S, M, L, XL: The Question of Scale in Screen Media

by: Alex Munt / Macquarie University

The proliferation of screen media has been so swift that many questions remain unanswered. In convergence culture [S]mall, [M]edium, [L]arge and [EX]tra-[L]arge screens all compete for ‘eyeball attention’. The contemporary screenscape is fragmented due to rapid advances in digital compression formats and distribution platforms. What to watch? When to watch it? On which screen? For me, these questions instil a certain level of screen-anxiety.

Focus is often toward the technical ‘quality’ of competing media, such as the mp3 debate in the digital distribution of music. But screen media is a visual medium. And one significant issue, often glossed over, is that of screen size, or scale. The lack of attention paid to the aesthetics of scale sits at odds with its place in the history of the visual arts. Scale remains relevant to the other art forms – the fine arts, architecture and urbanism. Does size matter for screen media?

Diagram of Comparative Screen Sizes

Diagram of Comparative Screen Sizes

[S]mall

Mobile/Computer Screens Chuck Tyron wrote an interesting Flow column looking at ways in which “the computer appears to be supplanting both the movie screen and the television set”. Tyron points to the first (legally) self-distributed feature film on YouTube: Four-Eyed Monsters. This feature was initially released as a series of 8 video podcast episodes (for computer, PSP or I-Pod consumption). Next, the entire work was uploaded to You Tube in the form of a 71 minute ‘Clip’. The creators of Four-Eyed Monsters (Arin Crumley and Susan Buice) position themselves as Independent filmmakers. The feature has also screened at film festivals and some theatres, through self-distribution. It is available for DVD purchase.

Four-Eyed Monsters

For me, the Four-Eyed Monsters experience unfolds on my laptop screen, in a You Tube screen which measures 11cm x 8cm. I don’t make it through the 71 minutes. My fear is that, with the miniaturisation of new screens, we have discarded a century-plus of film culture which has debated the aesthetic impact of film language, scale and aesthetics: mise-en-scène, camera movement, shot size and duration. Can a feature really shift so effortlessly across scenes? Lev Manovich tells us that a key principle of the New Media is that it can exist “in different, potentially infinite versions” (2001: 36). But surely these multiple versions need to address the notion of scale, if they are to be consumed across the contemporary screenscape?

[M]edium

Widescreen TV The DVD of Bubble (2005), from eclectic and prolific filmmaker Steven Soderburgh, carries the tagline: ‘another Steven Soderburgh Experience’. On January 27, 2006 the feature was simultaneously released in movie theatres and satellite/cable TV (HD Net Movies) with a DVD release on January 31st (Wikipedia). Bubble created controversy by mounting a challenge to the traditional ‘release window’ formula. Some theatres chose to boycott the film as a stance against the ‘cannibalisation’ of their product. In Wired , Soderburgh predicts “it will be a while before bigger movies go out in all formats; in five years, everything will.”

Bubble DVD

Bubble DVD

I purchased Bubble from Amazon and watched it on my 40-inch Sony Bravia (HD) LCD television screen. The film was shot with the expensive HD cameras which Lucas used for Revenge of the Sith. For Bubble, Soderburgh opts for a entirely different digital aesthetic than the gaudy VFX of the Star Wars prequels. He speaks about a ‘digital stillness’ in digital cinematography (no film runs through the camera) and opts for static, tableaux shots, wide-angle lenses and significant colour grading (in post). With the HD format (1920×1080 pixels) there is an ‘easy’ equivalence between the camera and the HD widescreen television. But Bubble works against this, by eschewing the 16:9 ratio for a more ‘cinematic’ theatrical ratio. The film looks and sounds great on the Bravia.

For Soderburgh, the cinema remains “the number one destination” (Wired) His ‘design’ for Bubble provides a feature film which will work across screen scale at the Medium/Large end. Soderburgh also provides a refreshing take on the idea of multiple versions of feature films across screen platforms. He advocates a mix/mash-up aesthetic:

“I’d like to do multiple versions of the same film. I often do very radical cuts of my own films just to experiment, shake things up, and see if anything comes of it. I think it would be really interesting to have a movie out in release and then, just a few weeks later say, “Here’s version 2.0, recut, rescored.” The other version is still out there – people can see either or both. For instance, right now I know I could do two very different versions of The Good German. (Wired)

[L]arge

Theatrical 2D The battle of the screens in the1950s is well documented. A series of widescreen formats, such as Cinerama (2.8:1), were engineered by the studios in a climate of panic. Today, the fear is back. In Australia, Village Cinemas use the catchphrase: ‘See it Bigger, See it Better, See it First: Only at the Movies’. This is a footnote to movie poster advertising for new theatrical releases. It runs on television, newspapers and is planted on buses and billboards around the city.

In order to keep their promise to the theatre chains, Hollywood (arguably ‘Post-Classical’ Hollywood) is also fighting back. Recent Blockbuster cinema reveals an amplification of classical Hollywood narration: in terms of duration (features are getting longer and longer) and in terms of scale. The latest Bond film Casino Royale (2006) provides a good example. An early scene involves a foot chase through a building site in Madagascar. It lasts almost 10 minutes. The scene is a live-action sequence performed by Sébastien Foucan, founder of ‘free-running’. It displays a hyperkinetic aesthetic, marked by rapid cutting and fluid, mobile cinematography. I saw Royale on the cinema screen and (for this part of the film) was convinced by the ‘Bigger…Better’ mantra.

Casino Royale

Mission Impossible III (2006) (the best one by far) also presents an interesting case. Writer/director J.J. Abrams was head-hunted by Tom Cruise after seeing Alias on DVD. With his strong background in television production, Abrams brought a new aesthetic to the Mission franchise. The film starts in Close Up (CU). Abrams cuts between handheld CUs of the protagonist Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and the villain Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman). This presents a ‘mutation’ of the television aesthetic on the big screen. It makes for a thrilling start, helped by the riveting performance by Seymour Hoffman.

Ethan Hunt

Ethan Hunt

Owen Davian

Owen Davian

eXtra Large

Theatrical 3D Avatar (2009) is the forthcoming Blockbuster from James Cameron, his first feature since Titanic (1997). The claim is that Avatar “will test new technologies on a scale unseen before in Hollywood”; Cameron describes the project as “a true hybrid – a full live-action shoot, with C.G. characters in C.G. and live environments.”

(See Entourage for a parody of Avatar as ‘Aquaman’: James Cameron plays himself in an amusing cameo).

Avatar ‘Teaser’ Poster

Avatar ‘Teaser’ Poster

Cameron’s ambition is to create a ‘next-generation’ experience which will stand alongside 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Star Wars (1977). The cinematic scale of Avatar is reflected by its budget of around $200 million (USD). This makes the studios nervous, who are already hyping the film. Jim Gianopulos (co-chairman of Fox) says:

‘This will launch an entire new way of seeing and exhibiting movies…once again Jim is transforming the medium. Jim’s not just a filmmaker; every one of his films have pushed the envelope, in its aesthetic and in technology…”

Big claims for a big film. But given the shaky history of 3D in the cinema, I would be nervous too.

Coda

The notion of scale in contemporary screen media is significant in a culture of convergence and excess. Heterogeneity of platforms and formats exists: from micro-screens of mobile media to new 3D digital theatrical projection. But beyond the hype, the formal and aesthetic implications of scale should be addressed. This is not to prioritise any historical or conservative notion of scale but rather to promote those creative, messy juxtapositions in screen culture: towards an adaptation, amplification, collision and mutation of screens.

The title to this column was lifted from Rem Koolhaas’ wonderful ‘novel’ on architecture S, M, L, XL.

Works Cited

Jardin, X. (2006) ‘Thinking Outside the Box Office’, Wired , accessed 20 September, 2007

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

Thompson, A. (2007) ‘Cameron sets live-action, CG epic for 2009’, The Hollywood Reporter, accessed 20 September, 2007

Waxman, S. (2007) ‘‘Titanic’ Director Joins Fox on $200 Million Film’, The New York Times, accessed 20 September, 2007

Image Credits

1. Diagram of Comparative Screen Sizes

2. You Tube

3. Bubble (2005) DVD

4. You Tube

5. Ethan Hunt

6. Owen Davian

7. Avatar ‘Teaser’ Poster from FirstShowing.Net

Please feel free to comment.




Inland Empire: The Cinema in Trouble?

by: Alex Munt / Macquarie University

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You can break through to something else, but if you’re not up for destroying you can’t get there. (Lynch in Figgis 2007: 19)

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Inland Empire(2006)

Inland Empire(2006)

David Lynch has gone digital. His new feature film Inland Empire (2006) is 179 minutes long, filmed without a script; shot with a prosumer DV camera and self-distributed by Lynch (in the US). Inland Empire is currently doing film festivals across Australia. I saw it at the 2007 Sydney International Film Festival, in a sold-out session.

Lynch is consistently: surreal, indulgent, bold, exhilarating and entertaining. Inland Empire is no exception. Also, the film represents a digital ‘catharsis’ for the auteur:

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Film is beautiful, but having had this experience I would die if I had to go that slow ever again. It’s not slow in a good way. It’s death, death, death. I can hardly stand thinking about it (Figgis 2007: 19).

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What is the impact of ‘the digital’ here? Is Inland Empire a departure from the Lynch oeuvre? Death and the Digital are never far apart: death of a form? (the feature); death of a medium? (celluloid) or death of an activity? (cinema-going). These are common questions today. (For some good answers – see Wheeler Winston Dixon’s excellent Twenty-Five Reasons Why It’s All Over). What I want to say here, is that all this (anticipated) death and destruction can be a good thing. And Inland Empire reveals why.

01 Narrative

Laura Dern

Laura Dern

Irony is at play in the simplicity of the tagline for Inland Empire : ‘A Woman in Trouble’. Laura Dern (Nikki Grace) is actually multiple alter –egos. Here, Lynch returns to his favourite theme of (fractured) identity. There are 7 narrative worlds (Clarke 2007):

1. LA actor Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) is married to Piotrek Król (Peter J. Lucas). She is paid an impromptu visit by a (very odd) neighbour (Grace Zabriskie)
2. Nikki wins the role of ‘Susan Blue’ in a film production On High in Blue Tomorrows – a romantic historical melodrama. The Director of the film is Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons). The question of romance with her co-star Devon Burk (Justin Theroux) develops
3. On High in Blue Tomorrows is based on an unfinished ‘cursed’ production 4/7
4. Both productions are adaptations of an old Polish folk story
5. A stranger called ‘Smithy’ visits the set of On High in Blue Tomorrows. His house doubles as a set-piece for the film
6. A gang of (all singing and dancing) Polish prostitutes in Lodz
7. A 1950s sitcom-style family of (giant, vertical) Rabbit: ‘Mum’ is voiced by Naomi Watts

Inland Empire flirts with, but defies, contemporary narrative modes. On the surface it mirrors the complexity of the ‘multi-thread’ (TV) or ‘multi-strand’ (film) model. Steven Johnson, in his book, Everything Bad is Good for You has drawn lots of narrative ‘maps’ and ‘networks’ to represent the complexity of ‘multithreaded’ TV structure (including 24 and The Sopranos) (Johnson 2005). I love these narrative diagrams – and have drawn some Cinematic Diagrams for films. But what about a diagram for Inland Empire ? Forget it. It’s a futile exercise – since Lynch destroys narrative models and expectations with abstraction. (Note: No studio, no script and a prosumer DV camera are a world away from the script architecture of network television).

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A great poet might articulate abstractions with words but cinema does it with pictures flowing together in sequences. It’s magical, it goes into the abstract. (Figgis 2007: 18)

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Wormhole

Wormhole

02 Form

In lieu of any workable narrative diagrams for Inland Empire – one key image I sugggest is that of the Wormhole. In Manohla Dargis’ review of Inland Empire (NY Times) she proposes that the best way to penetrate the film is spatially. I think she is exactly right:

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The spaces in “Inland Empire” function as way stations, holding pens, states of minds (Nikki’s, Susan’s, Mr. Lynch’s), site of revelation and negotiation, of violence and intimacy. They are cinematic spaces in which images flower and fester, and stories are born.(Dargis 2006)

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Inland Empire functions less as a network of narratives – and more as a network of spaces (connected by those wormholes). In this sense, the film can framed as a revival of spatial montage – that ‘suppressed’ mode of cinema from the early 20th century film avant-garde (Manovich 2001). A clue to this is given, right at the beginning of the film, when two Polish prostitutes (in Lodz?) watch The Rabbits flicker away on their TV screen. No explanation unites these spaces and their precise geography is unclear. (Lynch built the Rabbit set in his backyard with a DV camera rig – and yes there were complaints from the neighbours). The best we can do is by the synopsis for the Rabbits at DavidLynch.com:

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In a nameless city, deluged by a continuous rain, three rabbits live with a fearful mystery (DavidLynch.com)

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Inland Empire is tableaux in form – revealing Lynch at his most episodic. The Rabbits are just one of multiple tableaux ‘inserted’ into the feature form. This approach to form/structure reworks the MTV style of the 1990s. Specifically, his Rabbits recall the stylised-sitcom of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994). In this light, the form of Inland Empire is an assemblage of ‘clips’. Two of the most memorable are: 1) a gang of Polish prostitutes who dance and lip-synch The Loco-Motion and 2) an LA street scene set to Beck’s Black Tambourine.

Inland Empire as a feature form is stretched (or deformed) to 179 minutes. Here, the feature is exploited as a vessel for various past/present Lynchian worlds absorbed from television, the web and fine art: Twin Peaks; Mulholland Drive; Rabbits; Dumbland and Axxon N. (which exist is various stages of (in)complettion).

03 Aesthetics

On an aesthetic level – should we mourn the loss of the rich cinematography which had Lynch perfected by Mulholland Drive? Perhaps. Partly. But as Lynch says: one needs to be ‘up for destroying’. In Inland Empire we get distorted character portraits (with a cheap fish-eye DV lens); blown-out (overexposed) images and spaces ‘painted’ in high contrast colour and shadow.

David Lynch started as a painter and it is no surprise that his new digital aesthetic (of the moving image) overlaps with his recent experiments in the visual arts. Foundation Cartier hosted a recent exhibition of his eclectic work The Air on Fire. This included a set of digitally (Photoshop) manipulated Victorian erotic photos titled Distorted Nudes. The destruction and (re)assemblage of (body) parts in the nudes bear some proximity to the distorted digital cinematography of Inland Empire. Holly Willis says that “the most compelling DV feature-film experiments work…using DV to push against the confines of an entrenched realism” – and Lynch is definitely at home here (Willis 2005: 22).

Distorted Nude from Culture Vulture

Distorted Nude from Culture Vulture

Coda

Inland Empire represents a (productive) destruction of the feature film: on narrative, form and aesthetics. As the ‘digital insurgency’ grows stronger in the cinema (as more visionaries ‘go digital’ such as Figgis, Kiarostami, Von Trier and now Lynch) – it seems that the cinema is, indeed, in Trouble. The death of celluloid is close. But the death of the cinema? No way. Digital cinema is proving a catalyst for the re(evaluation) of our one hundred-plus years history of the projected moving image. Inland Empire is a film (aesthetically, if not politically) which recalls another time of ‘trouble’ in the cinema. That of the French New Wave. In 1967 Jean-Luc Godard described Week End as “a film adrift in the cosmos” and “a film found on a scrap heap”. Some forty years later this provides apt description for the weird and wonderful Inland Empire .

Works Cited:
Clarke, R. (2007) ‘Daydream Believer’ in Sight & Sound, vol. 17 issue 3, pp 16-20
Dargis, M. (2006) ‘The Trippy Dream Factory of David Lynch’, The New York Times, http://movies2.nytimes.com/2006/12/06/movies/06empi.html, accessed 1 August 2007
Dixon, W. W. (2001) ‘Twenty-five Reasons Why It’s All Over’. in Lewis, J. (Ed.) The End of Cinema As We Know It: American Film in the Nineties, New York: New York University Press
Figgis, M. (2007) ‘Into the Abstract’ in Sight & Sound, vol. 17 issue 3, pp 18-19
Johnson, S. (2005) Everything Bad is Good for You, London: Penguin.
Manovich, L. (2001) The Language of New Media, Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Willis, H. (2005) New Digital Cinema: Reinventing the Moving Image, London: Wallflower Press.

Image Credits:

1. Film Poster from Inland Empire

2. Still from NY Times

3. Wormhole visualisation from Wikipedia

4. Distorted Nude from Culture Vulture

Please feel free to comment.




Feature Film: A ‘You Tube Narrative Model’?

by: Alex Munt / Macquarie University

From Natural Born Killers

From Natural Born Killers

Will the You-Tube revolution foster a new narrative model for feature film? Perhaps it’s too early to say. But then again, given the rapid proliferation of the online video portal (launched barely a year ago) it’s worth thinking about. To date, most discussion on You Tube centres on its relationship with television. However, there are also signs of ‘cross-pollination’ with the cinema: from the very, very small screen to the big screen.

Scriptwriting author Ken Dancyger says that new ‘narrative models’ develop against a background of technological innovation, to provide “narrative experience that re-establishes its connectivity with its audience” (127). Premonitions of a ‘You Tube Narrative Model’ can be considered in relation to Dancyger’s ‘MTV Model’: the feature film as an assemblage of ‘set-pieces’ which appropriate both the structure (2-4 minutes) and aesthetic (high production values/rapid montage) of the music video (132). He points to Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994) as an example.

Natural Born Killers

Natural Born Killers

But this earlier brand of (80s-90s) postmodern excess has mutated in the new media environment – and new narrative models beckon. The not-so-new MTV (which recently turned 25) is being challenged by a new audience: the vast You-Tube-crazy, Gen-Y audience who consume online moving images at a voracious rate. The portal serves 100 million videos a day with around 65,000 uploaded daily. The term “Clip Culture” has been coined to describe this phenomenon (Geist). And if we entertain the claims of Marshall McLuhan, even to a degree, then precession of You Tube stands to alter the ‘patterns of perception’ of this new audience.

So, where do we look for early signs of a ‘feedback’ effect from You Tube to the cinema: The Blockbuster? Indies? Art Cinema?

Blockbuster cinema has mounted an aggressive counter attack toward a (perceived) You Tube insurgency. This battle is fought on the dual fronts of structure and aesthetics. The scripts from the current crop of ‘Tent Pole’ films are pretty heavy (literally) indeed: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (168 mins) and Spider Man 3 (140 mins) –a long, long way from a three minute clip on You Tube. Here, Hollywood protracts its traditional three-act structure to bladder testing durations: CGI sequences are inserted (accumulatively) within a tired and tested screenwriting structure.

On the aesthetic front, these films sever the proximity between the two digitals. An unmistakable distance is placed between the ‘Elite Digital’ (CGI graphics) and the ‘Democratic Digital’ (grainy, shaky, online video). An extreme reaction to Clip Culture? Perhaps. But these trends also need to be read within a much longer history of paranoid reactions to competing media, provided by Hollywood.

Indie(wood) takes a more creative response to the culture of You Tube. The Tarantino/Rodriguez double-feature Grindhouse (2007) is primarily an exercise in parodic nostalgia (1970s exploitation cinema) but it also represents an engagement with Clip Culture. In the ‘intermission’ between Rodriguez’ Planet Terror and Tarantino’s Death Proof, a series of faux trailers screen for (imaginary) horror films. Three official-faux-trailers were supplied by Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright and Eli Roth. In addition, the Grindhouse Cinema Trailer Contest announced one lucky winner to contribute a trailer to the screening of the film at the SXSW festival. Clever marketing aside, the Grindhouse project reworks the idea of the ‘Re-Cut’ trailer and also provides space for ‘user generated content’ to connect to the participatory drive of You Tube.

It needs to be noted, that the Grindhouse attempt to (re)stage a cinematic experience for a new generation – certainty did not pay off at the Box Office. However interesting, this ‘modular’ approach to the feature film (Double-Bill + trailers) either failed to generate a new audience or proved too demanding for its existing one. The Grindhouse cinematic experience was extended beyond the Blockbuster, coming in at 191 minutes. It did not take long for Harvey Weinstein to intervene and order the film to be re-released as separate pictures: he described the initial concept as ‘a mistake’. Furthermore, if Grindhouse takes a nod to You Tube in its structure, then it remains close to the Blockbuster in its aesthetic. The digital cinematography and special effects (of Rodriguez) and the elaborate car chases (of Tarantino) are a world away from You Tube video production.

Grindhouse Trailer

Grindhouse Trailer

Hobo With A Shotgun Trailer

Hobo With A Shotgun Trailer

Art House cinema takes a more daring tact. Where the media took a monocular focus on the explicit depiction of sex in Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs (2004) – this was possibly its least interesting aspect. In fact, 9 Songs presents a radical approach to the feature film and provides a precursor to a You Tube (Narrative) Model. The film is entirely assembled from ‘clips’: it alternates ‘live’ sex clips with live concert footage. More ‘concert film’ than ‘sex film’ it showcases big bands including Franz Ferdinand, The Dandy Warhols and The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. But doesn’t 9 Songs conform to Dancyger’s MTV Model? Partially, yes. But it is also a significant departure.

From the 9 Songs DVD

From the 9 Songs DVD

9 Songs represents a mutation from an MTV to a You Tube Model – in its narrative structure and aesthetic of the moving image. This is most evident where the ‘characters’ in the film are inserted within documentary spaces of London’s live band institutions (such as the Brixton Academy). To do this, Winterbottom deployed multiple small handheld DV cameras, and the result reads just like the countless bootleg live music videos on You Tube. (A similar aesthetic was also appropriated by the Beastie Boys in their recent live concert film). Also, the grainy, shaky hand-held camera is also employed to document the sex scenes, which rework a (Paris Hilton?) DIY home-movie aesthetic. In fact, it is probably the digital aesthetic which fuses the two modes of ‘clips’ together in the feature form, over traditional ‘story’ links. Of course, nothing in the ‘new media’ is really new. The feature film – as an assemblage of clips – revisits the ‘modular narratives’ of 1960s Art Cinema: in the films of Jean-Luc Godard and Luis Buñuel, among others.

You Tube is a key site of ‘remediation’ on many levels. But the cinema – the theatrical experience, the storytelling structures and the aesthetics of the moving image – is another site which is experiencing some ‘feedback’ effects of Clip Culture. The evolution of a ‘You Tube Narrative Model’ presents as an exciting mutation of screenwriting structure, scale and aesthetics of the moving image today.

From the 9 Songs DVD

From the 9 Songs DVD

Works Cited

Dancyger, K. (2001) Global Scriptwriting, Boston: Focal Press

Giest, M. (2007) The Rise of Clip Culture Online, BBC News,
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/4825140.stm, accessed May 23 2007

Image Credits

1. From Natural Born Killers

2. Natural Born Killers

3. Grindhouse Trailer

4. Hobo With A Shotgun Trailer

5. From the 9 Songs DVD

6. From the 9 Songs DVD

Please feel free to comment.