The Comfort of Recognisable Shapes

Flash back one hundred years. Cinema burst into existence in a variety of standards and formats, different tools and processes. It proved to be popular and potentially lucrative so processes became standardized and formalized to create repeatability of success. The studio system developed genres, production processes and business models to sustain this.

Jump to now. Social media has burst into existence in a variety of standards and formats, with different tools and processes. It is popular and potentially lucrative so we try to standardize and formalize our projects to create repeatability of success.

The repeatability of success! What works and what doesn’t? Why reinvent the wheel each time? We can build on the successful elements and abandon the bits that don’t work. This is a logical approach to take, right?

Part of the problem now is that there is simply MORE of EVERYTHING than there was 100 years ago. There are more of us; there are approximately 7 billion of us now compared to 1.6 billion in 1900. More people have access to the technology and therefore the potential of being a pioneer, whereas 100 years ago the machinery was exclusive. The availability and the popularity of these new technologies have led to the term ‘ubiquitous media’. The technology is omnipresent. The camera is your phone is your music. Everything, everywhere at the same time. That is a lot of ‘noise’ to contend with and make sense of.

And so we begin to cling to familiarity. The vast majority of web users are conducting the same patterns and site visits on a regular basis. I would love to conduct a survey into how many people say they find Hollywood films boring and repetitive and compare it to their boring and repetitive web habits! We are creatures who take comfort in recognizable situations.

The problem when doing this with the Internet is that this severely limits the potential of what it is capable of. The web began as a platform for horizontal communication and personalized design, away from the hegemony of traditional broadcast media. Whilst it still can exist as such, many commentators like Jaron Lanier find it ironic that we now use only a handful of websites to communicate with one another. It is understandable that we congregate socially in the same places for the sake of ease, but the majority of us go to a handful of websites for information or entertainment too!

“So what?” Well, I find it interesting that when filmmakers are keen to get their project made, it is must usually be sold on its difference. How is it different from that film? Yet it must simultaneously be the same as all the others too, within certain parameters. What genre is it? What kind of length are we looking at? For example, a feature must be over a certain length and a short should be under a certain length. There is even a graveyard in between these two lengths where we consider it unsuitable for cinema, unless of course, you wanted to consider, you know, television.

In all seriousness, I believe that filmmaker’s brains are so hard-wired to the world of sequences and linearity that the ubiquity and potential of new media is problematic. There are numerous blogs and courses by (self-appointed) digital prophets who point towards the way that we can make films in this brave new world. Build a fanbase on Facebook and Twitter! Steer traffic to your Kickstarter! Use gamification! Eventize! Do these things and your project will succeed!

Isn’t there a strange irony in following this advice when trying to be creative? By it’s very nature, ‘following’ something isn’t ‘leading’ it. But we are following it because we are desperate to make sense of the social media that has burst into existence in a variety of standards and formats, with different tools and processes. We want to know what works and what doesn’t! It is essential to the repeatability of success!

My concern is that, for the majority of filmmakers, these technologies don’t have a high ‘effort to effectiveness’ ratio when trying to get traditional films made. Sure, they may work, but building an online audience that will pay for your projects is really difficult and time consuming, and in many cases, is a false economy. This online audience is not necessarily the audience that will come to your ‘eventized’ event, because they are at home, online. Liking your project on Facebook is easy and effortless; taking the time to actually watch your film is quite hard in a busy lifestyle. The time you spend generating this audience could be spent getting your film made in more effective ways.

‘And how?’ I hear you ask. Well that would be telling you, wouldn’t it? And then you would be following me. The point is that we like the comfort of recognizable shapes and processes, and we’ll follow them even if they are not that effective, because it provides a plan. And that is easier than trying to reinvent the wheel and run the risk of failing on our own ideas. Personally, I find this approach is quite deterministic and assumes that our choices are determined by outside forces. I believe that this approach doesn’t acknowledge the role of chance and opportunity within filmmaking. Doing something different may be the thing that gets you noticed.

In a hundred years, I wonder whether we’ll lament the possibility of what the Internet could have been? Before we forced it into the recognizable shape of similarity.

The butcher, the baker, the amateur filmmaker – getting the language right

Christopher J. Boghosian and Mark Savage both wrote great posts recently that used analogies to identify some of the challenges that face the filmmaker (the baker and the priest respectively). Last year I wrote a post for Randy Finchabout why we should be careful with the language we use to identify ourselves as filmmakers, and I want to expand upon why I think it is important here.

This community is broadly dedicated to exploring and establishing new models of cinema to replace the rapidly diminishing old models. It seeks to reflect, understand and decipher the current issues facing the filmmaker. However, I believe that one potential conflict between the past and the future is the connotations of the language that we use to describe things. As ideas and concepts change, the meaning of language changes too…

Let me give you an example. Let’s take the ‘professional/amateur’ divide. Within filmmaking the common belief is that you are professional if you are paid and make a living from it, you are amateur if you don’t. But, working in a university, I meet many people who would argue that LITTLE of the film industry is ‘professional’, because it rarely requires examinations or formal training to work in many of the roles, which means that it isn’t strictly a profession at all, it is a ‘job’. The formal training is the distinction between the two, and plenty advocate that filmmakers don’t need to be trained. Describing filmmaking as an ‘avocation’ doesn’t seem as derogatory as a ‘hobby’ because of the connotations attached to the ‘calling’, as Mark Savage pointed out. The term ‘hobbyist’ doesn’t seem appropriate because filmmaking doesn’t often result in the pleasure and relaxation associated with ‘hobbies’!

Why is this important? Ultimately, I believe it is our human nature to want to classify things and identify our position within society. It is a way of understanding both others and ourselves. I am a ‘nobody’ filmmaker creates a distinction from a ‘somebody’ filmmaker. Therefore their situations are different. I am a ‘professional’ and you are an ‘amateur’ means you are not qualified to understand me. The titles position us within society and even within this community that Ted has created. Even worse, the connotations of these titles have the potential to divide us – the ‘amateur’ thinks they makes films for the ‘love of the art’ whilst the ‘professional’ is a ‘sell-out’. Andrew Keen’s book ‘The Cult of the Amateur’ attacks amateurism for being sub-par quality, unpaid and unqualified. However, I’ve seen great quality stuff from unpaid people and I’ve seen sub-par quality stuff from qualified people. Our lives are more complex than these labels give us credit for.

Therefore, using analogies and metaphors are useful constructs when trying to explain our unusual choice of career to others within society. They help us draw parallels with others around us and help understanding. However, as the debate that followed Mark Savage’s post showed, the choice of metaphor is critical, as they too come with connotations. In the last few weeks alone we have seen filmmaking sharing similarities with the baker, the priest, the gambler and the real estate agent. Can we be all or any of these things? They have such different connotations! Describing my role like that of a priest may help me secure funding in future, describing myself as a gambler probably won’t. This would be a really great topic for discussion here… what is the best metaphor or analogy and why?
Whilst I believe is that the success of the community depends upon the diversity of people; these titles shouldn’t be barriers to our conversation. The new models of cinema haven’t been discovered yet so all constructive voices can help us through the paradigm shift. We can all make valid contributions. We should identify with our similarities as filmmakers not our differences. There are occasional voices that aren’t constructive, who prefer to hide behind the anonymity of a false name when they troll abuse. If you have belief in your conviction, put your name upon it. The falsehood discredits your argument. The language you use and the way you choose to identify yourself informs the way that everyone else will perceive you.

Share Our Failures

The web is full of amateurs that can collectively fail a whole number of times until a pattern of success can be accumulated from the collective mass. A website like HopeForFilm/TrulyFreeFilm charts the various different experiments that people are taking and enables us to benefit from the cumulative thought. Can this be the path to a new model for Truly Free Film?

I don’t believe that this process is entirely new or exclusive to the Internet. History is full of examples where many people simultaneously chased identical goals, often experimenting along similar lines until circumstances played a big part of what technologies and processes were kept. For example, the history of the film camera has a variety of notable pioneers (Muybridge, Dickson, Edison, Lumiere to name a few), each influencing one another in processes of refinement and standardization until we arrived with many of the specifications that we have continued to use to this day (gauges, frame rates etc.). History has a tendency of simplifying the past with the fallacy of narrative. We forget the turbulence of emerging trends and technologies and formulate a neat recollection of how and when things appeared. Let’s look at playback technology alone; did you buy Betamax or VHS? Did you buy laser-disc or wait for DVD? Were you Blu-Ray at the start or did you gamble on HD-DVD first? If you bought into the wrong one of these technologies you made a costly mistake; such is the price of being at the cutting edge!

I have written a few times upon TFF about the ‘paradigm shift’ and the fact that we are encountering new ways of thinking about every aspect of filmmaking: production, distribution and exhibition. The most exciting and simultaneously daunting factor about these new ways of thinking are that the methods are not yet fixed and established. When the ‘digital revolution’ was being heralded at the end of the last millennium and the disintegration of traditional models began, few envisaged that it would take a lot longer to establish new protocols and procedures. We seem to have been left with the ‘age of uncertainty’.

In many ways, digital technology has developed an affordable culture of trial and error. Many people like myself are just shooting our features and seeing what sticks and works. This is the ‘amateur’ way, driven on passion and enthusiasm. Marshall McLuhan argued that this ‘amateur’ way led to some important discoveries that ‘professionals’ and ‘experts’ never envisaged because they had fixed modes of thinking that prevented them questioning the ground rules. McLuhan used Michael Faraday as an example of a scientist who made great scientific discoveries, because of, not despite of his lack of formal education. McLuhan included The Beatles as a further example of young pioneers who pushed boundaries, not because of any great formal knowledge of what they were doing, but because they were empowered to explore all music without limitation.

The unique benefit of the Internet is that these experiments are not taking place in isolation anymore. We have the cumulative effect of many minds all addressing the problems that we face. Critics, like Andrew Keen, argue that the ‘wisdom of crowds’ is not very valuable if everyone is unknowledgeable in the first place. But here on Truly Free Film/ Hope For Film it appears Ted fosters a broad cross-section of filmmakers, all in a perpetual state of interaction so that good practice can be shared and understanding accelerated.

Perhaps the barrier to a successful ‘revolution’ is our own inability to share our failures. We are always keen to promote our successes to others but we rarely want to admit to the mistakes we’ve made. However, the mistakes are arguably more valuable if we can learn from them. Ideally we should all share our mistakes so that we can all collectively learn from them, but it goes against our conditioning. We don’t want to appear unsuccessful. We don’t want to admit to failure, yet it is a fundamental component of the scientific method. This method emphasises the construction of a hypothesis, and then a process of trial and error testing followed by conclusions from the findings, good or bad. Encouraging mistakes, understanding their causes. This then indicates progress, and a move forward.

Placing an emphasis upon success means that filmmaking gets locked into a process of repeatability – namely ‘hit’ culture – whereby filmmakers are always under pressure to repeat the success of something that went before. There is very little emphasis upon encouraging or understanding failings; there tends to be a rejection of anyone who fails to deliver the success. How do you deliver such success? The easiest way is to use the tried and tested model. And then we get into a situation where we have lots of movie remakes and sequels.

The ‘slow-climb up the hierarchy’ model, or the ‘fantastic short director who then gets discovered’ model result in one shared outcome – a filmmaker who finds themselves making a feature for the first time, with pressure and expectation on their shoulders. There have been very few steps established within industry that actually encourage new filmmakers to experiment with their filmmaking, and stay with them until they establish a ‘voice’. This may be why critics feel that conventional cinema is becoming so homogenous and boring, because the pressure is there to deliver a solid performance from the beginning. Little room for manoeuvre, little room for mistakes.

Digital technology has made amateur experimentation affordable, but it is only when we share the experiences (the good and the bad) that we collectively feel the benefit. It is an Open Source project in search of a new model – Truly Free Film – the same way that Linux is an operating system that benefits from collective contributions. I personally benefitted a great deal from reading posts upon this website when making a feature in 72 hours in Australia last year. In turn I contributed a series of posts about the experiences to complete the loop. These are the ways we can collectively move forward. Sharing the failures is contributing to a cumulative success.

History, Cinema and ‘The Kings Speech’

“Would the true story not have been fractionally more interesting for the audience?”

“The King’s Speech is riddled with gross falsifications of history.”

These are just a couple of the comments made concerning the The Kings Speech and it historical accuracy – or perceived lack thereof.

It is suggested that the film is good but the history is bad. What does that mean? What is cinema’s relationship to history? Numerous articles berate the film makers for not telling ‘the truth’ about the circumstances and characters depicted. This seems to miss the point about how we relate media and film in particular to our notions of history and we construct those historical narratives.

In Negative Dialectics (1973), Theodor Adorno develops an aesthetic theory that  has, as its central core, the concept of the dialectic in modern artworks,  revealing them as being simultaneously autonomous and social.[i]

The autonomy of the artwork is what separates it from all other forms of social production, but, Adorno argues, that autonomy does not mean that the work is static and complete. It embodies within it cultural and social forces that allow the possibility of a transition to a new meaning. At one and the same time, it stands alone, able to posses meaning and a symbolic nature, but also is connected by an ideological component, present in all artworks, to the social conditions of its production.

Interestingly, this describes rather well the relationship of cinema to what we understand as our history.

On one hand, traditional ideas of the writing of history have stemmed from a perception that historical inquiry has some kind of scientific status, that what historians deal with are ‘facts’,  and that their task is to objectively work with this ‘data’ to produce narrative histories that have the strongest possible correspondence to ‘what really happened’. These narratives base their epistemological status on the idea that history, as the stories of civilisations, cultures, wars, etcetera, just needs someone with rigorous methods and an analytical mind, to ‘discover’ them. They already exist, ‘out there somewhere’, as an inherent part of the process of history itself.

On the other hand, contemporary postmodern and poststructuralist concepts of history seek to undermine these traditional notions of history, arguing that all historical narratives are constructed by figurative language, and as such these discourses are culturally and ideologically constructed. Historians can never access the past as such, it can only be ‘read’ through its remaining traces, its textual remains. As the past can, then, never be accessed outside  discourse, since to do so would mean the past having to re-enact itself,  any discussion of history is, necessarily  as much about the text as it is about the past itself.

In this reading, narrative becomes considerably widened as a category, and refers to the imaginative space that constitutes all historical texts, even the apparently most ‘factual’. As these historical documents, now read as narrative accounts, are always figurative and allegorical, history itself cannot have a ‘true’ correspondence in the traditional sense of being seen as empiricist or mimetic.

From this standpoint then, every mimesis can serve as the starting point for yet another description of the same event, one claiming to be more faithful to ‘the facts’. In cinema, for instance, the development of techniques for reproducing historical eras, places and events on screen has led to more and more films being seen as the ‘ultimate experience’ of whatever is being represented. Each successive representation is hailed as increasingly ‘realistic’, each one giving the audience a greater ‘feel’ of what it was like to really ‘be there’.

These historical films are often accused of grossly misrepresenting the historical ‘facts’ and relying on inaccurate or substandard research to create their stories. This is particularly noticeable in contemporary cinema, where films are remade, reinterpreted, generate sequels, prequels and spin-offs. However, far from muddying the waters of historical narratives, this abundance of different angles and interpretations help to generate a more complete  understanding of a particular event. If we only have one interpretation of say, the lead-up to the outbreak of the second world war, then we have no interpretation at all.

What I mean by this is that interpretation relies on the comparisons and arguments created by a variety of different approaches to a subject.  An interpretive way of seeing the past only works in the presence of other models, they mutually define each other and therefore owe their identity to their intertextual relations. Cinematic representations of history, therefore, can be seen to define themselves by their intertextual connections to each other. Saving Private Ryan can be defined by its relation to, for instance, The Longest Day (1963 Ken Annakin) and other war films.

The problem with traditional historiography is that this intertextuality has been ignored in favour of judging historical narratives by an assumed correspondence with the past. There does not exist, outside these narratives, some objective yardstick against which we can measure with some empirical certainty, the correspondence between historical narratives and the past itself. The past may suggest arguments for and against the variety of narratives, but it can never be used as a quantifiable judge for one or other narratives in toto. Historical debate is really as much about the abundance and form of narrative interpretations of the past, as it is about the past itself.

In this case, the reality of the past is not so much non-existent as impossible to reveal. To make any connection with ‘reality’ is, therefore, dependent on our perspective, our imagination and our cognitive faculties. The world is not so much constructed by textualised accounts, as unidentifiable outside them.

White (1978) argues that all history “is as much invented as found.”[ii]

What he means by this is that any event or sets of events have to be related to some context or totality in order that we make sense of them and, by extension, make them significant. The difficulty comes in locating the context or the totality. The historian can certainly uncover traces of past events and thus establish some of the ‘facts’ about an event or period, but can never find a sole context or background against which these events become meaningful.

The filmic text is read as an indicator of the moment of production but also the text is constructed by a society’s cultural and historical understanding, and, in some ways, has no referent other than the pool of other narratives, fictive or ‘factual’, to which it relates intertextually. The analysis of the narrative, then, is not just a function of the text, but a combination of textual construction and cultural mythology.

So, The Kings Speech would be understood as an historical text constructed in a contemporary, postmodern society. Intertextual relations, therefore play as much a part in the creation and defining of the historical narrative, as do traditional notions of an extra-textual real in which any fictional historical narrative can ground itself.

Historical narratives are discourses produced by people working in the present, from certain ideological standpoints, and using various types of metaphorical language. As such, the construction of historical narratives can be seen as taking place entirely in the present, whose cultural conditions play an important factor in the final interpretation of the particular historical event. It may seem an obvious point that these narratives are constructed at a particular temporal reference that to the creator of the narrative is ‘the present’. However, I would argue that historical narratives, while dealing with events in the past, are products of a present.

One could argue that past knowledge of the event is brought into the present during the construction of these narratives, and therefore that historical narratives can never be constructed ‘entirely’ in a present-centred framework.  However, that past knowledge changes from its original meaning because the context within which it is ‘read’, that is, its social, cultural and temporal frame of reference, has changed.

In any discussion of historical films then, our analysis must accordingly look simultaneously at the representation of the historical events in the film’s narrative and at the cultural conditions and language of its production.

As the past is no longer directly perceivable, then it must be constituted in language. As history does not have the technical and terminological systems that the sciences do, it must be constituted by ‘ordinary’ or figural language. These texts then become interpretations of the past, open to the  influence of ideology, modes of emplotment and the tropes of metaphorical language, and not simply objective reflections of a pre-given or ‘found’ past.

The Kings Speech can be seen then as an allegory of the linguistic nature of historical narrative. A historical figure struggling to speak and set the great events of 1939 into a historical context. The film itself becomes part of the historical canon, part of our understanding of that period of history.

Its global consumption inserts the film into a growing and changing historical consciousness that owes just as much to the cinematic and other media representations of that era, as it does to the classroom teaching of the event as part of traditional history.

These historical narratives have to be seen primarily as human constructs, visual and literary artefacts which owe as much to the imagination as to the past events they interpret. By producing historical narratives with closure, they can be seen to be autonomous and, therefore, to be understood and have meaning in and of themselves. Past events have no inherent ‘meaning’, but, by producing narratives which have closure, and which can be understood as ‘stories’, real events are understood and given meaning for any particular society or culture.

Yet, while narrative closure gives each historical ‘story’ a certain autonomy, the very fact that they are then cultural productions, means they relate intertextually to all other historical interpretations, and to the cultural and societal conditions of their production. This creates the continuous transformation of meaning Adorno proposed as central to the aesthetic of the modern artwork.  As new interpretations of the past are continually added to the historical consciousness of postmodern society by the mass media, they shift the ground upon which our understanding of the past, and consequently our relationship with the present, is based.

[i] Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics. Seabury Press, New York. 1973

[ii] Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse, p49. Johns Hopkins University press, 1978.