Prologue to Movie Mutations
By Pere Portabella
Over a period of six years, Jonathan Rosenbaum coordinated a group of analysts, critics and film historians with the idea of starting research through dialogue, texts, epistolary exchanges and personal encounters. The people forming part of this interesting process, which has now been made into a book, wove together an ensemble of observations, drawing together verified information and conclusions which allow us to see and understand film from an updated perspective thanks to the integrity of the authors. Everything began as a generational phenomenon and turned into something greater, in a broader, collective reflection about many forms of “mutation” which affect film and film culture in our present era. Technological mutation: “the digital era” is ushering in a new definition of the filmed image.
According to the authors, the film that we knew of in the past was based on making a photographic record of the world, a concept highly valued by their mentor in one era, André Bazin. Now, using digital images, we can make a forgery of the world. What does that mean for film lovers?
At the same time, something similar to a reinvention of Italian neo-Realism is coming about in the Iranian New Wave and some of the concepts of Dogma, and therefore some of Bazin’s concepts about reality are not completely outdated either. Some remains are still left behind of Bazin’s idea as a form of humanism.
They insist that they must remain very attentive to the changing map of world cinema, and on the way in which our perceptions and explanations of this phenomenon have to follow the pace of this mutation. Over the past decade, movies from Asia and the Middle East, as well as non-Western narratives, have achieved a preeminence in world film culture that was unthinkable just twenty years ago, transforming our idea of what a tale woven with images and sounds is and can be, as well as leading to geographic de-centralization in current film production, which is leaving behind its former pyramid-shaped hierarchy. Film changes, evolves, mutates. The Internet legitimizes the existence and constant construction of horizontal communities in which film images are spread about and built using criteria nobody had thought of just a few years ago. And we must, of course, reflect on these criteria. Perhaps because of this, university departments devoted to studying film have proliferated at the international level, and new theoretical and academic strategies have been created to understand film today. Perhaps at this time more than ever, we should be thinking about what is happening on screens: how traditional genres are being transformed, how fiction and documentaries are being related to one another, how both are ceasing to be different things, or how right now some might say that we are suddenly discovering that they always were the same thing. We remain far from knowing the scope or depth of the way production and film are perceived in many countries around the world.
However, there are many other factors which can cause a mutation: the uprise of New Asian Cinemas or what we might call “non-Western narratives.”
We are also invited to think about how new movie screens are coming into existence: on mobile phones, on iPhones, on iPads andon handheldPlay Stations, of course, but in museums and art galleries, as well. Moreover, we may have to start thinking about the reasons why people, now that we are all mutants and mutated, are talking about the death of film yet again, as if that were possible, as if film were not an endless mutation of one image into another, of one discourse into another, because of its very nature.
The convergence of reflections on all of the decisive topics inside of one single book has caused the English-language editions of Movie Mutuationshave become a sort of premature classic, or a cult book for many readers and film lovers. It could be called a “rare” book, if you will allow me the epithet, or if you prefer and find it more accurate: an exceptional book or publishing outlier. Because publications of this type are not commonly found. More than a book, Movie Mutations is a setting, a place where proposals are gathered along with suggestions and paths open to thought, controversy and provocation. Movie Mutations outlines a horizon for reflection, but it appropriately fails to define that reflection, and even less so to close it off. At no time does it attempt to create a Movement or New Way. Because the origin of this project has less to do with a Group, with a capital G, than it does with a simple group of friends. And with the desire which one of them, Chicago resident Jonathan Rosenbaum, had to learn more about the concerns, interests and tastes of the others: Adrian Martin in Melbourne, Kent Jones in New York, Alexander Howarth in Vienna, Nicole Brenez in Paris and others who joined the group little by little.
Since its beginnings, Movie Mutations has been presented as a book of appealing formality: a set of letters by these friends opens up the book, and another set ends it. Between the two one can find their correspondence sent over several years, the World Trade Center bombing in New York, and ten dense chapters, with endless reflections and intuition about everything that some call “post-cinema” and most of us continue calling the present and future of film. It is a veritable collective diary of mutations and changes.
Amongst all of these mutations, one which has a huge presence is that involving New (or not so new) Asian Cinema, or perhaps its renewed presence on our Western movie screens (both the old and the new). Through articles, interviews and even a wonderful exchange of faxed messages, several parts of the book examine the works of key filmmakers in current Iranian Cinema, like Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi —as well as the difficulties that get in the way of allowing these films to enter distribution circuits like that of the United States, coupled with the perhaps even greater difficulties which these directors have in going to that country merely because they have an Iranian passport; another way of looking at the political reality of today’s film—. You can also find several texts about Asian filmmakers (Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese…), such as Tsai Ming-liang, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Yasuzo Masumara, who, considering the dearth of bibliographic references in Spanish about these directors, may create a true arsenal for the movie lover/sniper, as well as starting points for research or the cultivation of new passions for moving images. What is interesting in this respect, as well, is the (self-)criticism which the book itself contains, reminding us how the traditional approach to Asian film of Western critics seems unable to let go of a certain paradigm close to traditional “exoticism” and “Orientalism,” nearly always preserving, though seldom aware of doing so, a kind distance which reinforces the supposed strange nature of the studied object, paradoxically making it more malleable to the manipulation of enlightened reasoning.
Coupled with these reflections are other proposals involving other mutations, about which I deal with in a disorderly manner, after reading this book which is in no way shy of fragmentation. To begin with, there is the accelerated transformation of that aesthetic and critical activity which we refer to as the “viewing,” the changes in which affect both the viewing space and time, as well as the mechanism itself, as described by Jonathan Rosenbaum using his adventures at the Rotterdam Film Festival as an excuse.
Also included in this volume is a series of revealing exchanges between Catherine Benamou and Lucia Saks surrounding the relationship between identity and film within a circum-Atlantic navigation of images from Africa to Latin America, and vice versa. However, also examined within this dialogue is the transformation undergone by images —their formalization, their productive context, their recipient— within the new political environment of South Africa after the end of Apartheid and its relationship with both memory and the future (which inevitably leads me to think of our own Transition in Spain).
Equally essential to me, because I believe it could be one of the most lucid texts in the volume, is a set of considerations made by Nataša Durovičov about the specific present need to focus film theory and practice from a definitively global perspective. This text truly gives you something to think about in a contribution which, ultimately and putting it rigorously, is not very common.
Last of all, I would like to emphasize the importance of the contributions by another of the book’s editors, Adrian Martin. In one of them, Martin eclectically and brilliantly de-constructs the Americanization withstood by film theory, even that which is produced from outside of the United States, when it comes to examining certain genres (which is the case of the musical films that Martin analyzes therein). This could also be extended to include other closely related domains within the realm of film studies. Similarly, it is Martin himself who enters a dialogue along with James Naremone about the future of the academic study of film, describing a landscape which to some of them may seem grayish, but which in actuality encourages criticism of those teaching institutions that, according to a categorical remark by Martin —which I would not have a difficult time agreeing with—, “promote a secure consolidation of the existing knowledge as a way to solidify consensus.”
Jonathan Rosenbaum is interested in “a dozen new journals in France, like Baltazhar and Exploding, which explore new methods of analysis (such as “figural criticism”) and establish interesting links between, for instance, “junk” horror movies and the most radical avant-garde experiments.”* All of these new publications have created a context which is daringly intellectual, instead of giving in to the “anti-intellectual defenses” that are very widespread from different fronts, “and we have attempted to bear witness to this commitment in the book.” What is of interest to him is that each journal seems to have one foot in its own national culture and another in the new type of shared international space, in what is an increasingly large community, in part because he is reminded of the movie-making community he watched for, for example, in New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris and Rome in the early 1960’s.
This is the reason why a large part of this book takes on the form of dialogues, letters or e-mail exchanges. All of these types of collaborative writing may create a different way of speaking and thinking about film objects. Modes and tones are mixed, digression has its niche, and the personal voice is valued.
This book offers its own map of a changing filmmaking culture, but it does not intend to be definitive or exhaustive. It is more of an extensive sample of the types of explorations and connections that can be made in our current times.
Adrian Martin: Movie Mutations is our way of showing how a community should be conjured up, through the very acts of sharing information and inviting everyone to perform mutual reflection within the book.
For Jonathan Rosenbaum, it is important to emphasize that a large portion of the material which is included in this book is conceived as a work in progress. It may and must go beyond the limits of a unique project or publication.
And as Rosenbaum points out in this, his final comment, as I was reading the text, I could not stop thinking about how the acceleration of this change continues to increase, because over the scant decade which has elapsed since Jonathan authored his text until today, there has now come to be a wide range of new viewing devices available, and at the same time the new aesthetic and critical devices which those devices permit (or occlude).
* * *
The Digital Era
The digital revolution, since it began, has had the same or more of an impact than the Industrial Revolution over a century ago. New broadcasting forms in society have changed the media map in a process destined to create a new individual and collective entity.
Today it is no longer possible not to assume the forms of representation of our era, and more than resisting them, what one must do is remain attentive to the new cultural processes that are coming about. Because individuals, even though they are muted and take on no commitments, hold a space from which they constantly emit signals about information, ideas and situations. While attentive viewers are emancipated from traditional communication, they become the executors and users of the contents they see.
Work, language, perception, memory and the scale of things are all transformed as a result of the processes of virtualization and acceptance of a new, unreal reality. The traditional idea of the state will be transformed by the technological impact and the creation of state-like corporations.
The people are developing a “digital way of seeing” in terms of aesthetics and contents, desiring greater participation in everything they do, with an adolescent attitude before everything that is overwhelming them.
The value of simultaneity in real time of any gesture from any place has ushered in a new way of seeing, a need to receive and hear in a different way.
Definitively, a new individual is being created, who is getting organized in a different way, who is constantly being invited to get involved in communication processes and is promoting the digital revolution in each and every one of his acts as a consumer. These individuals no longer move with such precision at the limits of what is global; instead, it is they, in and of themselves, who are global and local. As a result, the phenomenon of globalization and maintaining the identity of that which is local does not entail too much of a contradiction within individuals, unlike the realms of business, economics and culture for states and companies.
Multimedia forms an interactive world with participating, multi-faceted users through a computer which receives and transmits digitalized messages more real than reality itself. The advent and use of computers make it possible to carry out many projects with interests and objectives as wide-ranging as they are contradictory, and recent examples of this are not lacking.
Professor Giovani Sartori defines the multimedia age as being governed by computers as they unify words, sounds and images, and what is fundamental is that they introduce simulated virtual realities of “imaginary images” into what is visible, leaving the images of real, existing things for television.
This virtual reality is a non-reality which has been created and which is only real on screen. The virtual and simulations incommensurately broaden the possibilities of what is real, but is not real.
The consequences of the structural changes in the eighties which already required a globalization of the economy, favored by the advent of computing, are producing devastating effects.
So-called “financial engineering” is a non-reality which is only real on computer screens: “imaginary finance.” The effects of these simulations have incommensurately expanded the potential of the real productive economy to unwithstandable limits. When the bubble burst, no rain fell, and still today nobody is sure whether we have hit rock-bottom, drowning in a systemic global crisis which nobody seems willing or able to deal with. They are attempting to cover up the fiasco with exclusively economic and financial adjustment plans, when what is urgently needed are structural political, economic, social and cultural changes in the short and long terms, as essential to each other as they are required by the global nature of the energy crises being repeatedly foreboded. Using scientifically verified criteria, the idea would be to shift from the unbridled consumerism of standard of living, to the quality of living of low-level, reasonable, sustainable, equitable consumption. A change in the foundations of current development and growth models with their unforeseeable consequences, in an effort which produces dizziness due to its scope and stupor due to the sizes of the changes, of a paralyzing effect on the political powers due to the aggressiveness of the economic powers. Without the instrumental use of “the global hyper-media,” such a downfall would never have been possible.
The Post-media Conditions
At a recent congress titled “The Post-media Connection in the Spanish Context,” in 2009, the idea was to discuss whether this supposed post-media condition would delimit an imminent state-of-the-art within a new context characterized by the disappearance of traditional art media and the appearance of a new global hyper-medium o super-medium. This super-medium would, of course, be that of computers, through whose computational language all of the former media would flow: painting, sculpture, photography, film, all ever more dependent upon the binary system which supports the entire world of computing.
What is proposed by the idea of the post-media condition is a new narrative model for understanding current art history, and the history of the film which we are now constructing. Stated in different terms: it is a new history or a new fable for contemporary art. The Post-media condition would bestow upon art, painting, film, photography, sculpture, music, and so on, armed with the powers conferred upon them by the current technological process related with the world of computers, the mission of turning the practice of art into a global, democratic space in which viewers become active users, in which art, through the supposed globalization of cybernetic space, becomes a “mechanism of emancipation,” within the reach of all individuals.
This fable reminds us of others well-known: for example, there is the fable of enlightened rationalist philosophy (Kant), which turned art into the privileged space for emancipation of the modern subject. It also reminds us of the other great Marxist fable which proposed technological advancement as the way to achieve a social utopia. However, we already know how rationalism and technology joined forces in the mid-twentieth century in a brutal and perverse manner, in an explosive mix: the instrumentalization of reason coupled with technological alienation to perpetrate one of the greatest tragedies experienced by mankind. It therefore seems at least legitimate, at this stage of the game, to remain suspicious of all those fables that propose to us a general space for freedom and creativity strictly derived from man’s technological progress.
The collapse of the modern essentialist paradigm is therefore not occurring as a result of the promiscuity of the media, but rather as a result of a theoretical thought which proposes the co-belonging of those same media as of their very origin.
In this way we shift from criticism of modernism performed by post-structuralist thought, which proposed the affirmation of a strongly-rooted essential difference as the only identity possible for the different media, to the new proposal of the post-media condition, which implies an essential denial of the media themselves as a new neo-essentialist identity for post-media art.
The new social and political reality that we are living in, at the end of this first decade of the twenty-first century, referred to as the “society of knowledge,” works by way of the skyrocketing new technologies, the democratization of information and the socialization of production. The importance of information and our ability to manage it are now becoming the spearhead. The ease in relating information and accessing information are being imposed resoundingly over knowledge itself.
The environment which we are offered by this new space leads to the democratization of knowledge: information is now more free and varied, as it diversifies and multiplies. Knowledge is undergoing constant mutation as a result of the “collective intelligence” which makes it possible to generate new information, alter existing information, modify contents, evaluate… This constant information mutation forces us to develop what are known as “meta-skills,” the ability to acquire new skills, causing an increase in our “adaptability” as a result. We have to think about and resolve different topics quickly, all at the same time, in a nearly intuitive way. Our ability to assimilate the constant changes which take place around us must implicitly bear with it the ability to know about and take advantage of our surroundings. It changes perception and what we demand. Because of this constant mutation, we often encounter usages which are not very rigorous, or which are banal, not up-to-date or fragmented. The key lies in the ability to manage information and data, which has allowed us to select and synthesize the contents we receive, so as to turn them into useful knowledge. To avoid falling prey to a meaningless bombardment of information, we require a well-grounded educational foundation that is “multidisciplinary.” This education, far from being elitist, is not based on academic knowledge alone, and in many cases is built upon the curiosity of the self-taught, thereby conditioning our approach and our perception.
Likewise, new multi-user collaborative spaces are created which stir up a generalized sense of community, active and enriching, which allows us to gain access to information at the global level.
This space is as ethereal as it is fragile, plagued with its browsers, search engines, social networks, support networks, opinion groups, professionals, and so on. Sites for meetings and discoveries, altered at random, without delimiting borders (mapping). New public spaces of an imaginary scope that was unimaginable just a couple of decades back.
These languages are not only for communicating, but also fundamentally for thinking. They co-exist, both the conceptual and that of thoughts, along with the logical, the scientific and that of poetic imagination, as well. Each one on its own, but all mutually permeable, they form a magma, a core with an enormous capacity to promote expanding imaginative potential. It is an eminently audiovisual language that can use all types of multimedia resources. As well as being able to mutate and undergo constant change, it is based on a contradictory structure which benefits from an apparently invisible harmony. An eminently intuitive, timeless language that blurs the established borders between fiction and reality. A language in which knowledge becomes obsolete almost at the very moment when it is produced. Sensorial or emotional without limits beyond the senses, it is also a language adaptive to the requirements of different users. And why not? At that limit, there is a sort of “open code” which makes it possible to intervene directly on it, manipulating it, touching it up, complementing it individually or collectively… so that it might remain viable within the fictionalized reality for just an instant.
Blogs, wikis, networks, podcasts, virtual reality… all of these spaces of the new generation allow us to create parallel virtual worlds which replace the physical reality around us.
All in all, we are talking about a “new” interactive and specific system of communication that will permit each user to perceive one same “reality” in a customized way, and to take part in it as many times as desired in a personalized registry which, if necessary, that user will automatically identify.
We must not forget that film is the last of the “Renaissance” arts, the seventh, which came into existence attached to technology. Photography and twenty-four frames per second made possible the illusion of viewing real images in motion cast onto a precarious screen, which by the way led to huge doses of hilarity and laughter. Film, thanks to the relationship at its origin, has the opportunity to progress with ease, fluency and even a certain confidence, hand-in-hand with the newest, most advanced technologies.
But what has happened with the movie industry? In its early stages, it produced intensely communicative and appealing films, the most popular spectacle of the twentieth century. Paradoxically, this is what kept film from being able to explore its narrative potential, as all of the arts of that era did, during the transitional period from modernity to post-modernity. Being ingrained in the narrative models of the novel and nineteenth-century theater, the Aristotelian age-old “perfect tool” causes it to remain, because of its ability to draw in audiences and its success, both the youngest art and that which has most rapidly aged. Still today, during the full decadence of movie theaters, they are unable to “contain” the new narratives more linked with the changes in new technologies and reality itself. Today, they are attempting to breathe new life into movie theaters with live broadcasts of sporting events, musical performances and media happenings, or by screening 3-D movies for the young and not so young. The market continues to haphazardly control what reaches and does not reach movie theaters. And to do this it always made use of the filters necessary to guarantee the design and limits of the “product”: astandardized production line to homogenize the cultural products required by the market, fed by the film distributors and screeners.
At the same time, from a policy aimed at creators there was a shift to cultural companies under the subterfuge that the policy aimed at creators ended up becoming too intrusive and interventionist, which caused governments’ policy on cultural affairs to be limited to promoting the industrial facet of culture, defending identity, consolidating the language, preserving the people’s symbolic and architectural heritage, leaving creativity for the periphery, exposed to the elements. Definitively, the economic aid from institutions is given to get results, when what should be invested in is the process. Today the process is the result.
Consequently, the hegemony of control by commercial networks, including record companies and publishing companies, as well as audiovisual firms and movie producers, are in a full-blown crisis and in some cases have become obsolete. The standard narrative model of film has run out of steam.
The truth is that the extremely new technologies applied to film are allowing it to move forward and deal with the radical structural changes that lie ahead, subjected to a process of mutation in terms of its very nature as film and in an ongoing status of change from the flawed, restricted, closed circle in total decadence of the film industries.
These are not times for recycling devices, contraptions and models which have become so useless than their presence alone annoys us. The latest generation of electronic devices makes teenagers, to provide one example, use their mobile phones more for going online (with all of the possibilities which that allows) than for talking on the telephone. There are many types of screens (smartphones, tablets, iPods, etc.), with autonomous formats that make it unnecessary to go to the places where knowledge has traditionally been stored. They access that knowledge without setting foot in a cinema or library and without taking a book or CD with them when traveling. In the end, the value of possession is being replaced by the value of use, and this is some very good news. We may be talking about the “global screen.”
The distance between the professional and domestic audiovisual worlds is being reduced by leaps and bounds. Nowadays, with the qualitative and quantitative advancement made by new technologies, the potential for creating high-quality audiovisual projects is within the reach of many, without needing to enter the industrialized circuit of the process for creating an audiovisual work. The audiovisual industry can no longer regard the distance which used to lie between professional projects and the “good intentions or manners” of “domestic” and even undergroundworks as an exclusive trademark of quality today.
We are headed towards a territory in which creative quality will be the only difference between certain creators and others. The market’s offerings guarantee that anyone can produce and direct audiovisuals “without leaving the home,” unless it is necessary to film something outside.
Cameras have revolutionized the audiovisual market, not only due to their quality and features, but also because of their price. This reality has led many professional producers and collectives to acquire such cameras on an individual basis in order to carry out their projects.
One of the most important aspects of the latest generation of movie cameras is the ability to “capture images,” which can be constantly updated with improvements in their features made instantaneously via the Internet. They were designed and prepared to facilitate and enhance post-production imaging processes. All you need is a powerful computer, a video and audio editing program and a camera to get high-quality results with very low budgets and teams reduced to real needs. The level of the technicians, actors and actresses is good and sufficient. The only bother are “media people,” who are excellent professionals like the best out there, but their salaries are unaffordable as a result of a new model or format of film production, thanks to the socialization of production media, the democratization of distribution, the disruption of the hegemony of classical Production, Screening and Distribution structures due to the Internet, Global Screens, Smartphones, and more…
Post-media and Post-cinema
They say that this new post-cinema context, which is spreading from new screens and devices for playback to the immensity of the Internet, is contributing to widespread access to creating and accessing fiction and documentaries. People are speaking of the elimination of stratification elements in the computerized interactivity in new uses and handling of images in motion. Everywhere the topic of the cybernetic democratization of resources and information is being discussed, including all types of filmmaking and videographic materials, etc. However, sometimes it is too easily forgotten that the power remains fundamentally on the side of those who create, divulge and market these devices and software, creating both ideological and practical restrictions on their use, and that many of them are strongly related to one another. The battle for regulating and controlling networks and the Internet has really just begun.
Nor is enough attention paid on many occasions to the reality of these processes: for example, in order to be able to speak strictly and consequentially of the acclaimed interactiveness that a work might offer (such as a film of graphic video work), there must always be two-way communication between the user and the device.
All too often, it is not taken into account that most of these devices in so-called Post-cinema remain tied down to a virtual creation of space heavily filled with ideology and dependent upon the Western tradition of appropriating and dominating space to make it profitable.
The post-media condition and the post-cinema phenomenon therefore constitute an interesting field of thought, and of course a sea of theoretical and ideological doubts. The radical criticism of these new phenomena and discourses is undoubtedly one of the main tasks which we must deal with if we hope to understand what we are speaking about at the beginning of the twenty-first century when we use the words “art” or “film.”
Andreas Broeckmann makes a clearer distinction between art on the Internet and Internet art. Art on the Internet uses the Internet as a medium for distribution, in order to be accessible and have a presence online.Internet art is related with the medium of electronic networks and plays off of its protocols and technical peculiarities. It takes advantage of viruses and the potential of both software and hardware: it is unimaginable without its medium, the Internet. At the same time, Internet art has proven to be receptive not only to the technological factors on the Internet, but also social and cultural factors, and it plays with them using hybrid artistic strategies, strategies of an intermediary. The key problem in presenting Internet art is that there are no distinctions between the artist and public, between producing and receiving. It is perceived through participation. Internet art is online for people who are online.
In conclusion, the audiovisual medium is that which is best adapted and most strongly expands within this digital space. Culture tends to be consumed or demanded through images, which makes it possible to state that the audiovisual is occupying, invading or taking over the Net in very considerable proportions, as multi-purpose tools.
However, new technologies do not provide us with anything significant if we do not pay special attention to the reasons and motivations for seeking excellence in the use of these new tools, as well as ethics and control in the techniques with which their aesthetics are materialized. Without dissociating the challenge of the new language of artistic disruption from broader expectations for change and operating radically in linguistic codes, it is a task which cannot be set aside by a social movement that seeks to change things. Articulating art and politics.
Reality seems to demonstrate that the new century is making evident the existence of new narrative resources, new frontiers for traditional “genres,” new techniques for the creation of film images, new geographic spaces of production and new contexts and forms of viewing, along with a limitless demand for images in our society.
Within this new audiovisual universe, filmmaking is roaming freely in a permanent state of change and mutating periods: film production is exploding.
*The Preface to Movie Mutations in the form of a dialogue between myself and Adrian Martin, dated December 2002, was very much a last-minute afterthought, put together at the request of our editor. This led to some significant oversights that should be pointed out now, especially for readers of Pere Portabella’s Prologue who aren’t familiar with the book. The “new” methods of analysis such as “figural” criticism that I refer to here are, in fact, largely those theorized and practiced by Nicole Brenez and emulated by some of her students. And it’s important to add that the individual responsible for the first publication of the first set of letters, inTrafic, who also wrote the last letter in this series, was Raymond Bellour, and the individual who instigated the second round of letters was the Argentinian critic Quintín (Eduardo Antin). Finally, another correspondent who was added at this final stage was Mark Peranson, the editor of the Canadian film quarterly Cinema Scope. (Jonathan Rosenbaum, February 2011).Autor:Pere Portabella Volver