I’ve been feverishly working on my Dark City paper in order to get it ready to submit for publication, and one of the issues I’m considering is how Dark City seems nostalgic for earlier modes of image production (cinema, photography) in the face of digital technologies (specifically digital special effects). The perception of digital effects seems to be that because digital images are more malleable, they are less reliable than their photomechanical counterparts. People who’ve discussed this film with me may know that I’m suspicious of this claim. It seems to derive from a belief that all images are inherently deceptive, a claim that I’m not willing to accept.
This lead me to my reading of Lev Manovich’s discussion of film in The Language of New Media. I think Manovich’s book is pretty insightful, especially in its synthesis of a broad range of material. But I’ve found some of his comments on film to be quite puzzling, especially when they bear on the indexical status of the cinematic image.
In the passage I’m thinking about, Manovich writes,
Most often the moving [cinematic] image constrcuted through [digital] compositing presents a fake 3-D world. I say “fake” because, regardless of whether a compositor creates a totally new 3-D space from different elements (Cliffhanger, for example) or only adds elements to live action footage ( Jurassic Park, for example), the resulting image shows something that does not exist in reality. Digital compositing thus belongs with other simulation techniques. These are the techniques used to create fake realities, and thus, ultimately, to deceive the viewer–fashion and makeup, realist painting, dioramas, military decoys, and VR. (145).
He writes a little later that “fictional cinema, as we know it, is based upon lying to the viewer” (146). Much of my work draws heavily from ideology theory and I am often eager to accept the notion that movies offer utopian realities that don’t really exist, that they are usually designed to provide us with the excitement and stimulation that might be missing in our quotidian existences, but I can’t quite accpet this notion that films are “lying” to us in the way that he describes. When I go to see The Hulk (or previews for it), I know very well that he “doesn’t exist,” that he is a CGI effect. When I watched Dark City, I was perfectly aware that real buildings weren’t morphing into new structures. I’m not sure that this construction of an artificial space is a “lie” or “deceptive” in any real way. If we’re all in on the secret (and with all the “making of” DVDs, many of us are), then is it still a secret or lie? My feeling is that many of these blockbuster films are still more about “spectacle” (in Tom Gunning’s useful sense) than they are about deception (in the mimetic sense). Perhaps what I’m implying is that ideology doesn’t rely on images that are seductively real.
I’m also aware that the goal of most computer graphics projects is a seamless representation of a fictive space (hence the relative failure of The Hulk–computers simply weren’t capable of adequately representing the big green man’s physical force), but even with this goal, I don’t think I go into a summer film franchise expecting anything other than pure spectatcle. I don’t go in expecting to believe in what I see. I know that some of these observations are far afield of what Manovich is saying about the new status of film in the age of digital reproduction, but it’s a problem I’ve been trying to work through in my own work, especially as I finish up this article (hopefully on Wednesday).