|Title:||Cinema Without Show Business: a Poetics of Vlogging|
|Publication info:||Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
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Cinema Without Show Business: a Poetics of Vlogging
vol. 5, no. 1, Winter 2007
Cinema Without Show Business: a Poetics of Vlogging
The spectacle of the everyday, the intimate view of private life, has always been a force in Hollywood spectatorship. What is different about videoblogs (or vlogs) is the spectacle of the un-commodified everyday. One of the myths that fuels personal media production is the idea of taking back from “big media” what belongs to “the folk.” But unlike the radical, disruptive strategies of the avant-garde, most vlogs have a more measured approach to “big media” aesthetics, preferring a cinematic and televisual shorthand of the everyday. Recurring online debates over the definition of vlogging, stimulated in part by Rocketboom’s auctioning off ad space, shows that the tension between personal and commercial is not over aesthetic values, but over authenticity. Should a definition of vlogging include commercial forms? Michael Verdi’s vlog post about the dangers of corporate involvement in personal media elicited a variety of responses that point out the grey areas. Sadly, definitions and manifestos will not protect vlogging from the onslaught of slick advertising and big media. But, in some sense, RSS feeds, video compression codecs, and tagging systems are just digital extensions of traditional distribution and marketing. Videobloggers try to make their work accessible to the public, increase their subscription numbers, optimize their status in search engines, show-up in articles and participate in conference panels - they are not immune to the economics of fame. But it cannot be denied that, in the current world of personal media, something new has been added to cinematic value: a social context that is not explicitly market-driven. Rather than compete for attention in the marketplace, most vloggers look to their peers for feedback and conversation. For perhaps the first time, we have a somewhat organized public arena for a cinema without show business.
What new cinema poetics emerges out of this social context? If we rely on algorithmic search for value, it appears that personal media gives us just more novelty. A dog riding a skateboard has the kind of entertainment value that Thomas Edison would have loved. In many ways, surprise at the boundless novelty of the world is good for cinema and culture in general, but this is nothing new. Amidst recycled warnings of cinema’s impending death, I believe vlogging does offer the prospect of a rich cinema culture, perhaps even a cinema renaissance, because of the unique ways vloggers find collective value in the personal. However, in order to understand what is different about cinema without show business, we have to revisit cinema’s show business origins.
Film technology, which began as an invention with marginal scientific value, found its way into the hands of budding industrialists who saw entertainment value in the very illusion of movement. That a worker, after a twelve-hour workday, would stand in line and pay an hour’s wage for a single one-minute loop in a private viewing box, was a revelation to show business entrepreneurs. Vaudevillian tactics certainly played a role in creating hype, but pre-narrative cinema, the “cinema of attractions," held an excitement of the senses that demanded repeat viewings (Gunning). Spectators returned again and again, as they would to a roller coaster ride, another machine for perceptual dislocation. Welcoming film’s power to dissolve social, cultural and spatial boundaries, Walter Benjamin nevertheless saw its lack of an “aura” as a loss of the authenticity and uniqueness of the art object in space. “[Film’s] social significance, particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its most destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of cultural heritage” (Benjamin 668). Film liberated private vision from the dangers of collective myth, but at the same time, severed it from collective value.
If cinema’s essence is the play of perceptual processes, the very processes individuals use to survive daily life, then the successful role of show business is to exploit, maximize and socialize that private experience through spectacle and narrative. In the 1940s, my father went to the movies with his friends on Saturdays. They met at the corner soda shop and then spent the afternoon in the theater, watching cartoons, newsreels, and two features. In 1977, I stood in line five hours for Star Wars tickets. The television frenzy surrounding the event added to the promise of (and desire for) being transported into space. Today, my daughter and son have a collection of favorite DVDs that they return to again and again, a home version of pre-narrative cinema’s spectatorship. As much as we talk about the social aspect of pre-web and pre-dvd cinema, my memory growing up was that cinema was as much a private ritual as a social one. You talked with others about a movie’s story, but in your mind you moved around the images, integrated them into your own memories and imagination. Narrative is a socializing principle that adds coherency and potency to an image sequence, gives it collective value. The Lumiere Brother’s film “The Arrival of a Train at la Ciotat Station” may or may not have caused panic as it seemed headed for the audience, but it probably stimulated viewers’ private associations, perhaps even private narratives, about trains. When Edwin Porter, in “The Great Train Robbery,” took the same image and added a couple of bandits hiding behind a hill, the image became locked into a collective value system. Hitchcock was able to endow everyday objects with emotional potency, because of the simplicity and precision of his narrative design. In this sense, the social context of narrative cinema does have its roots in ritual. We bond while we all gasp at the threat behind the door. Modernist cinema and the avant-garde have looked beyond narrative in order to restore the private and more fluid relationship to image, but there was always the risk of diluting image potency. The best of classical and art cinema is able to benefit from collective value while at the same time fulfilling the deeper contract of private value; a value that may be as simple as our desire to stretch our own perceptual and cognitive maps.
Cinema built its collective value through the show business of spectacle and narrative codes. How does it create collective value in online networks? What happens when the tease of a curtain is replaced with the ease of a click? Adrian Miles, in “Media Rich vs. Rich Media,” offers a practical guideline for what should be included in any definition of blogging and/or vlogging: “a combination of technical characteristics, embeddedness in a life world, and emergence” (Miles). The technical characteristics include content-management systems with their archiving, categories and display of posts in reverse chronology. Embeddedness describes the content as being “situated within the life world of its author (or authors)...[which] is a stronger statement than emphasizing personal experience, only because it moves it away from the presumption that personal may equal the subjective and intimate.” Emergence, Miles suggests, “describes the patterns of connection that are produced... by the interconnections of blogrolls and the lattice of links between individual blog posts.”
What is common in the growing list of vlog genres - diary, experimental, documentary, mash-up – is the serial expression of embeddedness in a life-world or microcosm. These expressions are usually moments in a vlogger’s daily life, but might also be the staged and poetic evocations of emotional states, a “scrapbook montage” of a journey, even a staged fiction as a vehicle to explore a microcosm. Lev Manovich, in “What is Digital Cinema,” argues that digital image-making techniques have liberated cinema from narrative and lens-based realism, restoring its birthright as a time-based extension of painting. “Marginalized by the twentieth century institution of live action narrative cinema which relegated them to the realms of animation and special effects, these techniques reemerge as the foundation of digital filmmaking” (Manovich 1995). While this is true for much interactive and animated net art, the majority of video blogs remain committed to recording the real world. Some of the hardest working vloggers (Erik Nelson, Chris Weagel, Dave Huth) create complex montages that might include staged performances, archival footage, motion graphics, animation, text as well as recordings of daily life. These hybrid “mash-ups” follow a long avant-garde tradition of collage, but they require a level of technical expertise (and time) that are outside the realm (or preference) of the typical vlogger. Besides embeddedness in a life-world and a tendency to photographic realism, vlog posts are also short (up to five minutes in length). Bandwidth limitations, respect for how media is consumed in a networked environment and time investment of the creator determines the short length of vlog posts. While many have compared vlogs to haiku, short does not necessarily mean minimalist. A short video can be about a single moment or a rapid montage of many moments strung together.
Miles compellingly argues for a “granularity” of online video in order to increase its network value and emergent properties; to include links to and from objects and chunks of information outside the video itself (date and time, comments, other media etc.) so that “movies could read this information from or about each other, and so exhibit the sorts of network awareness that characterize blog posts” (Miles 2005). While this will likely be the future direction or at least an offshoot of current vlog practice, vloggers are, for the most part, networked through making video, watching video (via aggregators such as FireAnt and Mefeedia) and writing about video. They are spectators and critics, as well as creators. Collective value is determined by emergent behavior and feedback systems made possible by links, tagging, commenting and trackbacks, but also by a visual conversation where vloggers respond to each other in their videos, mimicking styles, content and appropriating clips. When non-vloggers complain about the poor entertainment and production values of vlogs, they are missing the most vital elements of the conversation going on: What is it like to make one’s life “cinematic”? Why is “dramatic conflict” a necessary filter for understanding the stories we inhabit everyday? What is missing in our private lives that can be rediscovered (recovered) and shared as video with others? Again, Adrian Miles: “[Vlogs] are less about consumption (watching others’ content) than exploring models for authorship and production, ...it is the ability to participate as communicative peers that is much more significant and viable for distributed networks than our reconstitution into new consumers” (Miles 2003, 230).
CINEMATIC VALUES OF VLOGGING: EXAMPLES
A vlog post is cinematic when an idea or story is conveyed using camera position, camera movement, continuity and/or associational editing, mise en scene and sound. The most pervasive vlogging camera position is the arm-extended, camera-turned-on-oneself method of address. While vital to vlog language, it is a technique appropriated from television (a host talking to an audience). My focus in the following examples will be to demonstrate how cinema language is used in a variety of ways to express a personal (or impersonal) microcosm. Like pre-narrative cinema, vloggers are engaged in “harnessing the visible” (Gunning) of their everyday lives. Certainly, videobloggers tell entertaining stories, peddle in shock and novelty, and otherwise seek to stand out from the pack. But there is also an emergent poetics where collective value is determined, not by standards of a market or an elite, but through conversational modes offered by the network. Vloggers are privately and collectively engaged with the cinematic translation of “embeddedness-in-a-life.”
One problem I have faced in the following selection of videos is my own lack of a proper system of documentation over my past five years as a vlogger and viewer of vlogs. As of this writing, 7000 vlogs are registered at Mefeedia.com and I have been following less than 100 of those. Clearly we need a system beyond the wonders of folksonomy to collectively document vlog practice. I have chosen these videos, including one of my own, because they best illustrate common cinematic strategies of vlogging: momentshowing, story fragment, staged moment, bricolage, scrapbook montage and spatial montage.
MOMENTSHOWING: Videoblog #16: Looking at things...
by Jay Dedman (momentshowing.net)
Jay Dedman, pioneer vlogger and co-founder of FireAnt, explains on his concept of momentshowing: “...it’s just a step beyond Storytelling, which was what we did when speaking was the only way to communicate. Now we are adding visual tools to our voices. You can record short Moments, arrange them, and post them with some words. I can then see people all over this planet show their world. Iraq, for instance. Michigan. Shinjuku. San Paulo. What's it look like? News doesn't show us but we can show each other" (Dedman). A video form of “show and tell,” momentshowing involves storytelling through voice-over narration (or text) and close observation of an event or subject. An early (2004) post of Jay’s, “Looking at things...” is a great example of the mundane framed cinematically. If this post had included more, the power of the reveal, its haiku moment, would have been lost. Countless moments make up people’s vlogs. Hand and palm sized camcorders have provided an extraordinary ease and intimacy with which to record daily experience. What stands out in this moment is the cinematic storytelling. The patterns of life’s movements spoken about in the voice-over–working, sitting, walking, being with friends – is reflected in the bouncing patterns of light. And then, in a single take, the abstractions of thought and image become crystallized in the beauty of an ordinary object and surrounding traffic noise. Most of Dedman’s “momentshowing” videos want simply to get deeper into the thickness of life. Borrowing from techniques of Direct Cinema, the use of long takes that linger on a subject, his camera-eye tries to break through abstractions and artificial categories in order to reveal the unadorned moment itself. His narration serves only to frame the moment amidst life’s flux.
STORY FRAGMENT: Paradiso
By Daniel Liss (www.pouringdown.blogspot.com)
Story fragment is a distancing strategy whereby autobiographical moments or events are either partially shown or shown as fragments of an implied narrative in order to create story potential and/or mystery. Off-screen space, de-centered framing, gaps in editing or narration, are cinematic techniques to engage the viewer’s imagination. In Daniel Liss’s Paradiso, what immediately strikes the eye is the wide-screen composition with four distinct textures of wet wood and stone. It is raining. Into frame walk two pairs of bare legs, male and female, that then disappear again behind a partition. The camera remains static and the rain drowns out whatever the two are saying to each other, though we can tell they are enjoying a brisk outdoor shower. Occasionally, the couple’s legs re-emerge from behind the partition. At one point the female rises on her toes, perhaps to kiss her partner. After the shower, they leave the frame in the same direction they entered. The stationary camera is positioned in expectation of an event, inviting a voyeuristic interest that profits from the narrative expectations of so many shower scenes in the movies. An initial eroticized gaze is soon displaced by off-screen space (the couple) and the sensuality of the water, the wood, and the stone. We are turned back on ourselves. Our own memories of showers, partners and rain fill in the gaps. In this work, as in many other videos by Liss, story fragments hide as much as they reveal, inviting our own paths into meaning.
STAGED MOMENT: Amanecer (Dawn)
By Juan Luis Casañas (http://envideo.blogspot.com)
Staged moment is a strategy that emphasizes the personal value of an experience or moment by introducing a perceiving subject (the vlogger’s physical presence). As mentioned earlier, many vloggers use televisual direct address (speaking directly to the camera) or voice over as a way to narrate a moment. Another approach uses a visual form of narration, framing and/or continuity editing, to either re-enact a moment or perform a moment as it happens. For example, if a vlogger wished to show herself walking through the woods, she might put the camera on a tripod and record herself from different angles. The Venezuelan vlogger Juan Luis Casañas stages acts of poetic perception. In this video, a character (Casañas) enters the frame. We see his optical point-of-view of the dawn, sunlight cresting over the hills. A conversational voice says, “Nunca he visto la amanecer” (I have never seen the dawn). We see traffic in fast motion and then cut back to the perceiving subject with a close-up of his wide eyes. The end. By including himself as a perceiver, Casañas directs our attention to his inner experience of the view, not the view itself. In an answer to my question why he vlogs, Casañas writes: “What I do (or at least what I try to do) is to show short moments from my life in a particular way. I like to show more than the moment itself by going deeper into what I felt and the way I reacted.” He re-enacts moments, does not capture them as he finds them. Cutting paper with a knife, sitting in his bedroom, looking out a car window – Casañas’ videos combine mundane life, performance and classical narrative technique to evoke an inner landscape of longing, anxiety, loneliness and passion.
BRICOLAGE: Slurp Taste
By Charlene Rule (www.scratchvideo.tv)
Bricolage, the French word that means to make things from scratch, is a vlog strategy that treats a moment as a creative act. Associational editing is used to form, not a record or re-enactment, but a new visual experience. Charlene Rule is a “bricoleur” and her vlog, scratchvideo.tv, combines documentation of Rule’s work/life and short improvised creations that borrow techniques from surrealist and impressionist cinema. Close-ups of juxtaposed objects, whispering voices, rhythms of found sound, playful changes in speed and focus – Rule seems to relish a cinematic encounter with things in her immediate environment. Many of her works are also staged moments in that she includes her own hands in a shot to emphasize texture and shape. These sensual miniatures, which remind me of Joseph Cornell boxes, are only “personal” in their embeddedness in a domestic life. SLURP TASTE is not about an autobiographical moment. It is about fiddlehead greens and bottle caps and whatever your imagination wants to do with them. It is about “fiddling around.”
Scrapbook montage: Random Northwest
By Erik Nelson (http://bottomunion.com/blog)
Scrapbook montage is another strategy that uses associational editing and is usually used to summarize a journey by juxtaposing distinct moments. It can also be a way to mark the passage of time (a collection of moments in a day or year, for example). In Erik Nelson’s 4-minute video of traveling in the Northwest (a trip that probably lasted several weeks) moments are inter-cut without much concern for classical values. Cause and effect storytelling is replaced by asynchronous sound and jump cuts. Erik’s editing, however, is deceptively simple. The bumpy ride aims to mimic the cognitive jolts of contemporary travel (as well as memory and thought?). There is a point of view, a personal value system that juxtaposes repose in nature with the antics of humans at work, but there is also a non-judgmental acceptance of whatever the camera sees.
SPATIAL MONTAGE: Haystack Rock
By Will Luers (http://taylorstreetstudio.com/blog)
Lev Manovich defines spatial montage as “[involving] a number of images, potentially of different sizes and proportions, appearing on the screen at the same time. This by itself of course does not result in montage; it up to the filmmaker to construct a logic which drives which images appear together, when they appear and what kind of relationships they enter with each other” (Manovich 2003, 322). I have included a post from my own vlog as an example of spatial montage. A walk on the Oregon coast with my daughter and son resulted in a vlog moment that luckily, because I had my camera, was recorded. My daughter began making shapes with sand that looked like the massive Haystack Rock. In the editing, I decided to juxtapose simultaneous ”micro-narratives,” playing at different speeds, in order to evoke a sense of scale in the landscape and in time. An obvious advantage of spatial montage as a vlog strategy is the ability to make complex visual patterns and narratives within a compact short form.
This extraordinary statement by a young Iranian filmmaker confirms Walter Benjamin’s assessment of cinema as a democratic machine that dissolves social, cultural and spatial boundaries. Digital production tools and online distribution systems do indeed make us global citizens with an “expansive visual vocabulary.” But as a model for an emergent global cinema culture, videoblogging has rediscovered a collective value in the local and the personal. Not the bland universals offered by the entertainment industries, but the thickness of daily experience. It is likely that the cinematic shorthand of the everyday, as outlined in this paper, will enter the vocabulary of a mainstream narrative cinema. Vloggers themselves will find ways to monetize their creations as these forms are codified. How will the idea of personal media survive these inevitable changes? What will happen when the vast back catalogue of show business product goes online? Perhaps concern should be for the entertainment industries. After all, their products were designed as a form of collective escape from the pressures of life. What is clear is that network value defines different social needs: being connected, finding validation for one’s experience and ideas, being a producer as well as a consumer. If the coming networked cinema, of which vlogging is just one model, is a threat to the cult of the professional artist, perhaps industrialized market economies need new models for practicing art. The good thing is we don’t have to look very far. For much of human history, people made art out of daily experience. I am not only referring to folk traditions, but also to art-practices that were used to cultivate the mind and body. In China’s Tang Dynasty, scholars, clerks, monks, hermits and court ladies formed communities of friends to share works of poetry, painting and music. It is not by chance that many vloggers share an interest in life’s impermanence - a subject that created some of the most lasting forms in Chinese and Japanese poetry. What more potent subject matter is there when people get together to reflect on their own lives?
Will Luers is a screenwriter, media artist, and educator living in Portland, Oregon. He is currently an assistant professor in the Media Arts Department at Pacific University. His website taylorstreetstudio.com explores the theory and practice of networked and syndicated cinema. He holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania in Folklore and Folklife and an MFA in Film from Columbia University.
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