Manovich on Film

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).

5 Comments

  1. Jason Said,

    June 24, 2003 @ 9:42 am

    When you said: “When I watched Dark City, I was perfectly aware that real buildings weren’t morphing into new structures.” – it struck me that Dark City itself speaks to the difference between the deception and spectacle. We, the viewers, understand that the characters are caught in deception and find their way to comprehension and, ultimately, control (and enjoyment) of the spectacle. And likewise, I think that we understand that we are *watching* the spectacle of deception (rather than being deceived by the spectacle).

    Reading that over, I’m not sure it makes sense to anyone but me, but there you go ;)

  2. chuck Said,

    June 24, 2003 @ 4:28 pm

    This is one of the major distinctions that I want to work through in this paper (and I might borrow the “spectacle of deception”/”deception through spectacle” phrasing, with your permission, Jason). This is the reading of the film that makes most sense to me, and the furthest I think I can go with this particular paper.

    I think the sticking point for me is that many, though not all, films that use digital effects are still using them *as* spectacle. Titanic–as a film–is pure spectacle. We don’t really believe that Leo DiCaprio drowns. I see the same effect with the new Star Wars films, in scenes such as Yoda’s light-saber duel. I think that’s why I keep turning back to Tom Gunning’s language regarding the “cinema of attractions” here. All of that being said, I think Dark City is much more self-consciously *about* the “deceptiveness” of digital images.

  3. Jason Said,

    June 24, 2003 @ 6:40 pm

    Borrow away ;)

    I agree to an extent – but I also think that Dark City recognizes the difference between being *in* the box and watching the box. You literally have to stop time, put the subjects to sleep, shift the entire world, and inject the subjects with new memories and you STILL can’t create a complete and convincing sense of verisimilitude. Perhaps the idea is that consciously constructed environments (or whatever) are always-already destined towards spectacle, which is also where we see the seams?

    Gunning’s work is really helpful and has some great, useful terminology – although he uses it mostly in reference to early cinema, doesn’t he? It’s been a while, so I’d appreciate a refresher. Does he draw a line (or distinctions in that line) between early cinema with Griffiths, Edison, the Lumieres, etc and how he might use “cinema of attractions” with early and late Hollywood style? Or is it a term that travels easily and broadly?

    I’d love to read your paper. You’re making me want to rent the film again…

  4. chuck Said,

    June 24, 2003 @ 7:05 pm

    I like the “box” metaphor a lot; that may clarify a couple of things for me. The “immersion” question comes out a little more clearly in my actual paper. I think you’re right that DC is addressing the failure of these simulation systems (hmmm…new wrinkle). My tendncy had been to read the stopping of time as the disruption of the linear time of cinema.

    Regarding Gunning: he primarily is writing about early cinema, but mentions in passing musicals and other genres that might disrupt identification and operate as spectacle (Moulin Rouge is one great recent example of this).

    I’ll be happy to email you a copy of the paper (I can send you a 98% complete draft tonight) if you’re interested. Comments are, of course, welcome. ;-)

  5. Jason Said,

    June 25, 2003 @ 9:29 am

    “My tendncy had been to read the stopping of time as the disruption of the linear time of cinema.”

    This is definately intriguing….

    Sure, send me a copy – I’ll print out a copy and read it on the metro this week…

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