“Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children”, wrote Sylvia Plath once.
As technologies are moving ever-forward into realms of high definition and greater perfection, imperfection – its humanism, randomness and spontaneity – expressed through the do-it-yourself ethos of digital cinema and desktop moviemaking, appears as one of these “corrections” we have seen before in film history, writes Nicholas Rombes (Cinema in the Digital Age). And yet, where we stand now seems more crucial than ever, as cinema is in a crisis – as our whole system is in a crisis, as we seem to have to re-think and re-feel almost everything – and that second verb is important.
Today, when we are all aware of the mechanics of storytelling – when films have made it their duty to reveal the mechanics of storytelling, when we are perfectly aware of the fallacy of the story world represented in our permission-based cinema culture, a story world which makes a conservative mythology seem natural and true – the conversation about cinema and reality receives a new twist. Here is an interesting thought for you, in the words of Rombes: Reality is today’s special effect.
The visionary film theoretician goes on to say that the do-it-yourself ethos of digital cinema and desktop moviemaking is not only a “correction” to the overblown, over-budgeted movies of the 1980s and the 1990s, but also differs from the indie film movement, in its unmannerliness and its anti-art ethos. Humanism, even sentimental humanism, a personal connection, randomness and spontaneity are what counts.
A cinema closer to reality can only do that through its imperfection. What we see is what we know, there is no beautification and no glorification. Production value should not stand in the way and obscure what matters: content and emotional truth.
In that context aesthetic style becomes disposable: the audience is invited to participate as a voyeur, watching experiences which mirror their own in terms of the shocking beauty (or, to some, banality) of everyday life.
This brings to mind Susan Sontag, who in her essay On Style refers to the fact that all “works of art are founded on a certain distance from the lived reality which is represented. This ‘distance’ is, by definition, inhuman or impersonal to a certain degree; for in order to appear to us as art, the work must restrict sentimental intervention and emotional participation, which are functions of ‘closeness’” (1966a:30). By allowing closeness and emotional participation, perhaps that gap is now closing up?
A characteristic of something that is imperfect is that it is incomplete. Incompleteness is not a flaw, but rather a permanent state, a new condition for the creation of content.
Richard Leacock, in his essay For an Uncontrolled Cinema (2000:78), speaks against seeing cinema as causing a story to be acted out before an audience under controlled conditions, where control is of the essence. He calls many of us “immensely bored by a great number of contemporary films” and reminds us of the earliest days of cinema, and the desire to record aspects of what did actually happen in a real situation: “Here, it would be possible for the significance of what is taking place to transcend the conceptions of the filmmaker, because, essentially, he is observing that ultimate mystery, the reality.”
I hear voices of dissent: but what about professionalism, tradition, education? One of the great hopes for the creative future is amateurism, says Nick James in his essay Digital Deluge. This desire for spontaneity, for rawness, for creative amateurism goes back to punk, and before that to cinema verite, and before that to the Beats, and before that to Dadaism, and back and back. Indeed, for every expansion of professionalism into the art of filmmaking, there have been movements to return (or to keep) fimmaking amateur (Rombes, 104). As filmmaker and writer David Mackenzie proclaims: “no more storyboard logic – let’s throw it to the wind and see what happens.”
So what if a new aesthetics – which foregrounds chance, randomness, even amateurism – displaces the careful professionalism of the experts? This is not new of course. Directors like Dziga Vertov, Agnes Varda, John Cassavetes have allowed the chaos of everyday reality to seep into their films, by ceding elements of control, and by experimenting with losing control. Ceding elements of control is now easier than it ever was – and becomes easier by the day.
The long take, inherent in digital cinema, allows for a greater degree of reality and its mistakes to unfold (and doesn’t Andre Bazin come to mind). As spectators we can choose which portion of the screen we want to focus our attention on. And then, there is the game of self-consciousness, especially in terms of technique (shaky cameras, boom mics and other equipment allowed in the frame), as well as the rejection of traditional continuity editing, which manipulates our perception of the story towards a single emotional perspective.
In a larger, metaphorical sense that rejection offers a basic return to natural time, uncut except for the blink of our eyes and our sleep. There is no shot-reverse/shot in our everyday experience; we are creatures of the long take, trapped in our own gazes. (R, 69)
Is this the reason why cinematography is now simply one of many functions – and certainly not the most important, perhaps even (as Rombes dares to pronounce) an almost throwaway feature? Perhaps paradoxically the slightly out-of-focus, messy image rendered through the digital video camera creates the illusion of reality more fully than a sharply focused high-definition image. But most importantly: “When you use a handheld camera, the search for the object becomes part of the story.” (in Smith 2003b: 151) The camera will follow the characters, instead of the characters playing/posing for the camera, but in fact any movement or mobility attainable in the hand is part of the story.
This is even more so if the camera is held by one of the actors in an improv, as is the case in ‘42 Seconds of Happiness.’ The unsteady camera is here not just an aesthetic choice, or a philosophical one (a certain stance, a particular way of seeing the world), but a storytelling device. The actor holding the camera is the one directly or indirectly involved in the scene: whatever happens here may determine his future. Where would we be focusing if we were invisible voyeurs in a scene, which may determine our future? What would we choose to see and what would we choose to hear?
What I am interested in is observing reality, unraveling the layers, which lead to emotional truth. I am intrigued by the medium’s ability to represent multiple versions of reality simultaneously and to so challenge the frameworks of the real and familiar ways of seeing and feeling. Not only do I not need perfect image for that, but in fact perfect image distracts from what matters to me. In that context, even the sound accidents are intriguing: how fascinating sometimes when something is not recorded – it makes one wonder why that, why not something else.
This all opens the game for a different kind of acting. Small cameras, which do not need to cut every twenty minutes, allow for longer stretches of performance – and for going deeper. Our attention goes to expanding our perception of mysterious links between apparently disparate phenomena. The hierarchical organization reflected in our classic storytelling’s privileging of one character and his point of view over the rest dissolves. The actor re-emerges as a defining element in filmmaking, but human performance replaces conventional acting. Forgetting that one is filmed or even more so, that one is acting, one starts being.
As Jonas Mekas (Notes on the New American Cinema, 1962/2000: 3) notes, once you change the technology you change completely the content. It is true, especially shaky camera and improvisation have been there many times before. Perhaps it is the combination of all these elements that makes this time unique. But what is also true is that we are still experimenting, while technology evolves further.
To meet the challenge offered by the ever-changing technology, one has to overcome the temptation to imitate conventional media. Like TV in its early stages was mimicking the theatre and then the cinema, till it found its own true and unique nature (the long form narrative and multithreading,) our web series and transmedia are now imitating TV. We cannot compete with the production values there, but we try. That might be the way to go – or it might not. It surely depends on how we want to meet the challenge. Is the web simply an incubator for breaking into TV? To me, imitating as best one can TV and film, is not only impossible, due to the huge production value differences, it is also not desirable. My ambition would be that it is a field for experimentation and research into new forms of storytelling, challenging the way we watch films for more than a century.
Unpredictability and chance become part of the filmmaking – because the medium changes. Perhaps mistakes must be our answer to the machines of perfection that we ourselves have built.
And the (r)evolution does not only apply to production, but also to distribution. The fixed walls of movie houses served to remind audiences of the theatricality behind the movie, to assure us that we were in a place of representation, separate from the everyday world. On the other hand, small, often mobile screens are not a medium for watching two-hour movies uninterrupted. In fact, interruption is now an important structural component of the narrative logic – as well as different perspectives, parallel realities, multiple platforms, multiple versions, the list is long. I hear voices of nostalgia and pessimism: Is cinema dead? On the contrary, freed from the darkened theatre of the classic period, one could proclaim that cinema is everywhere! And open to be made by everyone!
In that context, again: To the good liberal humanists of the West, cinema is a symptom of history, an archive that tells us something about our time. But what if cinema is not the symptom but the cause? What if cinema creates our reality? Quoting from Kaufman’s Adaptation: “I don’t want to cram in sex or guns or car chases. You know? Or characters learning profound life lessons. Or growing, or coming to like each other, or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end.” So what if there is indeed a reality which has been created by our very own movie culture, especially the wide spread one, that of Hollywood movies? How many of us have learned what marriage is or should be through movies? How many of us have learned what success is or should be? Relationships? Friendship? Love?
Cinema’s surfaces, as we know them, the play of light, the staging of action, the rhythm of editing attempt to impose clarity upon the mad chaos of reality. Perhaps it is time to allow for the chaos to be, without worrying what is right or wrong. There is no right or wrong. Imperfection is beautiful.
Remixing and Jamming by Christina Kallas