|Title:||New Media Studies and the New Internet Cinema|
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New Media Studies and the New Internet Cinema
vol. 5, no. 1, Winter 2007
New Media Studies and the New Internet Cinema
Bill Morrison’s 2002 cinematic symphony, Decasia, vividly depicts what might read as an allegory for the death of the film medium. Decasia splices together decomposing film stock from the silent era featuring images of coal miners seemingly being crushed by mold pressing down from the top of the film frame and shots of a boxer in the ring fighting against an empty void within the frame. As J. Hoberman observes, the film “is founded on the tension between the hard fact of film's stained, eroded, unstable surface and the fragile nature of that which was once photographically represented.” Decasia is impossible to watch without some awareness of the inherent fragility of the film medium and the knowledge that much of our collective film history has already been lost or is in danger of degrading, but it also serves as a reminder that the ways in which we make and watch movies are changing irrevocably as well. Morrison’s film transforms these eroding images into an elegy for modern cinema, turning Decasia into the ultimate documentary of the death of cinema.
I mention Decasia here because its depiction of the eclipse of film’s celluloid base appeared at a moment when digital production, distribution, and exhibition loomed on the horizon. Thus, the film appeared amidst the ongoing attempts to define “new media” and to cultivate new theories that will be adequate to this new terrain, as this collection of essays sets out to do. Because of these changes, many essays have sought to predict or anticipate how a digital base might transform cinemas as it existed for over a century. The result of this focus has been a heavy emphasis on anticipating cinema’s post-human future rather than documenting or historicizing contemporary practices. These science-fiction fantasies of images downloaded directly into users’ brains dominated the millennial imagination, at a moment when Keanu Reeves could stop time, Tom Cruise could see the future, and everything seemed possible. While such attempts to use digital media to rethink identity are enticing, these futuristic projections allow us to miss much of what is happening right now. As Jeffrey Sconce points out, “most of us would be hard-pressed to think of a discipline in which more pages have been printed about things that haven’t happened yet (and may never) or phenomena that in the long run are simply not very important (Jenni-cam anyone?)” (180). While I found that Jennicam was important simply because Jennifer Ringley’s 24-7 broadcast of her daily life clearly tapped into contemporary preoccupations with digital media’s capacity to transform everyday people into mini-celebrities, I share Sconce’s skepticism about this anticipatory language. Much of this focus is inherent to the concept of new media itself, as technological “innovation” constantly renders today’s media tools already obsolete as generations of MP3 players and digital editing programs replace their predecessors before we can pay off our credit card bills in a remarkable acceleration of planned obsolescence, often drawing even the most apprehensive academics into what Sconce describes as “Wired magazine’s marketing discourse” (192). These comments should not be taken to imply that the changes that are taking place are insignificant or that they are completely subsumed under the profit motive. Instead, I am interested in taking a closer look at these changes in order to work through what Teresa de Lauretis has called the “enigma of the now” (367), to ask how these technological innovations and the promotional hype that surrounds them comment on present-day concerns.
Because of my reservations about the future orientation of new media theories that focus on radical transformations of subjectivity, community, and democracy that have yet to play out, I will be taking my lead from Lev Manovich’s “Cinema as a Cultural Interface,” in which he argues for a history of the present of digital media rather than so many imagined futures. Manovich argues that “the analytical texts from our era are fully aware of the significance of the computer’s takeover of culture yet, by and large, they mostly contain speculations about the future rather than a record and theory of the present.” In this regard, I am interested in the digital everyday, what Sconce describes as the “increasingly banal applications” of digital media, specifically what I will call the “new internet cinema” and “new mobile cinema” that seem far more vital than the feature-length films playing at the local multiplex. I use the term “cinema” with some degree of caution given that the digital encompasses not only “cinema” but also TV, games, and other narratives; however, I use the term provisionally to account for what might be described as the “institution” of digital production, the current practices of narrative, visual entertainment as I encounter them on the web. I am less interested in privileging new media texts as fostering a new avant-garde affiliated with one form of revolutionary politics or another or in privileging high-tech productions over their cheaper counterparts. Instead, I view the banality of much new internet cinema as a site for navigating and working through everyday experience, focusing less on an individual film, TV series, or website and instead suggest looking at what Frederic Jameson has called “the cultural production process” (408) . In this context, the enigma of the now is inseparable from the utopian aspirations we have identified with new media, specifically with its capacity for democratizing access to the means of production, and the do-it-yourself (DIY) cinema movement affiliated with new media speaks volumes about contemporary desires for greater autonomy.
This focus on “the cultural production process” takes us away from the isolated film text as object of study. It no longer makes sense to talk about a film in isolation from the technological and institutional factors that were involved in the production and reception processes. This is not to suggest that content doesn’t matter but to argue that that interpretations of individual films cannot be separated from those very processes of production and the sites of exhibition and reception they engender. In this sense, I am interested in Catherine Russell’s suggestion in Cinema Journal that cinema be redefined less “as an object but as an experience and mode of perception” (84). In other words, one of the crucial questions for new media theorists should not simply be what we watch, but how we watch and under what conditions. In this regard, I am interested in thinking through the implications of the “new” material bases of digital production, distribution, and exhibition. It would be impossible to produce an encyclopedic representation of all of the varied practices associated with digital media, and because of the very technological innovations that make the new internet cinema possible, much of what is happening right now might be lost to future analysis, much like the decaying film sequences in Decasia. With that in mind, some directions for analysis might include the following: How are the new production technologies, such as cheap DV cameras, camera phones, and Final Cut Pro, enabling people to imagine themselves as amateur filmmakers? How have sites such as YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/) led to new ways of thinking about boundaries between public and private, amateur and professional? What does it mean that the video iPod now allows people to carry multiple episodes of their favorite television series, home movies of their kids’ soccer games, or even entire film festivals in their back pocket? And, finally, how have these changes reshaped concepts of community, identity, and politics?
I cannot watch Decasia without thinking about other narratives of cinema’s decline that were virtually ubiquitous during the late 1990s and early 21st century. During the late 1990s, with cinema’s centennial coinciding with the end of the millennium and the height of dotcom euphoria, there seemed to be an almost relentless desire to declare the death of cinema, or at least its decline into museums and archives, where only the most curious would encounter these artifacts of a lost past. Typically cinema’s death or decline has been attached to the introduction of one new technology or another, with Godfrey Cheshire’s essay, “The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema,” being one representative example. In this 1999 essay, Cheshire anticipates the potential changes associated with the introduction of digital projection in movie theaters. In the article, Cheshire worried that digital projection would lead to movies becoming more like television, with the result that theaters would cater to audience desires for “event” broadcasting of concerts or “films” that require audience participation, perhaps along the lines of “Choose Your Own Adventure” narratives, causing the institution of cinema to fall into decay as the historical art cinema is relegated to home audiences or small art house theaters. In my reading, however, Cheshire’s essay wrongly assumes that “digital technology’s greatest impact on the movies will happen not at the least expensive levels of production but at the most expensive.” While there is little doubt that CGI has profoundly altered the look of contemporary Hollywood blockbusters, the most profound transformation has been the role of digital media in supporting the further evolution of the DIY filmmaker who can produce and distribute a movie at very little cost. In fact, CGI only supplements the logic of the high-concept film without radically altering it. Instead, I am interested in examining what Patricia R. Zimmermann has called “home movies,” although a better term might be “homemade movies.” While these homemade movies may play to smaller audiences, digital technologies, through their affordability, have further blurred the lines between amateur and professional filmmaker.
Cheshire’s claim about the death of cinema was far from exceptional. In “Toward a Re-Invention of Cinema” (http://www.petergreenaway.co.uk/essay3.htm) Peter Greenaway attributed the death of cinema to the mass marketing of the remote control, which created a more interactive viewing experience, allowing bored home viewers to click from channel to channel or to fast-forward through movies rented from the local video store. Similarly, in “The Decay of Cinema,” Susan Sontag lamented the decline of the institution of cinema while Jon Lewis’s The End of Cinema as We Know It and Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams’ Reinventing Film Studies have similarly enshrined the idea that the film medium and the study of film are undergoing a radical transformation. This transitional moment might also be measured in the renaming of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, a shift debated in a forum on the pages of Cinema Journal.
At the same time, digital technologies have also generated a similar identity crisis for television. As Lynn Spigel points out, many of the old theoretical paradigms and concepts, such as Raymond Williams’ ground-breaking concept of “flow,” Nick Browne’s concept of television’s “supertext,” and top-down models of television’s “influence,” all need to be revised in the age of TiVo and satellite TV. These new forms of televisual time-shifting may significantly reshape not only our perceptions of time and space but may also have political consequences. William Boddy, for example, speculates that the new forms of time-shifting are “eroding the experience of simultaneity and liveness that has traditionally been seen both as part of television’s essential nature and central to its relation to the nation” (195). My goal for this essay is not to sort out whether cinema is “dead” or whether TV’s golden age is past, lost in an era of reality TV and redundant crime dramas. Instead, I am interested in asking how the new internet cinemas will reshape these concepts of nation and community and how they might be used to further cinema’s position as an alternate public sphere or whether the public sphere can accommodate the often intensely personal and personalized narratives associated with changes such as on-demand programming and the tiny new mobile screens.
In thinking about the new internet cinema, I find it productive to import some of the more important advancements in both film theory and in television studies, specifically the turn towards thinking historically about spectatorship, placing a greater emphasis on how consumers access and watch new media texts, as well as the new modes of production, distribution, and exhibition. Charles R. Acland’s Screen Traffic: Movies, Multiplexes and Global Culture, for example, reminds us that modes of spectatorship, such as the dominant model of the cinematic gaze are not universal but a temporary stage in the history of cinema, illustrating that our movie watching practices are shaped as much by architecture, screen size, and other contingencies as by the films themselves. In fact, Acland’s book is a reminder that the massive, stand-alone megaplex frequently identified with suburban sprawl is a relatively recent invention. In this sense, the model of spectatorship based upon classical Hollywood cinema appears to be temporary, while more fluid models, based upon distraction and mobility appear to be the norm. In “Parallax historiography: The Flâneuse as Cyberfeminist,” Catherine Russell discusses the fluidity of contemporary spectatorship, drawing parallels between early cinema and contemporary visual culture, with spectatorship “conceived as more fluid, mobile, unstable, and heterogeneous.Similarly, in “Click This: From Analog Dreams to Digital Realities,” Anna Everett describes the rapid shift into “a consumer-driven on-demand media services environment few could have predicted [in 1999]” (93). In this context, what I am imagining is a model of new media studies that attends to how and where watch moving picture entertainment and how that, in turn, shapes the kinds of movies, films, and videos we watch and the implications of these practices for what might best be understood as a cinematic public sphere. While many critics lament the end of a certain mode of cinematic production augured by the contemporary keywords of portability, instantaneity, and ubiquity, it is well worth investigating the motivations for declaring that cinema is dead.
Of course it’s nothing new to mourn, predict, anticipate, or perhaps even celebrate the imminent death of cinema. Even Louis Lumière, believing that audiences would quickly grow bored with watching scenes filmed from everyday life, famously described cinema as “an invention without a future,” but these proclamations have gained further credibility in the age of digital reproduction, as the aura of cinema itself begins to wither. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin famously celebrated cinema’s ability, through its mechanical reproducibility, to shatter the aura of the original work of art. Now a film such as Decasia, with its melting, dissolving, and disappearing celluloid images, might be understood as seeking to recapture the lost aura of cinema. At the same time, digital distribution “shatters the aura” in other ways as well, by eliminating any distance between the spectator and the cinema, with much of film history available at a single click of the mouse through video-on-demand and online video rental services such as Netflix or Green Cine. Barry Keith Grant writes, “When we no longer need to go to the cinema because the cinema comes to us, then cinema loses whatever ‘aura’ it may have had” (89).Grant correctly reads this loss of aura phenomenologically rather than in a strictly Benjaminian sense, as movies become more integrated into our everyday environment. Grant speculates that this lost aura will result in audiences that are more likely to chat during theatrical screenings because the boundary between watching films on the silver screen and watching them on our home entertainment systems has been so thoroughly blurred, a change that Grant nostalgically views as contributing to the eventual “death of cinema.”
These claims about cinema’s demise are only reinforced by reports of declining box office and stories of audiences who seem bored with the latest Hollywood fare. In The Big Picture, Edward Jay Epstein exhaustively documents the declining relevance of theatrical screenings of Hollywood films, noting that most studios are more focused on the lucrative DVD market. While the decline in theatrical attendance may in fact be cyclical and only tells part of the story when it comes to changing movie watching habits, this narrative of decline has taken on tremendous power. This decline has been attributed to any number of factors including the cheaper availability of high-quality home entertainment systems and the collapse of the window between theatrical and DVD release, as well as complaints about cell phone use, pre-movie advertising, and poor movies. However, the point is not that fewer people are seeing commercial cinema. Instead, as Epstein puts it in “Hollywood’s Death Spiral,” what has changed in the last few years, and dramatically so since the VCR and cable TV revolutions of the 1980s, is “the location of the studios’ crucial audience.” Like Grant, Epstein emphasizes that audiences are far more likely to encounter Hollywood films at home on home theater systems that arguably rival the audio and visual quality of the local multiplex.
As theatrical attendance continues its apparent decline, studios find themselves scrambling to find new strategies for finding wider audiences for their increasingly expensive, special effects-laden films. This change is most commonly associated with Steven Soderbergh’s experiment with the “day-and-date” release of his low-budget drama, Bubble, which was released on the same day in theaters, on DVD, and on cable television, which would effectively subvert the practice of protecting theaters with a six-month “window” between the theatrical premiere of a film and its release on DVD. In promoting “day-and-date,” Soderbergh and new media entrepreneur Mark Cuban have emphasized the convenience of watching a film at home while arguing that audiences will still attend theatrical screenings in order to get out of the house, placing emphasis on consumer choice and convenience, concepts that must be understood as ideological. Their arguments to promote “day-and-date” distribution neglect the real consequences of these changing screening practices and how our understanding of audience might change as well, altering cinema’s role as an alternative public sphere in ways that remain difficult to predict. This is not to suggest that home screenings are inherently worse than theatrical screenings or even to suggest that watching movies at home constitutes an anti-collectivist retreat into the private sphere but merely to argue that how we watch visual entertainment is changing rapidly and to call for a more nuanced consideration of how people are adapting to the new mobile cinema.
At the same time, the new internet cinema also seems far more vital than its bigger-screen predecessors. Some of the most memorable “films” in recent memory have been flash animations such as the Jib Jab videos “This Land is Your Land” and “Big Box Mart” that satire presidential politics and Wal-Mart respectively (http://www.jibjab.com/), commenting far more effectively on these institutions than the Sunday morning pundits who now seem like artifacts from another age altogether. Similarly the “George Bush’s Imagine” video remixes speeches by the U.S. President to the tune of Jon Lennon’s “Imagine” and “Give Peace a Chance,” layered over footage of the war in Iraq as well as some of Bush’s most famous pseudo-events, including several sequences in which the President is posing as a cowboy (http://www.flabber.nl/archief/015823.php). The short video deconstructs Bush’s cowboy image while depicting the terrible consequences of the war in Iraq. In both cases, the brevity of the videos and the ease of sharing them via email or blogs contributed to their popularity. At the same time, both the Jib Jab videos and “George Bush’s Imagine” display a remarkable savvy in using the language of new media to comment on political discourse. In addition to these more overtly political examples, an entire culture of fake movie trailers has emerged on the web, taking scenes from Hollywood films and remixing them with voice-overs and other sound cues to suggest the film belongs to an entirely different genre. Thus Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece The Shining becomes a family comedy; Sleepless in Seattle becomes a moody thriller; and Cecil B. De Mille’s Ten Commandments becomes a teen comedy, with Moses as a high school underdog. Like the political shorts, the humor in the trailers relies upon the audience’s knowledge of the semiotic codes associated with classical Hollywood film. Rather than masking the effect of these codes, these online videos foreground and parody how these codes operate. At the same time, the brevity of these short videos—few of them last more than two or three minutes—make them easy to download and share through email, blogs, and other forms of informal distribution.
While Edward Jay Epstein places emphasis on the role of home entertainment, the new internet cinema should be understood more precisely in terms of portability. Since its invention in the late 19th century, the cinema has been identified with what Anne Friedberg insightfully describes as its “virtual mobility.” However, this concept of virtual mobility, building upon the perceptual overlap between early cinema and other forms of virtual tourism, relied upon a stationary spectator who could be “transported” through time and space through the magic of the motion picture camera. Now, with video-enabled cell phones and the invention of the video iPod, the screen itself becomes mobile, with individual spectators capable of watching their personal libraries of films, television shows, and videos wherever they wish, from crowded subway trains to long checkout counters at the grocery store. The shrinking screen, which many in the new media ominously refer to as the third screen, transforms our relationship to visual entertainment, so that, as Nicholas Rombes points out, “it is the screen which is trapped by us.” As a result, contemporary media makers will be compelled to produce content appropriate to our tiny, portable screens. Similarly Anna Everett adds that “the glance theory of distracted viewing for TV and the gaze theory of dreamlike transfixion for film are less precise in their ability to explain the reception specificities of this new medium” (96 Cinema Journal), with Everett suggesting the term “click theory” to describe the new on-demand viewing experiences.
These portable screens also challenge our ability to think about the boundaries between public and private viewing experiences. If movie theaters offered a collective experience, then the video iPod seems to suggest highly individualized experiences, albeit in public spaces such as subway cars, grocery store lines, airports, or other locations where people are compelled to wait. In that regard, the appeal of video iPods and MP3 players might be seen as a form of resistance against the ubiquity of television screens in these public spaces. While the video-enabled iPod is still in its relative infancy, it has already achieved some degree of notoriety, especially in terms of its relationship to and potential colonization of urban space. MP3 players and Apple’s iPod, in particular, have invariably been linked to urban space in the cultural imagination. Whether this is due to Apple’s attempts to craft a marketing campaign depicting hip musical consumers insulating themselves from the tedium of everyday life or to the biases of cultural commentators writing editorials from major cultural centers, the private, individualized listening experiences of the iPod are deeply identified with the office cubicle or the morning and afternoon commutes on crowded interstate highways or packed subway trains. Typically handheld video technologies are seen as intruding into public space and making people more distracted and less capable of social interaction. Conservative commentator George Will offers the most extreme version of this condition, worrying that the video iPod will contribute to a “social autism” in which bored commuters become so caught up in their tiny screens that they “have no notion of propriety when in the presence of other people, because they are not actually in the presence of other people, even when they are in public.” However, rather than read the video iPod as contributing to a decline in civility, it is worth asking how the portability and ubiquity of visual entertainment changes the ways we interact with visual media.
However, it seems clear, as Jon Lewis puts it, that “cinema is shrinking in all sorts of ways” (100). For now, the new mobile cinema must fit the technological imperatives of a small screen with limited bandwidth. Videos produced for mobile screens are typically no more than three minutes long, and in contrast to early cinema’s emphasis on the long-shot, mobile videos typically make heavy use of close-ups. Slow streaming rates also place limits on camera movement as cell phones transmit at 15 frames per second (fps) rather than the 30 fps of television. While these slow streaming rates will likely prove to be temporary, they can be used as a starting point for thinking about the production process, as media conglomerates are forced to adjust to the new screen sizes and the narratives they allow. Mobile video also seems to encourage narratives that seem far more personal than traditional television or film. In short, the tiny screen suggests a new relationship to cinema. No longer are screens housed in massive movie palaces, but instead extend comfortably into everyday life, into our most banal daily experiences.
The new internet cinema may transform exhibition in other ways as well. Charlie Kiel points out that “as production shifts to a digital base we can expect changes to the nature of cinematic product and, concurrently, the nature of viewer response as well. If that turns out to be true, niche exhibition may become the norm” (59). Already, the new internet cinema is fostering forms of niche exhibition, perhaps most prominently the house parties organized by MoveOn.org to promote collective viewings of Robert Greenwald’s agitprop documentary films, Uncovered: The Whole Truth about the Iraq War and Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. In both cases, the event of watching the film was far more significant than the content of the documentaries themselves, especially given that most people who were attending the MoveOn house parties were already inclined to agree with many of Greenwald’s arguments. As one reviewer observed, “This is not just a documentary—it’s a technological phenomenon that was never possible before. It’s both a movie and a movement.” While such events should not be seen as entirely unprecedented, especially given the long history of amateur media and political organizing, the distribution of Uncovered was relatively wide for a documentary film, with over 2,600 simultaneous screenings on its “opening night” in homes, churches, and community centers across the country. This “house party” model, influenced by Robert Putnam’s argument in Bowling Alone that civic life had been declining since the 1950s, encouraged viewers to discuss the films afterwards and, in some cases, to use the film as a tool for political activism. While MoveOn.org’s house parties are not the only form of niche exhibition to emerge in the age of the new internet cinema, they do point to ways in which the Internet can be used to foster community.
The portability of new media shapes our relationship to visual entertainment in other ways as well, as viewers encounter cinema in a variety of contexts and formats. The result is a renewed attention to the hardware, the means by which video is distributed. In his discussion of “self-theorizing media,” Rombes provocatively argues that new media theory should move away from models of demystification, noting that contemporary new media texts often make a practice of revealing the gaps and fissures, the special effects and deleted scenes that contribute to the meaning of the text. For the most part, Rombes considers the ways in which theory has been absorbed across popular culture in DVD extras and director’s commentaries but also in video footage taken by the military to document the war in Iraq. Rombes notes that these texts convey an awareness of the cinematic codes that produce meaning. This self-reflexive style can be found in films and TV shows ranging from Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation and David Letterman’s insistence on highlighting the artificiality of the TV studio to viral videos such as “George Bush’s Imagine” that use the codes of the remix to highlight the emptiness of Bush’s cowboy rhetoric. Similarly producers of new media consistently work to call attention to the narrative codes and technological specs that shape cultural productions, as the “George Bush Imagine” remix illustrates. At the same time, it is important to note that the DVD commentaries and making-of documentaries that now accompany most Hollywood productions still promote an ideology of mastery, usually caught up in the assumption that technological mastery or authorial intent can be seen as the most crucial factors in understanding the film.
At the same time, digital media work against the notion that media objects can ever be truly finished. This concept of “incompleteness” represents one of the potential sites for consumers to navigate their relationship with media texts. While Lodge Kerrigan was editing Keane, director Steven Soderbergh re-edited the film in order to suggest a dramatic re-interpretation of the film’s narrative, which Soderbergh describes as “Keane 2.0.” Soderbergh did not shoot any additional footage and, in fact, deleted nearly thirty minutes from Kerrigan’s rough cut of the film. While Kerrigan’s film was not influenced significantly by Soderbergh, both versions of the film were included on the DVD, providing viewers at the very least with a remarkable illustration of how the editing of a film contributes to its meaning. But it also illustrates the ways in which the digital archive compels us to rethink the idea of a final version of a film or video. Director’s commentary tracks also suggest ways in which no film is ever truly finished. As Rombes observes, in the commentary track for Donnie Darko, director Richard Kelly frequently comments on scenes he wished he could have included in the final cut of the film. Of course Kelly was ultimately able to produce a director’s cut of the film, and the two DVD versions of Donnie Darko also include supplemental materials on the film’s philosophy of time travel that never appeared in the film. While critics have pointed to Keane and Donnie Darko as important examples of how digital video might allow filmmakers to rethink the concept of a “final version” of a film, incompleteness can also serve contemporary political documentaries in significant ways. Again, the documentaries of Robert Greenwald serve as useful examples. After the success of the house parties, Greenwald re-edited his documentary, adding updated footage for a second version of the film, which was released to movie theaters in the weeks before the election. It is worth noting that this lack of a “final” version of a documentary film may raise important questions about the politics behind the re-edited version. At the same time, given that a potentially limitless number of versions of a film could be produced, incompleteness can feed into the desire of multinational media conglomerates to profit off of consumers who feel compelled to collect multiple versions of a film or video.
As I have argued, one of the most significant changes implied by the new internet cinema has to do with the wider access to inexpensive cameras and editing programs which would theoretically make it possible for anyone to make and publish a video on a public archive such as YouTube or Google video, with the implicit assumption that anyone now has the potential to become a producer of media texts rather than a mere consumer. In this sense, the new era of homemade video radically transforms concepts of authorship in ways that are still being defined. Of course this potential has been available through earlier media. Even in the early twentieth century, movie cameras were available to amateurs for personal use, and camcorders figured heavily in 1980s representations of the nuclear family as well as supporting a vibrant avant-garde and experimental video culture. Even the Fisher Price children’s toy, the Pixel Vision camera made famous by experimental filmmaker Sadie Benning, encouraged home consumers to produce movies as well as consuming them. However, movie sharing sites such as YouTube have made it far easier for videomakers to share their work with others. YouTube, with its motto “Broadcast Yourself” not only explicitly invokes this connection between digital video and self-expression but also identifies itself with televisual discourse through its invocation of a “broadcast” model. Videos stored on YouTube are organized according to both categories and keywords, allowing a viewer to identify “channels” or topics that attract his or her interest. Videos are also ranked on a five-point scale, allowing popular content to gain further visibility. While this new “star system” can reinforce a meritocracy based on traditional concepts of quality (based on more expensive equipment, fewer “goofs,” or attractive “stars”), YouTube and similar video hosting services also allow budding videomakers a site for experimentation and for promoting work that might otherwise never find an audience. Like the viral videos that circulate the web, most videos hosted by YouTube are relatively short, with most clocking in at less than five minutes.
In this context, videomakers build upon concepts such as DIY cinema or “Self-Reliant Filmmaking” in an effort to promote their films, which are invariably defined against homogeneous Hollywood productions.
The development and promotion of these new technologies blur the boundaries between amateur and professional filmmakers in productive ways. In this context, Henry Jenkins’ concept of a transformation from “home movies” to “public movies” is a productive one, as media-savvy filmmakers post video footage online, invariably hoping to find a wider audience for their work. These videomakers hope to invite “a broader public than can be attracted to screenings of their works at film festivals, museums, or university classes” (308). Jenkins’ concept of public movies, however, loses the connotation of imperfection implied in the concept of the home movie, hence my preference for the term “homemade” movie or video. Susan Buice and Arin Crumley’s video podcast series (http://foureyedmonsters.com/index.php/video_podcast/episodes/) promoting their feature-length film, Four Eyed Monsters, illustrates this concept of an “imperfect” or homemade cinema. The film’s official website emphasizes their status as amateur filmmakers, with the homepage designed to resemble a page of notebook paper while in their podcasts, they directly address the camera, underscoring the ways in which the film is a project rooted in their personal experience. Foregrounding their status as independent filmmakers, Buice and Crumley depict the challenges of making a feature film throughout the podcast series, with episodes focusing on their efforts to obtain financing, their guilt at borrowing money from family members, the challenges of getting into film festivals, and even the ways in which DIY filmmaking upsets traditional notions of authorship. In episode seven of their podcast series, “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,...” (http://foureyedmonsters.com/index.php/e7/) Crumley and Buice depict the argument that unfolded when one of the collaborators on their film sought credit as a “director” of the film. As they point out in the introduction the podcast episode, “More and more, films and other creative projects are being made by amateurs who have no need to be mindful of the standard defined roles.” At the very least, the DIY cinema movement and the various forms of online distribution should force us to rethink definitions of independent narrative cinema, as video sharing services multiply the sites where we can encounter film and video. However this online video culture should not be seen as eliminating place, as many critics have been tempted to do. In fact, the new internet cinema culture can foster geographically specific independent film communities and other forms of niche exhibition that are highly localized. While digital distribution does make it possible for people to remain “connected,” even when they live far from cultural centers such as New York and Los Angeles, it can also contribute to the emergence of new film cultures based on shared interests, often at the local level. As Zimmermann points out in “Digital Deployment(s),” the new independent cinema is “simultaneously global, regional, local, and individual” (246).
At the same time, digital media seem to offer unprecedented access to the cinematic past. In this sense, the digital archive not only changes what we study but also how we study it. Digital storage supports the availability of unprecedented moving image materials, seemingly making possible D.W. Griffith’s vision of a complete history—or at the very least a complete cinematic history—at one’s fingertips. Due to archives such as the Library of Congress’ American Memory Project and the Prelinger Archives, everything from Thomas Edison’s actualities to nuclear preparedness films is available at the click of a mouse, transporting the viewer into the cinematic past. While this past may include Hollywood films, it also includes the detritus of 16mm industrial, propaganda, and “social guidance” films, many of which Rick Prelinger quite literally dug out of garbage cans, with films providing viewers “an instant passport” back to the past. While digital storage is hardly unprecedented, especially given that the VCR has long provided viewers with increased access to the cinematic past, digitization makes it possible to collect “lost” aspects of the cinematic past and to focus on materials that might otherwise be ignored.
The digital archives of this “lost” cinematic past have radically changed the study of film history, as Catherine Russell observes, by making them more accessible, but also by de-centralizing the traditional film canon based on traditional genres, authors, and cinemas. Of course, the archiving of these “films” raises important questions about the materiality of film, as my reference to Bill Morrison’s Decasia suggests. Russell raises this point succinctly asking, “Is it still cinema without celluloid?” (83). Perhaps by addressing this question, film and media scholars can revisit the ways in which new processes of production, distribution, and exhibition can be used not to destroy cinema but re-invent it.
The questions raised by the new internet cinema are relevant to the field of cinema studies and the work we do as historians and theorists. In gesturing towards such disparate examples of homemade videos, I recognize that I risk selfishly taking the reader on a whirlwind tour of my leisure-time surfing habits at the expense of countless other video materials available online and other media including the immensely popular online gaming industry, as well as social networks such as MySpace, Facebook, and Friendster, where many of our students spend hours of their leisure time. However, I remain interested in how homemade videos have the potential to reshape the institution and experience of cinema as we know it. In this regard, if the “classical” model of cinema is in decline, then the new forms of production, distribution, and exhibition are all fostering new modes of cinematic participation. If digitalization makes the screen increasingly mobile, then new forms of niche exhibition also become available. If DVDs, with chapter stops and commentary tracks disrupt the linear flow of narrative cinema, then audiences may find themselves rethinking how we watch films and how they produce meaning. Finally, if cheap DV recorders allow filmmakers to produce what I have called “homemade cinema,” with the productions of amateur and often unschooled filmmakers on YouTube or in online film festivals alongside films and videos made by professionals, we may witness a further blurring of this boundary while rendering the concept of “independent cinema” virtually irrelevant. In all of these cases, what we are witnessing, in part, is a transformation of cinema as an “alternate public sphere.”
While I am not ready to predict a future direction for the new internet cinema, the current moment seems significant in that it will allow us to think about our relationship to media. Because of the rapid transformations of popular entertainment, it becomes far more difficult to see the present media moment as a universal norm. As Miriam Hansen points out, “The unprecedented acceleration of technological innovation and circulation have created conditions in which consciousness is more than ever inadequate to the state of technological development, its power to destroy human bodies, hearts, and minds. At the same time, new media such as video and the digital media have expanded the formal and material arsenal for imaginative practices and have opened up new modes of publicness that already enact a different, and potentially alternative, engagement with technology” (394). As the homemade or DIY movie culture continues to evolve, amateur moviemakers have begun to rethink the language of cinema and television via online videos, flash animations, and remixes. At the same time, consumers of these homemade movies find themselves engaging with these videos in new ways. In this sense, I see the work being done in homemade movies to be one of the most significant engagements with our cinematic past, present, and future.
Chuck Tryon is an assistant professor in the Department of English and Foreign Languages at Fayetteville State University. He has published essays on Dark City and San Soleil. He has also published on using blogs in the freshman composition classroom. He is currently working on a book project focusing on time-travel film and television.
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