Compass points

I’ve done some nature this week. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed it.

Nature the first was a walk in an inner-city park on Tuesday. Nowhere to be, nothing really in mind to see: just walking, looking, feeling.

Nature the second was some experimental filming done as part of a research day in north-east Melbourne. The hastily-cut-together results of this experimentation are included below. More to follow in the coming weeks. Nice to get something in the can, no matter how out-there.

Spectres of the frame; shifting perceptions

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Film theory is at a crossroads. The more I think about it, it’s more like the crazy Los Angeles freeway over/underpasses.

Is the right way intertextual/intermedial/transmedial/psychological?

Is there a right way at all?

I’ve been running a studio this semester which looks at the role of the frame in the age of digital cinema. It’s based on a conference paper I delivered in New Zealand earlier in the year, and what I’m starting to discover (in the most wonderful organic way, alongside my students) is that I barely scratched the surface of this question.

It’s not just the frame; and never really was. The frame’s intrinsic links to movement mean you have to examine the practice of cinematography as a whole; and you can’t look at cinematography without interrogating the relationship of shot to shot.

The rabbit hole I’m presently falling down is pointing to a psychological theory of cinema more akin to Bakhtin or Lacan than Bazin or Bordwell. Cinema is about perception rather than watching. We don’t just watch a film: we perceive and infer, interpreting according to our own psychological constitution.

In class last week, my students — a mix of first- and second-years — independently started discussing Deleuze’s concept of the ‘out-of-field’ and how it might relate to movement in cinema. Cinema is everything I’ve discussed: the frame, movement, editing, psychology.

Ack. The rabbit hole may not have a bottom.

Yes we POPCAANZ

Lambton Harbour and Oriental Bay as seen from the summit of Mount Victoria (pic by me).
Lambton Harbour and Oriental Bay as seen from the summit of Mount Victoria (pic by me).

I’m sitting in an apartment, outside which the manic Wellington weather swirls and swishes. After a glorious week, with crisp, sunny days (see above), the clouds have rolled in, and it’s bucketing down.

However, today’s disposition is not dampening mine, with the memories of a second, successful POPCAANZ fresh in my mind. My paper on the cinematic frame was received well, with lots of excitement that I’m developing more research and teaching on the same topic. But that was out of the way early on, and I was able to settle in and see a bunch of other, vastly more intelligent people talk about their passions.

There was a Baudrillardian deconstruction of Wes Anderson which was so thorough that by the end he did not exist. Another highlight was a refiguring of the narrative of Toy Story according to an object-oriented ontology, and a materiality of trash. Not to mention a textual analysis of Agony Aunt columns in the New Zealand Women’s Weekly. And then an introduction to the Leathermen culture of rural New Zealand.

And that’s barely scratching the surface (and I only mentioned two papers in a very strong film stream). Food was great, the location (Massey University) very cosy and accommodating, and the company a lively combination of old friends and new contacts.

There was very exciting news, too, that POPCAANZ will now be opening up to our Asian neighbours, and revamping the associated journal accordingly.

Bring on Sydney next year!

My theory of cinema

Thanks guys. #pilgrimage #lyon #institutlumiere
Institut Lumiere, Lyon, France. Photo by me.

I’m in the midst of writing a paper for inclusion in a semiotics journal that will eventually, I suppose, become my theory of cinema. The thing is, I could probably just cobble something together from Deleuze and wrap it around a conception of mobility and collaborative cultures. The more I think about it, though, the more intrigued I’m getting about just what my conception of cinema is. ‘Cinema’ doesn’t mean the same thing now as it did fifty years ago. Nor twenty, or even ten years ago. It’s coming to mean the original ‘niche’ understanding of the broad swathe of films that aren’t made, necessarily, for commercial gain. In this sense, ‘cinema’ means a body of filmed work that speaks to something larger than the typical art/commerce spectrum. The definition of what that larger something is, thus, becomes the crux of this paper I’m working on. My issue, though, is that I don’t think movies-for-the-masses should necessarily be excluded from the category of ‘cinema’. I guess I’ll have to work in some social angle, and I guess the mobility and consumer-creation stuff is the bridge there. Anyway – expect more disjointed rantings on the subject as I work through this.

Death to the selfie stick

"Hipster style bearded man taking selfie with selfie stick." - actual description from Shutterstock. Click to see full copyright details and purchase a high-res non-watermarked version, if that's really your bag.
“Hipster style bearded man taking selfie with selfie stick.” – actual description from Shutterstock. Click to see full copyright details and purchase a high-res non-watermarked version, if that’s really your bag.

Today I had the pleasure of attending the RMIT nonfictionLab‘s symposium on interactive documentary. A great many interesting talks were given, and I’m hoping to collate some of my notes into coherent ramblings here and elsewhere over the coming days.

I was reading various tweets today, watching some of the presentations at the conference, and ruminating more generally on photography, mobile media and the ‘self’. As something of a disclaimer, I abhor selfie sticks. I find their presence and purpose incomprehensible, and the people who use them (for the most part) arrogant and, possibly appropriately, self-absorbed.

In spite of this, my mind kept returning to them today, in light of some of the discussion around ‘autodocumentary’. In using our smart devices to track and photograph and record and measure every movement we make, we are, in a sense, creating a narrative; a documentary of our lives.

The ‘selfie stick’, ostensibly, aids in the act of taking ‘selfies’, or photographs of the photographer. The ‘selfie’ finds its origins in the ‘fridge shot’: an often poorly-composed, over-exposed photograph of the photographer and one or several other people. I find this origin important, given that the current ‘selfie’ is a refined and technologically-improved (allegedly) version of the earlier iteration.

What struck me today is that the ‘selfie stick’, by its nature, is a step in a weird direction. Physically, the device distances the camera from the ‘self’, allowing a modicum of control over the composition and quality of the resulting artefact. I think it could be argued, then, that the selfie stick does not create ‘selfies’ as we have come to know them. A photograph taken with the aid of a selfie stick is more akin to one taken with the aid of a tripod, in that the photographer takes much more care with the composition and preparation of the shot.

‘Photographing is essentially an act of non-intervention,’ writes Susan Sontag in her magnificent On Photography (1977), ‘[though] the act of photographing is more than passive observing.’

Sontag is relaying here that while photography necessarily detaches any interaction or meddling with the subject (if recording something as it appears in nature or, for want of any other word ‘reality’), it cannot be seen as just that: recording. In the framing up of any given subject, you lose any claim to objectivity.

I would argue that in holding the camera at arm’s length, with no idea of what the frame is, or what the light is like, or whether you and your mates are even in the damn picture, the ‘fridge shot’ and, to an extent, the original smartphone selfie (before front-facing cameras, introduced to Apple devices with 2010’s iPhone 4 – yep, only five years ago), are more in line with the former definition. This is mainly due to the fact that the artist’s control over the artefact is limited, both physically and in terms of the relinquishing of some of the act to the technology itself.

The ‘distancing’ that comes into play with the selfie stick is an attempt to control the entirety of the act of taking selfies which, in some small way, detracts from the entire philosophy and purpose of the selfie.

Yet another, this time thoroughly thought-out, reason to detest the selfie stick.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and ‘othering’

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I booted up Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare lastnight, for the first time since its release. I remember enjoying playing through the single-player campaign (I’ve never been much for online multiplayer) way back in 2007, and being staggered at some of the visuals, even with it running at lowest settings on my old Toshiba laptop. The reason I’m playing through it again is for inclusion in the published version of my PhD thesis.

Eight years later, the opening chapters of the game really hold up from a visual point of view. Yes, games have come a long way, but the sheer rollicking action of the training sections and cargo ship prologue mask some of the less crisp edges and other visual shortcomings.

Hilariously, though, the game is really bad. It tries to do so much in such a short span of time (rough play-through, from memory, was under ten hours?), and in so doing draws on every cliche of Anglo-American foreign policy for the last hundred years. This, however, makes it perfect for my thesis.

The first key element is the ‘othering’ of all races, nationalities, religions and genders. You’re safe if you’re white, American, Christian, and male. But even the British — one of whom the player controls for a significant part of the game — are heavily caricatured and stereotyped. The first words out of your superior’s mouth are ‘What kind of a name is Soap, eh? How’d a muppet like you pass selection?’

The antagonists of the game are… Arabs? Russians? Hell, throw in the North Koreans and the Chinese and everyone’s covered.

The primary antagonist is a fellow named Khaled al-Asad, who leads a separatist group in an unnamed pan-Middle Eastern country. Naturally, said country is rich in resources, hence the international interest. The player is introduced to al-Asad while the camera is situated inside the head of the President. As the President, you’re driven through the streets of an anonymous city, and every stereotype is there: people being shot, people shooting, people running, children playing soccer, a firing squad executing civilians, helicopters and jets flying overhead, wild dogs chasing random people. You arrive at a public space, where al-Asad is finishing a rallying speech to the separatists. He calmly wanders over, levels a gun at your face, and pulls the trigger.

The gross over-generalisation of these early parts of the game is deplorable, but you can’t deny the compelling spectacle. I certainly can’t deny I’d like to get back into the game right now.