Feb 13

The Guns of Loos

90 years ago, on 9 February 1928, the remarkable First World War drama, The Guns of Loos, received its press screening in London. Trade journal, The Bioscope, declared the film to be ‘as convincing a picture of modern warfare as has yet been shown on the screen’.

Coinciding with this anniversary, and as part of the University of Southampton’s Great War: Unknown War centenary events, the film was screened again at Turner Sims, accompanied by world renowned composer and pianist Stephen Horne, performing his original score, with percussionist Martin Pyne. I had the pleasure of introducing the film.

This British silent film portrays events surrounding the calamitous 1915 Battle of Loos, and features spectacular battle scenes and high drama on all fronts, as a munitions strike endangers supplies for soldiers at the front.

The film focuses on two soldiers, John Grimlaw (Henry Victor) and Clive (Donald McArdle), who find their mental and physical fortitude tested on the battlefield. The men are also fighting to win the love and respect of a Red Cross nurse, Diana, played by Madeleine Carroll, here making her screen debut. The ensuing events expose the impact of the war on all involved.

Two qualities were prominent in the film’s promotion: spectacle and authenticity, with some of the events based on director Sinclair Hill’s own war experience. Four guns were loaned to the production by the War Office including actually used in the Battle itself. Of the 250 men reported to have taken part in the re-enactment – filmed in West Thurrock – many were unemployed ex-soldiers supplied by the Ex-Service Men’s Association. Much was made of the appearance of Daniel Laidlaw, the almost mythical ‘Piper of Loos’, who played himself in the film. Laidlaw had won the VC and the Croix de Guerre for playing his regiment ‘over the top’, and Horne’s score includes an actual recording of Laidlaw playing his pipes, adding an eerie and poignant note to this moment in the film.

To literally magnify the film’s impact, on some screens in Britain, the film was screened using the Magnascope process, where a special lens was placed in front of the projector to suddenly enlarge the image across the cinema auditorium, immersing the audience into the spectacle.

When shown a print of the film, David Lloyd George, Minister of Munitions at the time of the Battle, was reported to have exclaimed to its director: ‘In wartime this film would have been worth a division’. While the film might have had propaganda value, its 1928 audience, looking back on the war through the lens of the 1926 General Strike, would have been well aware of its topicality. While men had been dying at the Front in 1915, many were ill or dying at home due to poverty and poor housing conditions. War injuries were visible and commonplace in the 1920s, meanwhile, and awareness was growing of ‘shell shock’ – Piper Laidlaw even endorsed the nerve tonic ‘Phosferine’ during the film’s release. The film tells us as much about the post-war context as about the war itself.

The manager of Stoll Studios, which made the film was clear on the film’s ambition: ‘with the advance of the art of cinematography we may expect to see something which will not only vie with foreign productions, but which will outstrip them, in story value, in acting, in direction and in photography’.

On 11 February, the large audience at Turner Sims were clearly moved by the powerful live score which really brought to life the film’s remarkable imagery and performances. Present in the audience were relatives of men who had fought at the Battle, who offered their own insight into the legacy of the battle. Joining me in a Q&A session afterwards were the Film department’s Dr Michael Hammond, an expert on cinema and WWI, plus the musicians. The many questions explored the film’s reception and the extraordinary effect of the music, with several audience members conveying the impact of viewing what was evidently the first silent film they had seen with live music.

Through performances such as this, The Guns of Loos can be appreciated as a classic that we should all know about.

The Great War: Unknown War’s ‘Silent Film Fortnight’ continues at Turner Sims, and promises to be an illuminating and highly engaging exploration of both the events of the war and the experience of cinema itself.

Picture Courtesy of Kevin Appleby

Feb 09

Animation, racial stereotypes, and jazz in the work of Len Lye

The recent critical acclaim and commercial success of the video game Cuphead (2017) has not only drawn new attention to the 1920s and 1930s animated cartoons the game’s visual style is inspired by, but has also provoked new scrutiny of the ‘Racist spectre’ of the imagery it uses. By mimicking the style of animation seen in the work of the Disney and Fleischer studios, among others, the game also evokes racial caricatures based in both appearance and behaviour of characters. As Nicholas Sammond has discussed, American animated cartoons of that period were heavily derived from blackface minstrelsy traditions and relied on a number of racial stereotypes. How should we deal with old films like these, which reflect the values of their time but are today considered derogatory and offensive? For many fans, including the makers of Cuphead, the visual style and appeal of these cartoons can be separated from their social context and still enjoyed. For others these films must be condemned outright if progress and equality are to be achieved.

These debates affect not only popular mainstream cartoons, but also celebrated works of animation artists. In researching the work of Len Lye for a recent publication I found similar concerns arose. The New Zealand artist moved to London in the 1920s and produced a series of animated films, including some for the British Government funded General Post Office (GPO) film unit. His first film Tusalava (1929) draws on Lye’s experience of Maori art in his home country of New Zealand, Aboriginal art from Australia and his time in the South Pacific, when Lye may have had firsthand, though limited, exposure to indigenous arts in Samoa. As Figure 1 suggests, this could be considered an ‘appropriation’ of these other cultures by a white artist working in London.

Figure 1: Tusalava (Len Lye, 1929)

Lye’s second film, known as Experimental Animation or Peanut Vendor adopts a very different technique and style, but may also be considered to rely on derogatory stereotypes. In this 1933 film a stop-motion puppet of a monkey sings the popular jazz hit “The Peanut Vendor”. With his large, bulging eyes, protruding lips, gleaming teeth, enlarged hands and feet, and elongated limbs (see Figure 2), Lye’s monkey protagonist clearly shares similarities with the depiction of African-American stars in animated cartoons, and the carefree and flamboyant attitude he projects has both ethnic and class implications.

Figure 2: Experimental Animation (Len Lye, 1933)

While Lye’s later films became more visually abstract and abandoned this problematic imagery, his use of music derived from African-American and Latin jazz traditions suggests a continuation of the ‘primitivism’ of his earlier work. Lye’s most famous film, A Colour Box from 1935 was very widely seen thanks to its sponsorship from the GPO Film Unit. The film used experimental techniques of painting and scratching directly onto the film strip (see Figure 3) and was accompanied by ‘La Belle Créole’ by Don Baretto and His Cuban Orchestra.

Figure 3: A Colour Box (Len Lye, 1935)

Like Hollywood cartoons of the same period, critical reflection on Lye’s work becomes caught between celebrating their experimentalism and exuberance or condemning the films for their appropriations and stereotypes. Researching their use of jazz offers one way to navigate these binaries and move beyond them. This music was associated with the Harlem Renaissance, which might be understood as a primarily African-American movement, yet Caribbean artists, especially musicians, played an important role in it. For instance, ‘The Peanut Vendor’ started life as ‘El Manicero’ written by Moisés Simons, a Cuban musician of Basque descent, and became a popular hit in Cuba in the 1920s. Don Azpiazú and his Havana Casino Orchestra travelled from Cuba to New York in 1930 and presented the song successfully in its original Spanish language, but the song achieved lasting success when translated into English. It became something of a craze (it was the ‘Gangnam Style’ of its day with an associated dance!) and was recorded by numerous Harlem musical stars, including African-Americans Louis Armstrong in 1930 and Duke Ellington in 1931, as well as the white jazz bandleader Red Nichols, who produced the recording used by Lye.

Born out of a colonial melding of African and Spanish cultures due to the circumstances of the slave trade in the Caribbean, transported to New York where it was absorbed into a primarily African-American movement and Anglicised before becoming a part of widespread American popular culture and then exported internationally, ‘The Peanut Vendor’, and Latin jazz generally, were thus products of a complex international gestation, just like Lye himself. Lye was a white colonial subject, having been born in 1901 when New Zealand was still a colony, before it became a Dominion in 1907. He subsequently lived in Samoa and Australia, before arriving in London. While we may feel uneasy about aspects of Lye’s appropriation of other cultures, we might also see strong parallels in these complex histories, which challenge any easy notion of cultural specificity or authenticity in which an art work wholly and unequivocally expresses the single culture it derives from. Neither Lye’s work nor the jazz it incorporates can be considered to meet such a standard.

As well as adding new insight into Lye’s own work, this approach also suggests a way to negotiate other problematic works of the past. Through detailed research we can fully acknowledge the values of the time that underpin them, recognising their derogatory and offensive implications, while also appreciating the complexities and nuances involved, rather than relying on simplistic binary judgements.

 

Malcolm Cook’s chapter ‘A Primitivism of the Senses: The Role of Music in Len Lye’s Experimental Animation’ appears in Holly Rogers and Jeremy Barham (eds) The Music and Sound of Experimental Cinema (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017)

Jan 15

Podcast: Film Stardom and the Ancient Past

Dr Michael Williams is an Associate Professor and Head of Film Studies at the University of Southampton.

Figure 1: Gloria Swanson’s Venus Image, Pictureplay, September 1922

Figure 2: Regina Cannon, ‘Who Wants New Faces?’, Picture Play, April 1934, 29.

Figure 3: Ruth Waterbury, ‘Olympus Moves to Hollywood’, Photoplay, April 1928, 34–36, 92

Figure 4: Michael’s upcoming publication

Many thanks go to the Media History Digital Library

 

Dec 08

The Rise of the Entrepreneur

In 2011 the Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke produced an internet-based series of advertisements titled Words of a Journey (2011) for the whiskey manufacturer Johnnie Walker. In these advertisements, the figure of the entrepreneur is prominent.

Figure 1: Jonnie Walker (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5EpS_s9-IQU&index=12&list=PLAAAAE4C15D9A2A75)

In the series, the interviewees narrate stories of success through adversity, and stress their determination, independence and self-improvement. These advertisements focus on the positive aspects of economic reforms rather than its failures, which are examined at length in many of Jia’s other works, such as Still Life (2006) and A Touch of Sin (2013). Words of a Journey emphasises that economic liberalism has brought the freedom to follow one’s dreams and gain personal fulfillment through work, and thus promotes neoliberalism in order to solve the problems of neoliberalism. The entrepreneur figure is therefore championed as one who can alleviate the negative effects of economic reforms (such as the growing gap between the rich and the poor), but, unlike its earlier Maoist worker-peasant-soldier predecessors who worked together to build the socialist state, the entrepreneur is not a socialist figure but a capitalist one, who uses neoliberal notions of independence and self-sufficiency to solve these problems. In this shift, the responsibilities of the state have been lessened; instead, capitalism has been evoked to solve the problems of capitalism, which positions the individual as being responsible for solving social problems and contributing to the overall good.

The entrepreneurs are being advanced as inspirational and moralistic models, and that their platitudes emphasise success through independence, hard work, and sacrifice, thus celebrating China’s neoliberalism. Such declarations confirm the morality of their actions, and also connect to the history of moral discourses surrounding the Chinese class figures, by producing a new neoliberal model class figure for the Reform era ‘with Chinese characteristics’. Their narratives not only convey individual success stories, but are part of larger discourses that are currently being promoted in China, including the concept of suzhi (quality / self-improvement) and ‘Harmonious Society’.

If you want to read more about the entrepreneur in Jia Zhangke’s advertisements, and how I connect this to the ideal of the ‘Chinese Dream’ that has been advanced by the Chinese government, which advocates that everyone is benefiting from Reform, you can read it here and here.

Nov 15

How audience research can enhance our understanding of how films work

One of the aims of film scholarship is to understand how films ‘work’ – that is to say, how the different elements we see and hear on screen make us happy, sad, scared, relaxed, enlightened, confused, and so on. Yet few film scholars speak to actual audiences about how they make sense of the films they watch.

This is partly because audience research can be expensive and time-consuming to conduct. Working with human participants also requires a high level of ethics clearance, along with lots of paper work, because of the potential risk of causing psychological harm, especially when dealing with personal or sensitive topics.

Even if you do successfully conduct audience research, the results are not always that enlightening. The average film viewer cannot always put into words what a film means to them in quite the same way as a professional film critic.

Nevertheless, as I argue in a chapter for the recent publication The Routledge Companion to World Cinema (Routledge, 2017), film audience research can enhance our understanding of how films work and even challenge certain assumptions.

Mixing methods

My own research on the audiences for European films has combined three main methods and sources. Firstly, I use cinema admissions figures from sources like the European Audiovisual Observatory’s LUMIERE database to determine how many people watch particular films or types of films (e.g. comedies, dramas, horror films) in different European countries.

Secondly, I draw on large-scale audience surveys such as the European Commission’s (2014) Current and Future Audiovisual Audiences report or the British Film Institute’s (BFI) ‘Cinema Exit Polls’ to profile film audience in terms of age, gender, nationality, social grade or educational qualifications, as well as understand why people are drawn to particular titles.

Finally, when the help of colleagues from across Europe, I’ve conducted audience focus groups with over 140 participants in five European countries (i.e. Britain, Germany, Italy, Poland and Bulgaria), to get a deeper understanding of how audiences make sense of particular films.

Each of these methods has its own flaws – viewing figures for non-theatrical platforms are scarce; survey questions can be reductive and misunderstood; and focus groups are not always representative and the results are often quite difficult to interpret, particularly when discussions are translated from another language and the transcriptions only capture verbal forms of communication.

Nevertheless, combining these qualitative and quantitative sources allows one to build up a fairly robust picture of how audiences engage with European films and can even challenge our assumptions about how such films work.

Challenging assumption

For example, given the emphasis which distributors often place on the director, reviews, festival recognition and awards when marketing European films, it is interesting to note that few survey respondents or focus group participants said they were drawn to these elements. Instead, they were much more likely to be attracted by the film’s story or genre.

Similarly, looking at the way certain European films are a box office success in some countries but a flop in others, one might assume that different countries have radically different tastes in films.

In fact, the focus groups I conducted across Europe showed remarkable similarities in terms of the films people liked and disliked, as well as their reasons why. There was much more difference in terms of age and gender than nationality.

None of this is to suggest film scholars should abandon their careful analysis of film texts in favour of only listening to what audiences say about films. But combining textual analysis with audience research certainly allows us to test some of our assumptions about how films really work.

Dr Huw Jones is a Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Southampton. His research on European film audiences formed part of the HERA-funded ‘Mediating Cultural Encounters through European Screens’ (MeCETES) project (www.mecetes.co.uk). An extended version of this blog is available in Rob Stone, Paul Cooke, Stephanie Dennison and Alex Marlow-Mann (eds.) Routledge Companion to World Cinema (Routledge, 2017).

Figure 1. Publicity material for European films often emphasis directors, awards, festival recognition and reviews. Yet audience research suggests viewers are more attracted by the film’s story and genre

Nov 01

How Virtual Reality Revolutionises Filmmaking by Jonny Rogers

How Virtual Reality Revolutionises Filmmaking by Jonny Rogers

Where some have hoped virtual technology would enable us the ability to create for ourselves brand new worlds, others have worried that it would encourage us only to neglect our present one. Little thought, however, has been given to how virtual cinema has thus far best thrived; namely, in its ability to challenge and redefine the user’s relationship with the world. It is my view, in light of this, that virtual reality brings not only an exciting socio-technological revolution, but also a cinematic revolution forced to directly challenge certain conventions and expectations assumed by the contemporary traditional film industry (‘traditional’ meaning ‘non-virtual’ for the purpose of this article). The opportunities provided by virtual cinema facilitate great potential for greater personal and global change.

Fig 1

Figure 1. Frame from La sortie des usines Lumière (1895) (image from Grand Palais)

Before we look too far into the future of filmmaking, however, let’s have a little look at its past. For almost the first twenty years of cinema’s existence, ‘actualities’ dominated the first public scenes: films showing real events and every-day occurrences, such as the Lumière Brothers’ La sortie des usines Lumière (1895), featuring workers leaving a factory, and L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1896), featuring a train arriving at a station. Unlike documentaries, however, actualities were not structured or edited to form a larger argument or coherent picture, but instead celebrated the pure spectacle of seeing something being captured and reproduced through this new technology. This characterised an era of film history famously described by Tom Gunning as the ‘cinema of attraction’.[1] Although to modern audiences these early films might seem profoundly unremarkable, if often even laughable, a large proportion of popular virtual content appears to be essentially quite similar.

Fig 2

Figure 2. Frame from Mega Coaster: Get Ready for the Drop (2016) (image from YouTube)

The highest viewed non-licenced virtual reality video on YouTube, as of the time of this writing, with a total of over 34 million views, is Mega Coaster: Get Ready for the Drop, featuring, as the name suggests, a omnidirectional camera attached to a roller coaster.[2] Given the lack of given exposition, context or information, this film is in essence a contemporary ‘actuality’; its popularity is no doubt attributable to the novelty of the sensation it captures and reproduces. Other popular videos feature cameras mounted to aeroplanes,[3] surfboards,[4] skydivers[5] and wingsuits:[6] content which, though hardly absent in traditional platforms (especially on popular amateur streaming services such as YouTube), is rarely seen to be an exhibition of the medium’s potential (which is instead almost exclusively associated with the acting, directing, cinematography involved in a traditional film). Although the potential and future of virtual cinema is undoubtedly exciting, I have, perhaps most surprisingly, found that virtual reality has also helped me better understand, interpret and appreciate the emergence of traditional cinema nearly 130 years ago.

Fig 3

Figure 3. Frame from Evolution of Verse (2015) (image from Zach Richter)

Of course, connections and similarities to early and ‘silent’ cinema have been drawn already. Virtual reality filmmaker and entrepreneur Chris Milk even stated, at a TED talk discussing the birth of virtual reality an art form, “we are the equivalent of year one of cinema” as the aforementioned L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat is projected on the screen behind; [7] further alluding to this in his experimental work, Evolution of Verse (2015), which at the beginning features a train rapidly approaching the viewer before dissolving into countless birds. His talk ends with what claims to be the largest collective virtual viewing experience, as each member of the audience watches the same film (a series of scenes taken from various projects showing the potential of virtual filmmaking, beginning with this opening section of Evolution of Verse) through individual devices connected to a shared interface. As the train approaches, a growing hubbub quickly amounts into a brief period of screaming, which abruptly breaks into applause and laughter. The laughibility of the common-held myth that L’Arrivée d’un train sent its audience into a panicked frenzy is rendered silent here as virtual reality provides contemporary filmmaking a reenergised interest in the simple, formalistic, spectacle of seeing a new cinematic medium in action. The novelty of sensationalist virtual cinema might eventually fade into anecdotal mockery by future generations, but the history of cinema suggests that a decade or so of structural and aesthetic ‘simplicity’ could still lie ahead of us. Perhaps, furthermore, we could see a renewed academic or public interest in early cinema in this time.

Fig 4

Figure 4. Samsung’s 2017 Gear VR headset (image from CNET)

Unlike traditional cinema, however, virtual reality is, somewhat paradoxically, birthed through a reliance on both a more accessible and more individualistic platform: namely, mobile technology. As I started researching into virtual reality, I realised that this was not something I could access or experience for myself without a bigger or more powerful phone; it is no wonder that Samsung’s Gear VR, often now packaged with new mobile phones, dominates the virtual headset market (most other headsets of similar quality are more expensive and require powerful gaming systems or computers, and are as such better suited for gaming content). Although a VR-exclusive cinema does exist in Amsterdam,[8] which has expanded more recently to China, Finland and Romania, cinematic virtual content is predominantly produced for mobile platforms. It could hardly be expected that specified locations and services (unless virtual technology is integrated into existing cinemas) could support the establishment, expansion, and exploration of the medium when mobile platforms provide an immediate, universally accessible – and predominantly free – distribution service. From the fact that every filmmaker and production company, professional or amateur, is essentially forced to release content through these same limited services (such as Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, Google Play or Oculus Video), this means a considerably small number of organisations are given complete control over almost all systems of distribution. Perhaps this will put more pressure on film festivals and technological or creative conventions to exhibit the more professional, or even nationalistic, end of original content.

One potential consequence of relying on mobile technology is that this might force a cultural homogenization of content: the predominant internationality of the Internet could make it more difficult to restrict the distribution of virtual films to specific areas, countries, and demographics. It is, however, perhaps too early to decide whether this will either serve or hinder production and exploration: many artistic revolutions in traditional cinema emerged from domestic movements, which were no doubt informed by the control of international distribution as informed by various political events and international relations. However, where the exhibition of traditional films originated in public spaces and then extended to more private markets through VHS, DVDs, Blu-ray and, more recently, online streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, virtual reality is instead born through mobile technology, and attempts have been made to see its utilisation in public or communal spaces in the future. This shows that the growth of virtual reality almost inversely parallels traditional cinema, implying that the history of traditional cinema might not directly inform the future of virtual content as may first be assumed. Although virtual reality may be in part informed by what has come before, it has in some ways its own future to write: the immediate accessibility and intimacy of virtual content provides a considerably unique paradigm for the birth of a new artistic and creative platform.

Fig 5

Figure 5. Frame from MIYUBI (2017) (image from The Verge)

Where frequent editing is so commonplace in popular traditional cinema that it often even goes unnoticed, any cut between two shots in virtual reality is forced to be reserved almost exclusively for significant changes in time or location in the narrative. It would naturally appear quite jarring for the camera to, for example, frequently alternate between two or three different positions in a conversation, especially if such should involve significant head movement for the viewer; the virtual camera is not solely a means of seeing a location, but also creating the impression of being there. Although there are some virtual films which do more frequently cut between different positions, with Rose Colored (Adam Cosco, 2016), for example, jumping between the perspectives of two people in a bar in one scene, and at other points rapidly flicking through her memories, minimal editing still dominates the professional end of virtual cinema. Perhaps the most impressive long-form fiction narrative produced so far, MIYUBI (Felix Lajeunessse, Paul Raphael, 2017), which puts the viewer in the body of a toy robot given to, played with and eventually rejected by a young boy in the 1980s, at a length of 40 minutes, is composed of 11 different scenes, each featuring a single shot and minimal camera movement. Other well-acclaimed scripted shorts, such as The Invisible Man (Hugo Keijzer, 2016) and Henry (Ramiro Lopez Dau, 2015), likewise each feature both a continuous unbroken take and little-to-no camera movement.

Fig 6

Figure 6. Frame from Henry (2015) (image from VRScout)

The significance of these changes lie in the fact that, at a time in which popular films are becoming increasingly fast-paced and, as some filmgoers are arguing, too illegible for comfort, virtual reality cinema, by virtue of its own structural limitations, is forced to take a step back and reconsider its form and structure. An informal, but notable, report by film editor Vashi Nedomansky suggests action films and blockbusters often now average around 2 seconds per shot,[9] and critics and bloggers are taking to the internet to voice their concern for this trend:[10],[11] Simon Brew, the founder and Editor-In-Chief of Den of Geek, published an open letter to Hollywood to raise attention to how this could impact the accepted quality of storytelling.[12] The question now arises, however: could virtual reality encourage, let alone even demand, a significant trend toward minimalism?

Fig 7

Figure 7. The set of The Invisible Man (2016) (image from VR Reviews)

Considering the fact that nothing can be hidden ‘behind’ the camera, nor ‘out of shot’, the use of naturalistic lighting, on-location filming, and the absence of a crew all seem to be pragmatic obligations, meaning such techniques – often explored more in arthouse or independent productions – are brought to the forefront of a new cinematic revolution. The framing of the shot now involves consideration of all directions and dimensions, and hence the awareness that everything on camera could be seen, even if not directly relevant to the narrative. To discourage motion sickness, Samsung encourage that users use the technology for no longer than twenty minutes at a time, thus seemingly encouraging limitations on the length of films. As someone who tends to prefer these more short-form minimalistic, naturalistic and observational shades of traditional cinema anyway – favouring natural lighting, long takes, minimal editing, etc. – I am quite excited to see what virtual platforms will produce, and now with greater attention given by the growing public interest in the technology.

Fig 8

Figure 8. Entrepreneur and filmmaker Chris Milk delivers a TED talk (image from TED.com)

I am not saying that maximalism – rapid editing, high action or large budgets, etc. – necessarily makes for any inferior a form or quality of story-telling, with Mad Max: Fury Road, for example, having an average shot length of 2.1 seconds, surpassing all critical and financial expectations, but rather that virtual cinema embraces, and hence reenergises, cinema’s potential for capturing the simple, the subtle and, often, the slow. As Chris Milk (whose production company, Here Be Dragons, undoubtedly stands above the rest with regards to quality of content) says, “we are more learning grammar than writing language” at this stage of the game.[13] It will as such have to be a new generation of filmmakers that will find, explore and break the rules of virtual story-telling; there is no guarantee that the skills encouraged in traditional filmmaking will translate to the production of virtual content. Attempts to replicate Hollywood approaches to action sequences in virtual reality often, in my view, reveal only their silliness: the medium, as with any artistic platform, best thrives when it understands and uses its own limitations.

Fig 9

Figure 9. BeAnotherLab exhibiting their technology in the Tribeca Film Festival (image from Tribeca Film)

Although I cannot quite pinpoint my first point of contact with the idea of publically accessible virtual reality, I no doubt came to be aware of it through the general public focus on its use in gaming, but perhaps my first awareness of its cinematic potential came when I stumbled across BeAnotherLab’s early experimental work about five years ago. Their central project, The Machine to Be Another, focuses on the integration of cameras into virtual headsets to allow two individuals – either two participants or a participant and a performance artist – to see the world from the other’s perspective.[14] Either the performance artist will imitate the actions of the participant or both participants will imitate each other as two staff simultaneously touch parts of both individuals’ bodies to stimulate each user to identify with their virtual body. Scientific research, their website claims, has shown that inducing such a perceptual illusion has “great potential in reducing implicit racial bias and promoting altruism”.[15] Their technology is used for, though not limited to, artistic performances and installations, physical and psychological rehabilitation services, and the resolution of personal conflicts (marital, racial, sexual, etc.). This provides an intimate connection with the image otherwise unparalleled by previous cinematic mediums.

Fig 10

Figure 10. Clouds Over Sidra (2015) is shown at the World Economic Forum in Davos (image from Creators Vice)

Although this specific project involves a degree of immersion and performance that some might feel renders it extra-cinematic, the essentially empathetic and educational nature of virtual reality has been more recently brought into public spheres. Perhaps most significantly, Chris Milk worked with Gabo Arora, a Creative Director and Senior Advisor at the United Nations, to produce a series of 3D virtual documentaries directly aimed at promoting particular social causes.[16] One of their films, Clouds Over Sidra (2015), featuring a twelve-year-old Syrian girl guiding us through her day-to-day life in a refugee camp in Jordan, was shown at the World Economic Forum in Davos to a group of influential politicians, economists and journalists whose decisions affect the lives of millions of people such as those shown in the film: people, Milk says, who “might not otherwise be sitting in a refugee camp in Jordan”.[17] The central supposition here is that virtual reality provides a means not just to see a girl in a refugee camp “through a window”, but rather to be “there with her”; when you look at the floor, Milk notes, “you’re sitting on the same ground that she’s sitting on”. This is, of course, where virtual reality most significantly moves away from its affinity to early actuality cinema, instead utilising its sensationalist potential as a platform for social and political discussion; and this is where I think virtual cinema proves to be most exciting.

Fig 11

Figure 11. Frame from Waves of Grace (2015) (image from Here Be Dragons)

I think people are both interested in and scared of virtual reality for the same reason: the possibility that it could provide some addictive means of escaping reality – this idea essentially serves the plot of The Matrix (Lana Wachowski, Lilly Watchowski, 1999), Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995), and the upcoming Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg, 2018) – but rest assured, where the medium excels is where it allows people to experience something more of reality: where it allows you to meet – and sometimes even become – other people to experience something of their lives and how they experience the world. A particular favourite film of mine, Waves of Grace (Chris Milk, Gabo Arora, 2015), tells the story of an Ebola survivor who uses her immunity to the disease to work with other victims as she narrates us through a prayer: I could not help but feel a tear come to my eye as children surrounded me in an abandoned swimming pool. It might seem quite ambitious for Milk to claim virtual reality allows one to experience “humanity in a deeper way”, [18] but such an experience cannot be justified without first trying for oneself.

Far from distracting from reality, virtual content shows a focus on utilising the inherent connectivity and sociability of mobile platforms to aid in public education and discussion. Other significant films, for example, show attempts to induce the experience of being an autistic child,[19] a man losing his sight, seeing the world through the eyes of animals and standing inside otherwise inaccessible locations such as the centre of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider[20] or public celebrations in North Korea.[21]

Fig 12

Figure 12. The Horse in Motion (1878), photographed by Eadweard Muybridge (image from Equine Ink)

Although animal life has been captured on film since its pre-natal stage in Eadweard Muybridge’s experiments in motion photography, through which he attempted to reveal the movement of a horse through printing successive frames of motion, virtual reality means that life can finally be experienced through film. A high-end quality 3D virtual production company, Condition One, advertises its award-winning In The Presence of Animals (2016) as a unique encounter with nature, “from inside”, “alongside” and “amid” various groups of endangered animals.[22] The existential experience of feeling the presence of animal life through a virtual film is, at least to me, unparalleled by any traditional counterpart. Other nature and scientific research organisations, such as the National Geographic Society and Discovery have also quickly taken to the production of virtual content, using their wealth of experience and established reputation to produce more exotic and exciting virtual films: encounters with hammerhead sharks[23] and lions,[24] and views of outer space[25] and shipwrecks[26] frequently dominate the ‘featured content’ pages on streaming platforms.

fig 13

Figure 13. Frame from Operation Deathstar (2017) (image from YouTube)

Many of these virtual nature documentaries also attempt to utilise both the opportunities provided by and the excitement surrounding the medium as a platform for the discussion of wider ecological, environmental and ethical issues: even non-profit charitable organisations are producing virtual-specific content to raise awareness for their cause, such as The Nature Conservancy, who through This is Our Future (2017) attempt to show the dangers of overexploitation of the world’s fish stocks. Two films I have found particularly fascinating, Operation Deathstar (Danfung Dennis, 2017) and Operation Aspen (Danfung Dennis, 2017), show attempts by the animal rights activist group Direct Action Everywhere to break into, respectively, pig and chicken factory farms to rescue animals from their subjugation to illegal practises and objectionable conditions. The experience of not merely seeing but feeling the presence of these animals, knowing also the likelihood of their death by the time of your watching, is an undoubtedly haunting experience for many; it may not be too long before virtual production companies produce their own Earthlings (Shaun Monson, 2005) or Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite, 2013) to shock and horrify its audience into personal, industrial and political change. The limitations of virtual reality as mentioned earlier – the consideration of motion-sickness, minimalism of editing, etc. – combined with the investment of environmental organisations looking to reach a mass audience, have no doubt facilitated the relatively quick production of these more professional short-form documentaries.

In conclusion, the fact that virtual reality is forced to challenge certain structural and aesthetic conventions assumed by the traditional industry, hence celebrating more naturalistic and minimalistic approaches to filmmaking, provides a framework to better understand early cinematic history, reenergises an interest in the pure sensation of watching and experiencing, is almost exclusively dependant on mobile access to predominantly international online streaming services, and has already been supported by individuals with various ecological, scientific, religious, political, social and educational agendas, I believe it can be safely asserted that virtual reality is – if there was ever any doubt – more than a novel technological experience. More essentially, it provides a cinematic revolution of a magnitude and potential comparable even to the transition of photography to film: photography built on the plastic arts by reproducing light and shadow in a specific area and cinema built on photography by recording and projecting the movement of light and shadow, but now, with virtual reality, the camera is finally able to capture more than any individual can see. Virtual reality reminds us that the world is far bigger and far more exciting than we could ever imagine alone.

 

FILMOGRAPHY:

Blackfish. Gabriela Cowperthwaite. CNN Films, Manny O. Productions, Magnolia Pictures. United States. 2013

Clouds Over Sidra. Gabo Arora, Barry Pousman. VRSE.works. 2015

Earthlings. Shaun Monson. Nation Earth. United States. 2005

Evolution of Verse. Chris Milk. Annapurna Pictures, Digital Domain, VRSE.works. United States. 2015

Henry. Ramiro Lopez Dau. Occulus Story Studio. United States. 2015

In the Eyes of the Animal. Abandon Normal Devices, Forest Art Works, Forestry Commision England, Marshmallow Laser Feast, The Space. United Kingdom. 2016.

L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat / The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. Auguste Lumière, Louis Lumière. Société Lumière. 1896

La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon / Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory in Lyon. Louis Lumière. 1895

Mad Max: Fury Road. George Miller. Kenney Miller Mitchell, RatPac-Dune Entertainment, Village Roadshow Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures. Australia, United States. 2015.

MIYUBI. Felix Lajeunessse, Paul Raphael. Felix & Paul Studios, Occulus, Funny or Die. United States. 2017

Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness. Archer’s Mark, ARTE France, AudioGamig, Ex Nihilo. 2016

Operation Aspen. Danfung Dennis. Condition One, Direct Action Everywhere. United States. 2017.

Operation Deathstar. Danfung Dennis. Condition One, Direct Action Everywhere. United States. 2017.

Ready Player One. Steven Spielberg. Amblin Entertainment, Amblin Partners, De Line Pictures, Fara Films & Management, Village Roadshow Pictures, Warner Bros. United States. 2018

Rose Colored. Adam Cosco. Invar Studios. United States. 2016

Strange Days. Kathryn Bigelow. 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures, Lightstorm Entertainment. United States. 1995

The Invisible Man. Hugo Keijzer. Midnight Pictures, The Secret Lab. United States. 2016

The Matrix. Lana Wachowski, Lilly Watchowski. Groucho II Film Partnership, Silver Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures, Warner Bros., Roadshow Entertainment. Australia, United States. 1999

Waves of Grace. Gabo Arora, Chris Milk. VRSE.works. United States. 2015

[1] Tom Gunning, ‘The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde’, Wide Angle, 8 (3-4), 1986.

[2] Discovery, Mega Coaster: Get Ready for the Drop (YouTube, 2016). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-xNN-bJQ4vI [Accessed 27th August 2017]

[3] Blick, 360° cockpit view / Fighter Jet / Patrouille Suisse (YouTube, 2015). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NdZ02-Qenso [Accessed 28th August 2017]

[4] World Surf League, Get Barreled in Tahiti with C.J. Hobgood & Samsung Gear VR 360 (YouTube, 2015). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7gjR60TSn8Q [Accessed 28th August 2017]

[5] vr360 pro, SkyDive in 360° Virtual Reality via GoPro (YouTube, 2016). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S5XXsRuMPIU [Accessed 28th August 2017]

[6] Making View AS, Wingsuit 360° Experience (YouTube, 2015). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t99N223fqCo [Accessed 28th August 2017]

[7] TED, The birth of virtual reality as an art form (YouTube, 2016). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJg_tPB0Nu0 [Accessed 27th August 2017]

[8] Raymond Wong, ‘World’s first permanent VR cinema opens in Amsterdam, and it’s very weird’, Mashable (2016). Available at: http://mashable.com/2016/03/07/vr-cinema-amsterdam/#wGcuq0Tk9gqD [Accessed 27th August 2017]

[9] Vashi Nedomansky, ‘The Fastest Cut: Furious Film Editing’, Vashi Visuals (2016). Available at: http://vashivisuals.com/the-fastest_cut/ [Accessed 27th August 2017].

[10] Anne Billson, ‘Action sequences should stir, not just shake’, The Guardian (2008). Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2008/nov/05/action-films-bad-editing [Accessed 8th September 2017]

[11] Graham Winfrey, ‘’Kong: Skull Island’ Scene Slammed for Insanely Fast Editing – Watch’, IndieWire (2017). Available at: http://www.indiewire.com/2017/06/kong-skull-island-criticized-fast-editing-jordan-vogt-roberts-watch-1201847583/ [Accessed 8th September 2017]

[12] Simon Brew, ‘An Open Letter To Action Movie Editors & Directors’, Den of Geek, (2008). Available at: http://www.denofgeek.com/movies/13811/an-open-letter-to-action-movie-editors-directors [Accessed 8th September 2017]

[13] TED, The birth of virtual reality as an art form (YouTube, 2016). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJg_tPB0Nu0 [Accessed 27th August 2017]

[14] The Verge, Using the Oculus Rift to enter the body of another (YouTube, 2014). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOSJETowuik [Accessed 27th August 2017]

[15] ‘Library of Ourselves’, BeAnotherLab. Available at: http://beanotherlab.org [Accessed 27th August 2017]

[16] ‘Gabo Arora’, VR Days. Available at: http://vrdays.co/people/gabo-arora/ [Accessed 27th August 2017]

[17] TED, Chris Milk: How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine (YouTube, 2015). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXHil1TPxvA&t=384s [Accessed 27th August 2017]

[18] TED, Chris Milk: How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine (YouTube, 2015). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXHil1TPxvA&t=384s [Accessed 27th August 2017]

[19] The National Autistic Society, Autism TMI Virtual Reality Experience (YouTube, 2016). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DgDR_gYk_a8 [Accessed 27th August 2017]

[20] BBC News, Step inside the Large Hadron Collider (YouTube, 2016). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_OeQxoKocU [Accessed 27th August 2017]

[21] ‘Enter North Korea’, CNN (2017). Available at: http://edition.cnn.com/2017/04/25/vr/north-korea-pyongyang-kim-jong-un-celebration-vr/index.html [Accessed 27th August 2017]

[22] Condition One VR, In the Presence of Animals (YouTube, 2016). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NCtWo-yh3F4 [Accessed 27th August 2017]

[23] National Geographic, 360° Great Hammerhead Shark Encounter (YouTube, 2016). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rG4jSz_2HDY [Accessed 28th August 2017]

[24] National Geographic, Lions 360° (YouTube, 2017). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPyAQQklc1s&t=173s [Accessed 28th August 2017]

[25] Seeker VR, Journey To The Edge Of Space (YouTube, 2016). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCve1w1GFOs [Accessed 28th August 2017]

[26] Discovery VR, MythBusters: Sharks Everywhere! (YouTube, 2015). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3WIS6N_9gjA [Accessed 28th August 2017]

Oct 18

Podcast: Calling the Shots

 

Dr Shelley Cobb is an Associate Professor at the University of Southampton. Calling the Shots is an AHRC funded 4 year project.

You can follow the Calling the Shots on Facebook and Twitter.

More information on women’s film can be found at the Women’s Film & Television History Network UK/Ireland,  the Celluloid Ceiling and The F Word.

Oct 02

Rewriting ideal history: The Ostalgie expression in Goodbye, Lenin (2003)

Wolfgang Becker’s film Goodbye, Lenin (2003) portrays a tragicomic story of an East German family mirroring the historical changes after the fall of Berlin Wall. The hero Alex fabricates an elaborate fantasy of pre-fall-of-the-Wall life for his mother who suffers with amnesia, since her fragile heart cannot get excited by the drastic social change. Alex’s mother is a loyal communist in the German Democratic Republic, and she has raised her two children alone after her husband left their family and escaped to West Germany in 1978. In order to conceal the unification of Germany, Alex works with his friend Denis, an amateur filmmaker, to produce a series of TV news programmes that imitate those of East Germany (figure 1). At first, Alex utilises the faked TV news to interpret those events that his mother witnesses that suggest unification has occurred. For instance, a Coca-Cola advertisement banner is hung on a building outside the window of Alex’s mother’s bedroom (figure 2), then Alex fabricates a TV news to interpret that international scientists determined the patent of Coca-Cola belongs to one beverage industry in GDR, because original Coca-Cola was produced in a GDR experiment in the 1950s. However, one day his mother told her children an amazing secret: she should have absconded to West Germany with her husband in 1978, but she could not leave her children in the GDR. She deceived her children that her husband betrayed family, and she even hid all her husband’s letters to their children. Alex is shocked that his mother never trusted the country that she worked for. Alex finds his father’s address from those letters and thy have a short meeting, he then produces a TV news programme to reinterpret the fall of Berlin Wall (GDR accepted immigrants from West Germany after the ruin of capitalism) for his mother, thus he also reaches a reconciliation with his parents. In this blog, I would like to analyse how the Ostalgie mood is presented in the relationship between Alex and his mother, and how Alex’s parent is a metaphor for the GDR and West Germany. As a young person who has lived through huge historical changes, Alex has to rebuild his national identity from the gap between capitalism and socialism, and handle the complex mood for his disappeared motherland, the GDR.

Fig 1

Figure 1: The studio of Alex’s TV news programmes

Fig2

Figure 2: Coca Cola advertisement

Ostalgie is a German term used for describing a nostalgic mood for East Germany. In Goodbye, Lenin Wolfgang Becker expresses the ostalgie emotion by deconstructing the historical event in an ironic way. Sigmund Jähn, the former GDR astronaut who is the first German in space, has been a taxi driver after unification. Alex knows him initially from TV news in 6 August 1978 but discovers his family was ruined on the same day. The scene shoes two Stasi officers interrogate Alex’s mother in the hall about her husband’s defection, at the same time the television broadcasts the news that Sigmund Jähn flew into space. Alex’s real father is absent in this scene and the national hero Sigmund Jähn might be identified as his spiritual father. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Alex meets Sigmund Jähn on the way to his father’s house; Sigmund Jähn is his taxi driver. That is an interesting historical misplacement, the former space hero had once represented the socialist ideal and the honour of GDR, but now he is a disheartened ‘ordinary’ person after the unification of Germany. The huge social change has erased the extraordinary astronaut’s previous honour, so there is a wide gap between the GDR people’s socialist identity and disillusion after their pride dissipates with the nation.

 

Alex invited Sigmund Jähn to perform as the GDR’s new chairman, making an inaugural speech on the faked TV news. Thus, another historical misplacement happens when Sigmund Jähn sits in a public library, wearing old military uniform from a flea market, and makes a speech declaring the unification of East Germany and West Germany (figure 3). That scene shocks the readers and staff in the library, since the contrary version of real history becomes an ironic fantasy. However, it is also a very emotional sequence, as not only does it deliver Alex’s love for his mother but also rebuilds his belief in the GDR. Although the socialist ideal in the GDR already failed, in fact, even Alex’s mother, an idealistic communist who “marries the socialist fatherland” is proved to be disheartened with the GDR for a long period, Alex still rewrites his ideal history in TV news and approves of the previous idealism in the GDR. Alex’s mother, the metaphor of the GDR people’s motherland, does not believe the so-called socialist ideal as she already plans to abscond from the GDR, she even deliberately defames Alex’s father as a cheater in their marriage and hides all his letters. However, Alex realises he is already estranged with his father since the long-term separation. In the embarrassed meeting of Alex and his father, Alex looks like an incongruous invader sitting between his half-blooded brother and sister, and realises he is more closely related to his mother, the dying woman lying in hospital. When he identifies Sigmund Jähn, the taxi driver who used to be his spiritual father when he was a child, that former hero accepted his unexpected destiny. That sequence might be Alex’s spiritual farewell to fatherhood, he completes the rebuilding of identity and decides to coexist with “the Other”; that previous capitalist enemy.

fig 3

Figure 3:

Sigmund Jähn makes a speech declaring the unification of East Germany and West Germany

Available at: https://img3.doubanio.com/view/photo/raw/public/p1691947844.jpg, accessed 11 July, 2017

Wolfgang Becker elaborately presents this political allegory as a family melodrama, various elements such as historical change, national identity, and ideological conflict are involved in the story about an ordinary German family, and therefore the tragicomic family melodrama reflects the collective memory after the fall of the Wall. However, the ostalgie mood in Goodbye, Lenin not only is presented by arousing collective memory, but also by guiding audiences to rethink German history. Through an ironic version of ideal history in faked TV news, Wolfgang Becker illustrates that ostalgie does not mean the GDR is an idealistic utopia, or that the people of the GDR are lost after the fall of Berlin Wall. Rather, people of the GDR have an ostalgie mood because that disappeared motherland shaped them, and they cannot abandon completely their previous illusions about the future and the collective memory about the GDR. The ideal history can possibly cure disillusioned people’s trauma after unification in a tragicomic way, rather than resulting from the GDR people’s dissatisfaction with the circumstance. In other words, there is no binary opposition between memory and reality as there is no real enmity between East Germany and West Germany, that previous ideal still comes true in other ways: the fact of unification also shows the socialist ideal of peace. Thus, the people of the GDR position themselves by rebuilding their common memory, and rethinking their belief with an ironic version of ‘ideal’ history.

Sep 01

LGBT FILM: Should love be easy or hard?

In LGBT films, love is either granted freely or portrayed as a force that creates a war between the heart and mind. More particularly, homosexual relationships appear to trouble coming-of-age protagonists. This is seen in LGBT films such as: Boys (Mischa Kamp, 2014), Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party (Stephen Cone, 2015) and Get Real (Simon Shore, 1998). In all these films the protagonists appear at war with themselves as the act of loving a person of the same gender puts them into a dangerous position in society: a place that threatens the normality of their social surroundings.

When talking about LGBT film, it is important to be specific, which is why this blog is mainly covering the issues between a gay man’s personal identity and the society he is surrounded in. Many LGBT centred films are diverse in their representation, depending on where the film is made and who makes it. However, here I want to mainly focus on two very specific representations of LGBT identities. On the one hand, Dream Boy (James Bolton, 2008) reveals truths about the hardship gay men faced in rural 1970s America, whereas, The Way He Looks (Daniel Riberio, 2014) focuses on a more utopian representation of gay identities in contemporary society. What is interesting about both films is that they represent LGBT characters through a coming-of-age narrative. Both Nathan and Leonardo share similar narratives. However, the way they are treated couldn’t be more different.

Although some films such as Geography Club (Gary Entin, 2013), The Wise Kids (Stephen Cone, 2011) and The Way He Looks, portray homosexual relationships as pure and suggest that gay relationships are a natural, loving form of human expression, other films such as Dream Boy use a common representation of homosexuality as an opportunity to bring awareness to how destructive it is to marginalise gay identities. If anything, what both of these films do beautifully is question humanity’s own tendency to accept love: do we accept those with identities different from ours or do we push ‘outsiders’ into a destructive spiral of madness, based on a distaste towards the rejection of hetro-normality. Unfortunately, this distaste almost becomes subconscious in contemporary society as cinema conditions its audiences to only accept heterosexual behaviour. What these films are doing is diverting the audience member from their subconscious mind, and making the spectator subconsciously accept homosexual love. Which leads to the question: how are the audience positioned in these films? I believe the positioning of the audience depends on the individual and how they place themselves in the film.

 

Figure 2: Nathan’s sexual assault scene. Dream Boy. Here TV, 2008.

For example, the homosexual spectator is positioned to relate to the narratives of LGBT films. The characters, the adversity and the narratives can be directly connected to our own understanding of struggling to find our identity in a world that mainly promotes straight love. However, for a heterosexual audience member, you are not positioned to directly relate to the narrative or the protagonists, but rather educated on the hardships of identifying as LGBT and struggling with your own sexuality. I would hope that heterosexual spectators gain a deeper understanding of the LGBT struggle from these films. Pushing them to be a LGBT ally, rather than someone who believes that everything is good for the LGBT community “because it is 2017.”

Dream Boy is, from start to finish, a hard-hitting representation of gay lives in southern America. The film follows protagonist Nathan as he struggles to find love in America’s homophobic southern society. Stephen Bender’s performance as Nathan highlights how his desire for love makes him an outcast in society. What Bender’s performance does perfectly is symbolise Nathan as a victim, almost visually portraying him as a damaged dove, which is used frequently through white clothing (see Figure 1). Most likely, it is the timidity that the audience love about Nathan’s character, since his coy walk, quiet dialogue and shy persona pull a sympathetic response from the audience. This response becomes established through the audience’s connection to the protagonist. His introverted personality reflects a time in everybody’s life when we felt as if the world was coming crashing down on us. I believe that taboo topics such as sexual assault and both physical and mental abuse would pull the same distasteful reaction out of anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation.

The reception of social issues such as sexual assault and domestic abuse in LGBT films, among the diverse society that contemporary spectators live in, is dependent more on the individual film and films’ marketing industries rather than the audience. I would suggest that LGBT films are marketed towards LGBT people as it’s a ‘safe’ demographic and this particular audience is more likely to understand the content. However, within every decade an LGBT film breaks through into mainstream media to show society that all sexualities are mutually understanding of each other, and that mostly all of us stand universal in understanding each-others problems. In a Huffington Post blog, Kevin Thornton says “watching Brokeback Mountain in a mainstream, middle-American movie theatre was a strangely profound performance. Handsome movie stars portraying anything similar to my own life was, for me, uncharted territory.” The fact many LGBT people feel as if the portrayal of their type of love is specific to LGBT films, making homosexual love in Hollywood “uncharted territory”, highlights how certain genres market certain audiences and isolate others.

Figure 3: The Bus Scene. Dream Boy. Here TV, 2008.

Figure 4: Brokeback Mountain. Image from The Hollywood Reporter

However, every now and then, films such as Brokeback Mountain (Lee, 2005) (Figure 4) and Moonlight (Jenkins, 2017) break out into mainstream media and show audiences that they can co-exist together.

Within Dream Boy there is a distinctive distance between Nathan and the identity of a stereotypical American hero. Hollywood would have its audiences believe that the typical, and therefore only qualifying hero is a white, strong, heterosexual man. Although, it’s somewhat typical of American-produced films to represent the American hero through alternative identities, such as Paper Towns (Jake Schreier, 2015) and The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky, 2012), (see Figure 5), these protagonists are positioned as alternative identities as they completely contradict the stereotype of the American hero (see Figure 6). Most hold an average body shape and awkward personality; which usually isolates them to the periphery of society. As mentioned above, though this is somewhat common in film industries such as Hollywood, what is not as common in these films is the narrative resolution found in Dream Boy. Whereas, protagonists in heterosexual film narratives normally embark on a personal journey of self-discovery, Nathan is raped and killed. Nathan is never given the chance to embark on his own journey of self-discovery due to the protagonist contrasting the stereotype of an American hero. In mainstream cinema, this outcome is unlikely. However, in LGBT cinema this narrative resolution is common and although it is upsetting, it highlights a substantial point: LGBT people are still discriminated against daily, these people are still killed, abused and isolated, and by LGBT films highlighting this, it shows audiences that we still have a long way to go in order to achieve acceptance. Nathan’s homosexuality disconnects him from America’s consciousness, as his homosexuality is not as common as the heterosexual love that is portrayed in mainstream cinema and therefore his death makes the audience feel uncomfortable. Had this film been about heterosexual love, I believe the outcome would have been quite different. If Nathan had been a woman and Roy a man, they would have proclaimed their love together in a big Hollywood-style conclusion. However, because they are both homosexual men living in 70s Christian America, the outcome isn’t as romantic.

Figure 5: Captain America’s transformation. Captain America. Marvel Studios, 2011

Figure 6: Captain America’s transformation. Captain America. Marvel Studios, 2011

Although Dream Boy manipulates the audience into feeling sad that Nathan is stripped naked, raped and killed (see Figure 8) for being who he is, do we feel as sad when we see governments forming coalitions with homophobic parties? Do we feel as sad when for the first time in years, the White House hasn’t celebrated Pride? Do we feel as sad when the US distributers are accused of removing gay references on DVD covers? This was the reality back in 2014 when US distributors watered down LGBT references on the Pride (Warchus, 2014) cover to get it to sell. In a world that discriminates against LGBT people daily, with world leaders such as Donald Trump attempting to ban transgender American citizens from the military, films such as Dream Boy make the audience realise how problematic it is to alienate LGBT identities, as Nathan’s demise from awkward school boy to friendly ghost makes us realise that we need to accept everyone for who they are, and give them a good quality of life. Otherwise, we are no different to those who raped and killed Nathan.

It is no secret that both Roy (Nathan’s lover) and Nathan are ashamed of who they are because of the church and their society. The film doesn’t make you question why they are ashamed of who they are, because you, as the audience, already know. What it does is makes you question why it is okay for these institutions to marginalise LGBT identities to the point that the likely outcome is depression, death or other dark paths. The Trevor project reports that LGBT youth are 4 times more likely to commit suicide than those who identify as straight, with those who are rejected by their families 8.7 times more likely to commit suicide than the average LGBT teenager.[1] What it does is it makes you ask: why is it so hard for these people to survive, when all they are doing is looking to love? And there lies the beauty of this film, it is not asking you to blame the protagonists for who they are but rather blame the society, the religion, the people who make these innocent souls feel like they are dangerous just for looking for a love.

Fig 7

Figure 7: Leonardo’s walking home scene. The Way He Looks. Lacuna Filmes, 2014

Fig 8

Figure 8: Nathan’s Rape scene. Dream Boy. Here TV, 2008

Despite the negative representation of gay identities in Dream Boy, a film that shows that gay relationships aren’t allowed to function in many parts of this world as people won’t accept them for who you are, contemporary films set in modern eras such as The Way He Looks explore a more pluralistic representation of LGBT identities (see Figure 8). Within The Way He Looks, Leonardo, the main protagonist is blind and therefore battles two adversities: one being his homosexual identity and the other being the identity of a blind man. What is clever about making Leonardo both gay and blind is that it creates this sense of purity and transparency around gay identities that is lacking from the film industry. Leonardo is presented as somebody who doesn’t judge people on how they look but rather who they are. This type of acceptance often appears to be lacking in modern society.

In some LGBT films, such as King Cobra (Justin Kelly, 2016) the identity of the gay man is very much attraction-focused; the protagonists appear superficial by professing an exaggerated type of self-love. The whole narrative of King Cobra follows Brent as he uses his body and good looks to navigate popularity in the porn industry. These characters, such as Brent, appear fixated on both themselves and the people they are looking to engage with sexually. In these films, the characters would only be attracted to those who have the perfect body and looks. Therefore, gay identities are being presented as a selfish, narcissistic version of the human being. I believe this character is a damaging representation, as these qualities aren’t received well in modern society. Films such as House of Boys (Jean- Claude Schlim, 2009) and Going Down In La La Land (Casper Andreas, 2011) portray the identity of a perfectly sculptured, sexually charged, gay man. The problem with such identities is that it suggests that gay men are all this superficial, arrogant model-type character, when in reality gay men exist in the same space as every man and woman on this planet, (see Figure 9). However, Leonardo’s character abolishes stereotypes, and it is not clear he is gay until halfway through the film. What is clear from the opening scene is that Leonardo wants to be loved. The fact the point isn’t made that he wants love from another man until half-way through the film questions our own tendency to jump towards the narrative of heterosexual love.

Fig 9

Figure 9: The Embrace Scene. Going Down In La La Land. Privately funded, 2011.

Fig 10

Figure 10: Shower scene. The Way He Looks. Lacuna filmes, 2014.

Additionally, the fact Leonardo is blind also calls into question the argument that is played through many homophobic debates. The idea that homosexual love is taught, and can therefore be untaught. The fact Leonardo is blind suggests that he is feeling from his heart and his soul. His love is pure and therefore he is not falling in love through visual attractions or teaching himself to adhere to alternative identities, but rather, listening to the sound of his lover’s voice and the touch of his partner’s skin. His blindness abolishes the argument that sexuality is a choice, as Leonardo is incapable of directly learning this type of love of things he’s seen in real life. Leonardo shows that gay love is not about mirroring other people’s actions but rather acting out on what your heart and mind is telling you to do. This purity is continued throughout the film but is rather distinct in one particular scene. Leonardo makes it evident through his conversation with his best friend Giovanna that he longs to be kissed. The film then cuts to a close up of Leonardo in a shower, the close up is of his lips and he is kissing the shower’s glass (see Figure 10). This transparency mimics Leonardo’s state of mind towards homosexual love, as he believes it is pure and normal. In this scene, lies the beauty of The Way He Looks, as Leonardo’s identity as a gay man is presented as something that is natural. The protagonist’s lack of sight suggests that his identity has been made from the heart.

Although the treatment of gay protagonists is vastly different between Dream Boy and The Way He Looks, it would be reductive to say that Leonardo doesn’t face similar discriminations to Nathan, though perhaps the oppression isn’t as drastic. In the narrative coda of The Way He Looks Leonardo’s school friends shout abuse to the protagonist and his partner. Leonardo reacts to this by holding his lovers hand, causing the nearby students to react saying “There you go douche” (see Figure 11). This short scene highlights how contemporary attitudes to gay identities are more accepting. However, there is still some oppression that forms in contemporary society.

Whereas Nathan, in the 1970s, experienced traumatic homophobia and had no one to talk to, Leonardo has his friends to turn to and his school-friends who quickly shut down homophobic behaviour. The juxtaposition between the two highlights the change of people’s attitudes towards accepting gay identities. Therefore, it would be incorrect to suggest that Nathan only experiences adversity because the film is set in 1970s rural America, since, Leonardo, a 21st century teenager in Brazil, still faces oppression. This means that although there is still the representation of oppression in LGBT films within modern cinema, there has been a shift in the connotation of gay identities since 1970s society, which has been reflected in the contrast between Dream Boy and The Way He Looks.

Despite the fact they are produced in different countries and set in different eras, both Dream-Boy and The Way He Looks exist in the same space, as they both question the audience’s perception of love and the idea of ‘free love’. Whilst, it is comforting to know Leonardo’s story isn’t as dark as Nathan’s, we shouldn’t forget the hardship that LGBT identities face daily. Where both films find common ground is that they both make the spectator look inwards and question him or herself. Are you the type of person who stands in the way of free love? Do you agree that Nathan should be victimised? Or do you agree that gay identities, like Leonardo should love purely?

Fig 11

Figure 11: The narrative conclusion. The Way He Looks. Lacuna filmes, 2014.

 

[1] http://www.thetrevorproject.org/pages/facts-about-suicide

 

Aug 07

Cinema at the Foundations of Human Culture

In the southwest of France, a queue starts to form. Progressing forward slowly over the next hour, countless men and women silently wait in eager anticipation: with the ticket they receive, they shall access an enclosed space, which, as many previous visitors have claimed, may radically enrich or challenge their understanding of what it means to be human. As they enter, a wondrous display of images come alive: before them, the wall becomes a canvas for series of simplistically profound gestures, each revealing some thought on identity, nature, faith, fear, life, and death. Lost in awe, the crowd are reduced to silence as the projections begin to dance.

This is, of course, no ordinary cinema – I am in fact describing Lascaux II, a facsimile of the original Lascaux caves, where paintings dating to around 15,000 BCE were discovered and presented to the public through 1948 to 1963 – but I believe the prehistoric cave art represented there represents a form of cinema nonetheless.

Fig 1

Figure 1. A recreation of ancient cave paintings in Lascaux II (image from Semitour)

In his 2010 3D documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, recording one of the last expeditions into the Chauvet Caves (where paintings dating back to almost 30,000 BCE were discovered), Werner Herzog makes a fascinating observation: many cave paintings have a distinctly animated and cinematic quality. The overlapping of gestures (as seen in Figure 2) shows the ‘primitive’ man’s attempt to express movement within a single image. Of course, film is fundamentally reliant on the illusion of movement created by a rapid succession of distinct frames, but this can still be distinguished from sequential art in that distinct frames of the same motion are not typically shown in a composite image (as, for example, with the panels of comic books and film storyboards).

Archaeologist and filmmaker Marc Azéma, from two decades of studying movement in animal cave paintings, concluded likewise that cave art held the same essential appeal as that of cinema – that is, in its attempt to replicate and convey natural movement – and recreated animated loops from traces of paintings to demonstrate.[1]

Fig 2

Figure 2. Some of the earliest-known examples of figurative drawings, found in the Chauvet Caves (image from Bradshaw Foundation)

The first audiences of the earliest cinematic experiments were often fascinated with the representation of movement in what may now be considered mundane or incidental details. With Le Repas de Bébé, for example, a 1895 documentary short film directed by cinematic pioneer Louis Lumière, it is recorded that the audiences were particularly fascinated with rustling leaves in the background. A common myth of early cinema holds that contemporary audiences were allegedly terrified of a considerably simple projection of an approaching train in L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, another short released in 1896 (seen in Figure 3). As Dai Vaughn considers, what this reveals is that people were most significantly impressed by the ability of a camera to both carry the ferocity of large moving bodies and capture spontaneities and gestures unable to be shown in photography and the painted backdrops of theatrical productions.[2]

French inventor Léon Bouly patented a device capable of both projection and photography, which was later sold to the Lumière brothers (with which they filmed Le Repas and L’Arrivée), naming it a ‘cinématographe’ from the Latinised form of the Greek ‘kinema’, meaning ‘movement’, and ‘graphein’, meaning ‘to write’. The concept and name of cinema evolved from – and its development and popularity build on – its ability to capture movement.

The idea here that movement contributes a unique quality to an artwork can be seen to foreshadow, though in perhaps a very limited form, the foundational formal appeal of cinema as a celebration of movement. It is, ultimately, this potential which gave rise to the growth, popularity and preservation of both film and cave art: no other contemporary medium than cave art for Palaeolithic society and cinema for the late 19th century Western society could so impressively capture both subtlety and strength represented in movement.

Fig 3

Figure 3. Frame from L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1896) (image from la Lucnarne)

Dominique Baffier, an archaeologist and cave art curator featured in Herzog’s documentary, considers that the inclusion of a horse with an open mouth makes the image ‘become audible to us’, suggesting also that the aggression of fighting rhinos can almost be heard (see Figure 4). This implies that, although evidently limited by resources, the paintings were intended to contain and induce a broader sensory experience in its audience.

The ‘primitive’ artist, as with the artist of any era, was no doubt distinguished by their relation to or experience with the natural world. Arnold Hauser argues that, if the representation of animals served a magical or spiritual function, then we can infer that the artists were seen as gifted with some magical sensitivity and hence venerated as such.[3] This new status, he writes, would have brought certain privileges, including the emancipation of food-seeking duties: a primitive form of Hollywood stardom or auteurship, perhaps.

Fig 4

Figure 4. Horses whinny and rhinos clash in Chauvert Caves (image from Amusing Planet)

Although cinema is not essentially defined by the inclusion of recorded sound, since ‘silent’ films were prominent for the first few decades of cinema (though music has always played an invaluable role), the value of its potential – and certainly its progression – is broadly defined by the reality and believability of sensorial impact. The latest IMAX cameras, with extended resolutions and greater quality, are now often praised as the pinnacle of contemporary cinematic achievement, with specific theatres integrated with 3D technology reserved primarily for showing the most expensively produced blockbusters.

The as-yet uncontested success of 2009’s Avatar can be in no small part attributed to its innovative usage of 3D technology, motion capture and CGI effects: positive criticism almost universally lists these features, and negative criticism often isolates the predictability of its narrative. The ability of cinema to produce an otherwise unique sensorial experience – defined by its ‘realism’ – appears essential to the main thrust of its public appeal: the camera, like the ‘primitive’ artist, is valued by the intimacy of its relation to the world it records, though the value and nature of intimacy has developed and changed.

Fig 5

Figure 5. An IMAX screen (image from BFI)

Why cave art was featured in locations that would have been, as Ira Konigsberg considers, incredibly difficult to reach,[4] remains something of a mystery, but perhaps, like contemporary cinema, ‘primitive’ humans found value in an environment which is both communal and private. Large areas in caves indicate that multiple people (though likely only a few) could visit the sites of artworks at the same time,[5] indicating that the artists likely intended the viewing of their work to be a public experience. Although cinema is valued by personal and private faculties (namely, a unique reception of light and sound, and a subjective inference of meaning), the experience of cinema going is undoubtedly shaped by the crowd surrounding the individual: it is why we go to the cinema with our friends and family, etc.

The difficulty of access to caves may be somewhat comparable to the decision of modern audiences to continue paying for cinema tickets despite their increasing price and the apparent ease of illegal piracy: the intimacy of the relationship with the image is often thought to be intensified by the difficulty of our work in affording entry, just as ‘primitive’ humans evidently persisted, despite the apparent physical difficulty, in creating and viewing their artwork. We treat going to the cinema, no doubt influenced by the marketing of production companies, as an enjoyable social, celebratory and romantic experience – but almost always as a treat or novelty.

Furthermore, in the same way that caves provide security from the threats of aggressive predators and weather, cinema has developed itself an economic dependency on the viewer’s desire for popcorn, snacks and comfortable seating. The cinema and the cave have always been both a sanctuary and emotional captivation, despite – or maybe in face of – the darkness within.

Since, therefore, most known cave art reveals a desire to represent life, often expresses some degree of movement, volume and sound, and is featured in an enclosed public space with limited lighting, I believe drawing connections to the structure of cinema is appropriate and substantial. What this shows, if it is true that the aesthetic, spiritual and ideological sensitivities which gave rise to cinema laid dormant in our very human nature, waiting to be unearthed, is that the study of cinema should is not merely incidental or peripheral as an academic field: it is a study of how humans have always wanted to view the world.

 

Jonny Rogers, Film and Philosophy

FILMOGRAPHY:

L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat / The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. Auguste Lumière, Louis Lumière. Société Lumière. 1896

Avatar. James Cameron. Lightstorm Entertainment, Dune Entertainment, Ingenious Media, 20th Century Fox. United States, United Kingdom. 2009.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Creative Differences, History Films, Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication, Arte France, Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, More4, IFC Films, Sundance Selects. 2010.

Le Repas de Bébé / Baby’s Dinner. Louis Lumiére. France. 1895.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Gibbs, Patrick, Marc Azema animation (YouTube, 2012), Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x8exsw6yKXw [Accessed 2 July 2017]

Hauser, Arnold, The Social History of Art: From prehistoric times to the Middle Ages (Volume One) (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1962), p. 17

Konigsberg, Ira ‘Cave Paintings and the Cinema’, Wide Angle, 18 (2), 1996, pp. 7-33

Vaughn, Dai, ‘Let there be Lumiere’, in Thomas Elsaesser, eds, Early cinema: space, frame, narrative (London: BFI publishing, 1990), pp. 63-67

[1] Patrick Gibbs, Marc Azema animation (YouTube, 2012), Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x8exsw6yKXw [Accessed 2 July 2017]

[2] Dai Vaughn, ‘Let there be Lumiere’, in Thomas Elsaesser, eds, Early cinema: space, frame, narrative (London: BFI publishing, 1990), pp. 63-67 (64-65)

[3] Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art: From prehistoric times to the Middle Ages (Volume One) (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1962), p. 17

[4] Ira Konigsberg, ‘Cave Paintings and the Cinema’, Wide Angle, 18 (2), 1996, pp. 7-33 (8)

[5] Ira Konigsberg, ‘Cave Paintings and the Cinema’, Wide Angle, 18 (2), 1996, pp. 7-33 (11)