural history in much the same manner as an archeologist digs for evidence of a culture’s past. The difference is that his tools are images and images are ‘light’ — a shift¬ing, groundless place where, “Clouds gather visibility and then disperse into invisibility. All appearances are of the nature of clouds.” (Berger: 219) Yet even as this ‘lightness’ recreates the premises of the visible (and how we are able to understand it), Egoyan continues to use the mediums of film and television to explore history and identity. The pursuit is a noble one, but as Calendar so deftly reveals, the result may be one long travelogue where the sensibility of the tourist dominates. There is a strange irony to Egoyan’s decision to use himself as one of the main characters in the film. He implicates himself in an auto-critique of the desires which have governed his relationship to photography and the cinema. He puts himself on the line in a kind of Brechtian play with divided loyalties which break apart and destroy the flimsy foundations of author¬ship.

I have recently discussed Egoyan’s use of images in an introductory essay on Speaking Parts. In the above quote John Berger captures some of the ironies with regard to any analysis of images. His use of a metaphor drawn from nature is not accidental, of course. Egoyan spends a great deal of time in Calendar exploring the act of taking a photograph of historical buildings in Armenia (his country of origin), churches and fortresses, for example, within picturesque natural environments. Although these places are beautiful with rich colour tones, wildflowers and sun-baked fields, they are “tourist” images for which some anecdotal history is provided, but where the depth seems to be mis¬sing. In fact, what becomes important as we look at the old buildings is not so much their connection to the past, but the role they play in triggering questions about the two characters whom the photographer is dependent on for guidance and information. One is a woman with whom the photographer (played by Egoyan) is in love and who is identified as his wife and the other is an Armenian driver who acts out the role of the local “informant”. The photographs are ostensibly being taken for a calendar but in essence we are witnesses over time to the breakdown of the photographer’s relationship to his wife and by extension to Armenia. Thus, all of the monuments which we see are themselves evidence of what cannot be seen. There are histories in the buildings but they only speak through the voice of the driver. In fact the pastoral setting of the images seems incongruent with the war raging in Armenia and with the breakdown of civil life and the economic devastation brought on by the overthrow of communism. How then can this place be spoken of as home? How are national borders defined when identity and place are fluid, moveable and ever changing? Are we the sum total of all of the different nations we now live beside? — all of the different languages we either speak or listen to? How does this hybridization change the spatial and temporal boundaries within which we normally operate?

“A life-testimony is not simply a testimony to a private life, but a point of conflation between text and life, a textual testimony which can penetrate us like an actual life .” Calendar is Egoyan’s testimony to his past, as much as it is a story of the efforts by the film’s characters to understand their own ethnic history. The film explores the many dimensions of identity, which in the late twent¬ieth century means far more than a simple relationship to the nation-state or the recovery of ancestral connections. The postcolonial and postimperial history we are now experiencing has scrambled the meanings of home and homeland. In Homi Bhabha’s terms another history is being written from within a crisis of the sign where language and meaning, discourse and identity have no firm anchors. Traditional notions of subjectivity have been transformed but this is not simply the movement from one stage to another, but a fundamental split in the operations of time and history. “…today, the rapidly expanding and quickening mobility of people combines with the refusal of cultural products and practices to “stay put” to give a profound sense of a loss of territorial roots, of an erosion of the cultural distinctiveness of places… Gupta and Ferguson go on to quote James Clifford: “What does it mean, at the end of the twentieth century, to speak…of a ‘native land’? What processes rather than essences are involved in present experiences of cultural identity?”

Hamid Naficy has commented upon the nostalgic desire to return to the homeland and thus to overcome the double loss of “…origin and of reality…” as a driving force inhabited by imaginary constructions which “…remains alluring only as long as it remains unrealised.” (Naficy: 286) This is of course the dilemma of the diaspora and exile, of cultures which have lost their roots as they have been overrun or destroyed only to be recreated elsewhere, simulated and I do not mean this pejoratively. In some respects, then, for Egoyan we have all become tourists and in the process we have had to develop new ways of dealing with each other which are more often than not mediated by complex technologies such as the camera and the telephone. Salman Rushdie has commented on this in a wonderful anecdote. “A few years ago I revisited Bombay, which is my lost city, after an absence of something like half my life. Shortly after arriving, acting on an impulse, I opened the telephone directory and looked for my father’s name. And, amazingly, there it was; his name, our old address, the unchanged telephone number, as if we had never gone away to the unmentionable country across the border. It was eerie discovery. I felt as if I were being claimed, or informed that the facts of my faraway life were illusions, and this continuity was the reality.”

Some years ago I found myself at a Cambodian ceremony in Melbourne, Australia. There were about eight hundred people in the gymnasium of an old school which had been taken over by the small but growing exile community of Cambodians in Australia. The gym was decorated with the symbols and colours of the homeland. Everyone was dressed up and the smell of incense was heavy in the air. I remember little of the specifics of the ceremony except for the feeling which I had that we were all in a time warp, transported back into a village, participating in the sounds and rhythms and music of a culture many thousands of years old. I understood then how crucial the nostalgia was, how curative and yet how contradictory. As a particular dance reached its peak the people around me began to cry, and as they comforted each other they seemed to me to be both weak and strong at the same time. This it seems to me is one aspect of exile — the ability to implicate oneself so strongly in the homeland and at the same time to go on, to carve out a new life, to break out of the boundaries of geography and time and yet to remain bound by a history which remains static even as things change both in one’s new home and abroad. This is of course the paradox of loss and the base upon which narratives are built. As Rushdie says an original moment cannot be reclaimed here with the result that fictions will be created, ‘imaginary homelands.’ (Rushdie:10) But this is precisely what Egoyan is exploring. How do those fictions sustain themselves? What are the markers we accept and what happens to the ones we reject? How do photographs operate as a fictional bridge?

I mention this in relation to Calendar because of my own background as an immigrant to Canada, as someone who was born elsewhere and for whom that “elsewhere” has never disappeared from the various ways in which I define myself. This very fluid sense of identity is made all the more acute by the situation in Quebec, by the personal signposts which I have for my own past and the efforts by official culture here to eradicate the importance of that history.

It is in the borders between official culture as promulgated by govern¬ment policy and the displacement (psychological, physical, intellectual) which grows from being both a witness and participant to the diasporas of twentieth century life, that a film like Calendar is situated. The film searches for strategies of talking about identity that will not fall prey to the categories of margin or centre. It longs for some coherence in the transnational space of exile and community. Through a series of often funny conversations the film tries to locate the way time and distance work to generate a mental geography within which the markers more often than not are unstable and unclear. At the same time one of the most interesting aspects of the film is the difficulty which the photographer has in under¬standing Armenian. Everything his driver says has to be translated. Often, we don’t get a translation and conversations take place which we don’t comprehend. This is duplicated in the Toronto flat of the photographer where he meets a number of different women in exactly the same setting (…a small dining room table, wine glasses, a bottle wine…). Each time they go off to the telephone and have a conversation with their lovers in their own maternal language. We hear everything from Hindi to German to Spanish to Swedish etc.., and depending on our own backgrounds we either under¬stand the conversations or not. In all instances the women stand near the calendar which had been produced from the Armenian scenes we witnessed the photographer shooting.

The border region inhabited by Egoyan in this film also pivots on temporal displacement. The time is now but somehow it isn’t. The characters seem disconnected from the present, always yearning for something else, for the future, for the past. Yet that is also the paradoxical situation of photo¬graphy both as an art form and as a means of documenting past and present. “In a photograph a person’s history is buried as if under a layer of snow.”

Kracauer distinguishes between the photograph of a person and the memory-image. The latter is what is left when the photograph is viewed outside of the time when it was taken. This distinction is a crucial one. It temporal¬izes the photograph and in so doing heightens the role of discourse, what is said and what isn’t said, about images. No photograph escapes the contra¬dictions and potential excitement of temporal dislocation. There are so many movements in space and time, so many moments within which history must be rewritten, that the conceit of truth must be understood not as an ontological basis for interpretation, but as a site where memory is reinvigorated, even when memories slip from fact into fiction and back. The pleasures of seeing in this instance are invested with desiring, to make the memory real, to generate truth, to manufacture a narrative. The truth becomes a metaphor just as quickly as the image disguises its sudden transformative power. The snow melts and there is a dissolution of memory although the photograph remains suggestively encouraging — as if no historical moment will ever again escape its simultaneous role as event and image, memory and potential arena for debate.

Each encounter Egoyan has with a different woman suffers the same fate. He is left alone to contemplate the love he has left behind in Armenia. In that sense he is locked into a history which is only real within a false kind of romanti¬cism. As in nearly all of his other films the telephone is a device of contact and breakdown, a metaphor for distance and connection. As a technology the telephone is perhaps the most important contributor to the creation of a public space within which the private fantasy of communica¬tion and interaction can be sustained and through which it is often denied. This, I think, is also the role which is played by photography. Distance can be overcome but the photographic print must be narrativized if links be¬tween past and present are to be established.

Calendar is a film in twelve movements, built around the photographs accompanying the months of the year. But the film is really about the memories of times past, when an image somehow connected to its referent and when notions of home and church and tradition could be addressed from within a set of foundations as solid as the buildings we see in the film. Ironically, as the Armenian driver becomes the historian and more fully represents all that is missing from the image, from the photograph, Arsinée falls in love with him. Egoyan is left to his devices in the dining room of his Toronto house or in the darkroom trying to reconstruct a world which, as his own images suggest, has long ago ceased to exist.

CineAction, No 32, 1993

Hollywood: Is the cinema dying?

There is a myth circulating in Hollywood and in the media that film is dying. True, box office revenues are down. The impact of flat screens in the home as well as DVD's and the Internet is changing the dynamics of viewership and audience. Yes, there are less people going to the cinema and the medium is changing because more people can now make films at home and then upload them to YouTube. There are many more venues in which films can be shown, which dilutes the power and the role of the majors. True, cinemas are closing and those that remain are deteriorating. Yes, there is more variety and many more choices available to people than ever before and this is highlighted by the strength of videogames.

BUT, the real reason that this is happening has much more to do with content, storytelling and the role of images in our society than with any substantial change in audiences. Hollywood has lost the ability to tell stories largely because it is so out of contact with the publics it tries to address. Much of the slack has been taken up by the independent cinema which in relative terms is thriving. Relative, because independent cinema needs to find small audiences and so can survive on less than the mainstream. I know that there are some people who will not be unhappy to see mainstream spectacle-oriented cinema decline, but I am not one of them. But, if the mainstream is to survive, it will have to reinvent itself, shed the marketing departments that dominate the selection of projects (when will producers realise that marketers have basically no understanding of audiences — which may explain why the vast majority of films fail) and develop new models of storytelling and narrative.

In my opinion, the cinema is not dying. The conventional approach to production and distribution is changing, but Hollywood producers still think that they are back in the 1970's. Examples abound. After many years of videogame production, audience building and the growth of production companies, Hollywood took notice and began to make films as if they were like games. The films failed of course because as related as the two media are, the activities of viewing are different. Videogames remain, in my opinion, locked into models of narrative that are as predictable and dry as Hollywood's have become, but at least some elements within the organization of a game allow for new strategies of audience involvement. The documentary cinema has risen in prominence over the last decade both because of reality television and the fact that there are so many stories out there that need telling. One of the few films that grasped this phenomena was "Good Night, and Good Luck" which used black and white film as a way of telling the important and often overlooked story of Edward R. Murrow in post-war America during the McCarthy era.

George Clooney's film took advantage of the strength of newsreels, combined that with close-up cinematography and then mixed in a soundtrack that not only evoked the era, but said something important about the media and their role as purveyors of information and opinion. Clooney didn't get much support from Hollywood for this film, but it succeeded nevertheless.

The cinema is not dying because audiences will always be hungry for stories and for new content that addresses their concerns or reveals experiences and worlds to them that they know nothing about. Ironically, a television series like Deadwood which is shot in the style of the cinema, has become a success largely because it manages to tell stories so well. The characters are powerful precisely as a consequence of the power of the FICTION. Here is David Milch, the brilliant creator of the series talking about his creative process. (From the HBO web site — producer of the show)

Executive producer David Milch warns that Deadwood is not a docu-drama about the famed outlaw town. "I want to make it clear," he says, "that I've had my ass bored off by many things that are historically accurate."

That said, Milch spent months immersing himself in the true stories of the people of 19th century Deadwood, absorbing not just the events, but also the subtle motivations behind them. "I like to read the primary materials; I love reading the Black Hills Pioneer, you know," he says. "I could read that all day. I'm interested in the personalities who were kind of the first prime movers in the community."

What has emerged is a picture of a place finding its own "order" without the benefit of laws. "Deadwood was a place created by a series of accidents. A kind of original sin — the appropriation of what belonged to one people by another people — was enacted with no pretense at all," he says. "You know, the people who landed in Manhattan, they paid 24 bucks. Well, maybe they got a bargain, but they still recognized the obligation to pay. In the Black Hills, the land had just been given to the Indians, to get 'em to move from another piece of land."
“I want to make it clear that I've had my ass bored off by many things that are historically accurate.

Somewhere between David Milch and George Clooney lies a middle ground for the new Hollywood. Go to the Ars Technica site for an interesting analysis on the future of videogames and why they may not be threatening Hollywood at all.

Moulin Rouge by Baz Luhrmann (2)

Dene comments:

What stood out for me from the first viewing to the last of the film _Moulin Rouge_ were the common themes that, despite all of our postmodern "cynicism" (as you call it, Ron), still resonate in our culture.

Take, for instance, the song Satine sings when she does Madonna's "Material Girl" doing Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." The tradition of the blonde bombshell is still with us whether we like it or not. It drives me nuts, but we have to ask, would Paris Hilton be so infamous if she were a brunette and frumpy? Not according to Luhrmann. Not in our culture. Ever.

And the updating of the fallen woman theme, seen in the song "Lady Marmalade," from the sleazy streets of New Orleans to the tawdry ones leading to the Moulin Rouge cabaret pokes fun at our pretensions that we are more sophisticated and worldly than our forbears. Truth be told, Christine, Lil' Kim, Mya, and Pink have nothing on Patti. They are all cut from the same naughty cloth. Certainly all their hair is just as weird:)

But I guess the most important theme to emerge from the film is passion--the kind that begins with strong physical attraction but grows into eternal love that death cannot even destroy. When Christian and Satine sing the duet "Elephant Love Medley," they engage in a seductive, verbal intercourse that presages the physical one soon to come. Most importantly, we as viewers come to realize the parallel between the love they share and the kind we feel for art and for film.

Thank you for introducing the topic.