Monday, August 27, 2007

Cinema Beyond the Blockbuster

Cinema is always dying. After Dionysius, or perhaps Freddy Krueger, it does not seem content with merely reinventing itself every decade or so – it has to die, only to be born again, more powerful (profitable) than we can possibly imagine. But in accordance with the law of diminishing returns, each death is more banal and even routine than the last. Stefan Jovanovic and Louis Menand recount this repeated staging, performed since cinema’s inception. Both mention in particular its last great death during the late ‘90s (typified in this article by Geoffrey Cheshire), supposedly brought on by the rise of digital video and a wane in cultural centrality. And Jovanovic and Menand’s pieces earmark the period when DVD sales, sophisticated home theater systems, and Internet piracy were supposed to do even the Hollywood blockbuster in ‘for good.’ Now it’s probably YouTube.

One can easily spot a pattern: a new technology initiates a change in production and/or reception, and ‘culture’ suffers. Declines in ticket sales are brought in to really make the point. Despite the fears of 2005, however, 2007 is showing nothing but profits. According to international film writer Leonard Klady, via David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson:

“Worldwide predictions that 2007 would break recent box-office records look to be well founded. The international box office generated $4.5bn in the first four months of 2007. Combined with revenues from the domestic North American marketplace, the global gross for the period was $7.2bn. International theatrical [i.e., markets outside the U.S. and Canada] accounted for 61.6% of the worldwide box office on gross figures that exceeded domestic ticket sales by 60.6%. Based on current viewing trends, global box office could finish the year at a record-breaking $24.6bn.”

They attribute this to the continued rise of the international market. The movies are reaching more people, not less. As was the case during cinema’s previous deaths, the decline is on the reception end, that is, with the critics. Thompson, in countering every false or misleading factual claim made by the new heralds of cinema’s death, avoids the root of their anxiety: the perceived betrayal of their aesthetic sensibilities, and with that their increasing obsolescence. It follows that the more recent changes in production and distribution, combined with an increasingly precarious social and political environment, should have helped produce a new or at least changing aesthetic in cinema, alienating older audiences even as it wins new ones. In the Hollywood blockbuster, the cultural face of U.S.-led globalization, what we have seen in the past decade or so is the resurgence of fantasy over all other genres, extravagant use of CGI, a gradual shift in emphasis to setting over plot and character, and more intensive cross-platform licensing and marketing strategies. Today the ideal blockbuster is part of an entire universe of image-commodities and commodified experience, stage managed in all their myriad formats by a single media conglomerate. Should the consumer wish, video games, animated series, comic books, novels, role-playing games and fan communities, all interrelated to an unprecedented degree of detail, can ensure a near-total independence from the reality of others. The blockbusters of the 21st century, including Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the granddaddy of them all, Star Wars, are not just movies, or even just stories: they are worlds unto themselves.

Economically, the Hollywood blockbuster has always been a cog in its own merchandising campaign – it is common knowledge that toys, T-shirts, and the thousands of other promotional tie-ins routinely make much more than the box-office of even the most successful films. The shift mentioned here reflects a new strategy, largely pioneered by young mavericks who grew up during the previous era of the blockbuster, that the much-desired effect of ‘synergy’ will be far more comprehensive when what was regarded as supplementary material is treated with the proper respect for its economic and creative potential. Instead of generating kitschy accessories and generic rebranded products in other media, increasingly the goal is to create multiple portals into the same imaginary world. As described by media studies professor Henry Jenkins in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, “Soon, licensing will give way to what industry insiders are calling ‘co-creation’” (Jenkins 105). A distributed network of artists, filmmakers, writers, and game designers, all working independently within the same imagescape, is the dream, what Jenkins calls ‘trans-media storytelling.’ Their models include Lucasfilm, which has already managed to turn Star Wars into its own reality along much the same lines, Japanese entertainment franchises (Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokemon being the most popular ones in the U.S.), and the ‘cult’ film aesthetic, which, drawing from Umberto Eco’s essay on Casablanca, sees a film as consisting of decentered, often incoherent borrowed elements that can “break, dislocate, or unhinge” from the whole and be enjoyed independently. In high corporate-academic style, Jenkins describes The Matrix as an ideal contemporary cult film (buzzwords italicized for ironic emphasis):

“Layers upon layers of references catalyze and sustain our epistemophilia; these gaps and excesses provide openings for the many different knowledge communities that spring up around these cult movies to display their expertise, dig deep into their libraries, and bring their minds to bear on a text that promises a bottomless pit of secrets” (98-99).

And it is the possibility and anticipation of ‘epistemophilia’ – in the context of the Hollywood fantasy film we might define this as ‘lust for comprehensive knowledge of rebranded clichés’ – and the subsequent creation of ‘knowledge communities,’ that drives this new way of making movies. Attention is a commodity, and film companies are (finally) learning that the way to capitalize on it is to make more demands on our attention, not less. “The new Hollywood demands that we keep our eyes on the road at all times, and that we do research before we arrive at the theater” (105). As there are already millions of people spending their work time researching and doing business on the Web, and their spare time immersed in massively multiplayer online games (MMORPGS), message boards, blogs (!), and other forms of interactive entertainment, it was always only a matter of time before movie companies started becoming more ‘interoperable,’ to use the industry jargon, with the new media and new ways of doing business. Which are also new ways of making culture, and of training its participants. As Jenkins ominously forecasts, “Our schools are not teaching what it means to live and work in such knowledge communities, but popular culture may be doing so” (129).

Fredric Jameson’s famous definitions of postmodernism – the replacement of parody by pastiche, the forgetting of history in favor of “a perpetual present” and “perpetual change,” the rise of the “nostalgia mode,” where a mythic past is evoked that is somehow beyond history, the ‘schizophrenic’ perception of space and time, and above all the “transformation of reality into images,” were accurate descriptions of consumer/popular film culture in the 1960s-‘80s and if anything are even more generally applicable today. When Jean-Francois Lyotard defined postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives,” or the impossibility of evaluating knowledge against a single self-justifying model, the shift in the value of knowledge away from ‘intrinsic’ use and toward its power of exchange (its commodification), he may as well have been describing the day-to-day functioning of today’s information economy. His ‘solution’ – what he calls ‘paralogy,’ the practice of undermining every given grand narrative (power epistemology) in the interests of social justice and creativity (the ‘open-source’ generation of “new statements”) – has long ago been learned by politicians and multinationals and is now being translated into profitable entertainment. Its model is what Jenkins describes above as the production of a theory – a world – that can then be mined and undermined by creative knowledge communities, generating profit for the corporations/creators in exchange for pleasure, social connections, and a kind of training or practice. Like exchanging quarters for tokens in an arcade, all of these benefits are mediated by information-rich, self-contained fantasy environments. This can, incidentally, be read as another manifestation of Jean Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra and simulation. Or, as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer once wrote, “Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work.” The prophecies of the postmodern have been proven correct, and thus, by the logic of capital, made banal.

To get a better look at the changing state of contemporary fantasy culture, one need only observe how the films, video games, etc. are received and consumed by fans. The blockbuster is still a major source of excitement and ‘legitimacy;’ a fantasy world has not yet come into its own until it has been ‘adapted.’ But this does not make the movie its canonical ur-text, financially or epistemologically. Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are the obvious examples, while movies based on comic book or video game properties are others. Many of these are unsuccessful and quickly forgotten (Elektra, anyone?), while their worlds persist in other media. As we have already noted, even a major hit is often not as profitable as its merchandising campaign. Ultimately the blockbuster today remains important not because of the essential qualities of the medium, but for its size. As both a major investment and an accepted form of entertainment throughout the world, it is able to draw in new fans and sure to present an image of its particular fantasy to the wider market. This makes ‘first films’ a source of considerable stress for fans of already established properties – virtually identical to the buyout of a small company by a corporation.

What movie companies have begun to do, as Jenkins describes, is internalize these facts, applying them to both their marketing strategies and the very aesthetic of the films themselves. When a movie is almost entirely made of CGI, like the Star Wars prequels or the more recent 300, there is the same eerie lack of depth, the evacuation of intensity from the image as medium and its redistribution into the image as pure spectacle: speed, overwhelming volume of sound, violence, and, especially in the case of Star Wars, an excess of information. This is why Star Wars maintains the more avant-garde aesthetic vision than 300, despite hype. The makers of 300 only expected their superior technology to increase the impact of what are essentially the same violent images of warfare and sculpted bodies in motion we are already accustomed to; the (hilariously overused) time manipulation effects were better done in The Matrix, the image-populated battle scenes and impossible camera movements more visceral in Lord of the Rings. Like traditional action movies it was all downhill from the trailer – most notable for its cynicism and aggressive disregard for its audience, the film disappeared from popular consciousness almost as quickly as it arrived, its considerable profits just business as usual. But George Lucas had already recognized as early as the mid-‘70s that the future of cinema lay well beyond anything that could be captured by a mere movie.

Before claiming a series that will appear to most readers as doubly nostalgic (the prequels subsist on a nostalgia for older films that were already nostalgic for pulp serials and an idealized 1940s-50s) is somehow avant-garde, it is important to remember that the postmodern ‘nostalgia mode’ does not involve history in the same way as ‘organic’ nostalgia. It functions according to Freud’s dream logic: by concealing (repressing) history under trivial, bizarre, or striking (distracting) appearances, it creates the effect of uncanny familiarity with the new and what is best described as an ambience of deeper meaning. Tarantino’s films also operate in this mode, though as a kind of homage, overtly citing a wealth of pop cultural sources with playful (if obsessive) affection, even reverence, enhancing them through pastiche. Lucas on the other hand makes cultural history a toolbox that exists to serve his whims. From what must be a classic ’77 interview with Rolling Stone: “I look at art, all of art, as graffiti.” And so, for a series famous for the sheer amount of totally fictional stuff put into it – names, titles, planets, technical objects, space aliens, wars – never dates – all debts to the past are deniable, everything on screen is able, instantly, like magic, to become a brand, the exclusive property of Lucasfilm, Ltd. Where Stanley Kubrick’s attempt to realistically depict the future involved one of the first major uses of product placement, Lucas simply remade the present in his own image, literally. At the same he has been able to maintain the kind of vague reference to political reality that is expected of fantasy blockbusters (just as 300 is maybe like the Persian War but maybe like Iraq, Star Wars could be Vietnam, or it could be WWII, or the American Revolution, or…), thereby winning any sectors of the popular audience still wary of ‘kids’ stuff,’ and further legitimating the marginalization of ‘elitist’ critics.

The truly nostalgic American filmmakers of the ‘60s and ‘70s were the Scorseses, the Malicks, and the Altmans, who contented themselves with adapting the techniques of European Neorealism and the Nouvelle Vague to fit an American cultural idiom. It was because he abandoned innovation within the medium of film that made Lucas the real innovator. If Spielberg defined the role of the popular American director for the post-New Hollywood era – the ability to please everyone who matters, almost by definition (i.e. if you didn’t like Schindler’s List your opinions probably don’t matter) – Lucas has always managed to push beyond the standards of his critics and define those of his fans. The sheer quantity of barely explained information present in all six films, the consistently bad acting (despite excellent casts), awkward pacing, the bizarre ‘updates’ of the original trilogy, all of these points of controversy can be explained by recognizing that Lucas was less interested in making excellent films, as he was in making advanced technological portals, points of entry into his imaginary universe. This is why Lucas has always demanded they be as devoid of distinguishing marks, or traces, as possible. The Empire Strikes Back, agreed upon by most critics to be the ‘best’ of the six, is reportedly considered by Lucas to be the worst – the human touch of writer Lawrence Kasdan and director Irvin Kirshner could not be completely flattened by what was then an impossible dream, but which now, with the perfection of digital technology, Lucas has at last managed to realize in the prequels. In a sense, digital filmmaking in the fantasy franchise mode predates its technology. The current trend toward nullifying the cinematic image: the evacuation of depth, intensity, and materiality intrinsic to the medium in favor of the flat screen of networked image-commodities, has been pioneered at every major stage, from concept to execution, by George Lucas & Co.

That Hollywood and its corporate owners picked up on the potential of sequels and merchandising to generate profit from the success of Star Wars and Jaws is common knowledge. What they haven’t learned until now is the seemingly limitless potential of proprietary cross-media worlds, and what this means for cinema. Jenkins argues that as the film components of such enterprises become less central and more integrated with their other manifestations, critics need “new aesthetic standards” for evaluating them. In his refutation of the traditional critics’ disdain for Pirates of the Caribbean 3 on his blog, he argues that its unfocused hodgepodge of diverse plot elements and characters, excessive length, and sheer complexity are features, not bugs; and that though its world-building is more modest than, say, The Matrix or Star Wars (it is mostly just the films), it was made with the same audience demands in mind: that people research, make connections not spelled out onscreen, and most of all pay attention in order to enjoy. Given that DVD (and P2P) audiences can rewind, pause, fast forward, and repeat the visual narrative as many times as they want, keeping audience attention by demanding repeat viewings takes precedence over the coherence of the traditional cinematic experience. When anything can potentially generate spin-offs, then the plot, and, in Star Wars, the image itself, can literally not afford to focus on any one thing at the expense of the others. The pristine digital CGI-filled image of the Star Wars prequels remains the purest expression of this new aesthetic , making them, for the moment, more alienating than those franchises which still concede ground to outdated conventions of character psychology, narrative, and even perfunctory attempts at eye-catching mise en scène. Perhaps the children will think differently.

It might be argued that art films too demand repeat viewings, endurance, advance research, and an experimental attitude. But the critical skills cultivated by the art film, the ability to read the images onscreen as images in a dialectical relationship with other, mutually shaping factors (history, aesthetic influences, psychology, the possibilities of the medium, etc.) have fallen in proportion to the rise of the informational skills cultivated by the franchise film: the making of connections, limited only by the proprietorship of the ‘original’ creator/author/owner, between atomized chunks of data, indifferent to medium except as the mode of transmission. Critical sensibilities have been gradually assimilated into the information aesthetic in a number of ways, with the elite magazine critic left the furthest behind. Academic cultural studies, film, and English departments have known for some time now that pop culture product actually provides more opportunities for close reading and analysis than canonical art films and literature, not in spite of, but because of its lack of thematic depth, narrative coherence, and ‘respectability.’ By doing little more than vaguely referencing or borrowing from mythic, philosophical, psychological, and other source material, a TV show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer can spawn an entire subgenre of writing and publishing devoted to creatively making connections between diverse fields, with Buffy as the medium. As some of these scholarly books make their way to fans, the boundaries between the two groups begin to dissolve. Critics lose their old roles as the arbiters of taste, and become just another fan community, albeit with access to a different set of information. The magazine critic, whose position requires the existence of standards that are rapidly disintegrating, cannot follow along without making himself redundant. In the words of a character in Pirates 3, “This is no longer your world…the immaterial has become immaterial.”

This has nothing to do with a ‘dumbing down’ of culture. It is, rather, part of a gradual redefinition of intelligence. Consider how Steven Johnson and James Flynn’s rather unreflective Everything Bad Is Good For You argues that pop culture is in fact making everyone ‘smarter.’ His definition of intelligence neatly sums up the skills needed to excel in the information economy (high I.Q., problem-solving skills, flexibility), while giving lip service to those needed for critical thinking (knowledge of the world, suspicion of the given). A traditional critic, bored by something like Star Wars, is just not attentive to the same things, blind to the dizzying wealth and pace of the onscreen data flow while engaged in a futile attempt to find correspondence with ‘reality.’ Replace ‘learning’ in Flynn and Johnson’s book with ‘training’ and you have a much more presupposition-free look at what is happening than the loaded ‘dumb’ vs. ‘smart’ dichotomy.

Jonathan Beller’s essential The Cinematic Mode of Production (review here) is perhaps the first serious attempt at a detailed political economy of postmodernism that addresses what makes this era distinctive, cinema and the image. His basic thesis, derived mainly from extrapolating the arguments of Marx’s Grundrisse and Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, is that the expansion of cinema, and later of television and the Internet, is driven by the falling rate of profit. Attention has become the new frontier of capitalist expansion, and therefore the visual field and consciousness have become the most intensive, profitable, and competitive zones for rationalization and commodification. The debates around the ‘monetization of content’ or the transformation of information into a direct medium of exchange, is the latest development of a process that Beller argues began in earnest with the rise of film as an industry.

"Cinema is the development of a new medium for the production and circulation of value, as important in the reorganization of production and consciousness as the railroad track and the highway. Human endeavors generally grouped together under the category 'humanities' and (perhaps) once experienced as realms of relative freedom, can be and are being figured as economically productive. The entire history of cinema remains as a testament to this practice; advertising, television, and culture generally today testify to it." (207)

The profound tensions in this passage will not be easily or quickly resolved, not only for those working directly in media or humanities, but also for consumers – audiences – which includes all of us. What is changing now in the aesthetics of corporate cinema is the shift of what Walter Benjamin once referred to as the ‘aura’ or the sense of authenticity and uniqueness of a work of art – what Beller defines as “the becoming-media…of the object” (210), has fled the image as well as the ostensibly represented object. Note that the standard criticisms of the new blockbusters are that, whether because of too much CGI or weak storytelling and character, they are incomplete, vapid, and empty, rarely that they are somehow offensive and never because they are too intense. Both the traditional art film and the recent spate of ‘tortutainment’ movies (Saw, Hostel, etc.), though vastly different, are equally nostalgic for a time when the image itself mattered, when a film still had the power to shock, whether through its content (violence and sex) or its challenge to the audience’s accustomed modes of seeing (the techniques of a Godard or Brakhage, which have been well absorbed by MTV and its descendents). Now, “visual objects are liquidated of their traditional contents and mean precisely their circulation” (Beller), that is, they are approaching the former vanishing point of pure simulacra, pure exchange-value. There is no longer any space for ‘cult films’ which have not already attained that status and become more than films. The new objective is to relocate the aura, that mysterious power of attraction so essential to the commodity form, away from the image and toward a purely imaginary referent, a perpetually uncharted dimension that resists totalization but never ownership, and which gains legitimacy from the circulation of its images and the direct, creative involvement of its believers, the power of authority and representation resting not with one who knows – information has no intrinsic value – but one who owns. The cinematic image tends toward the invisible, its effects having already been worked into the human sensorium through years of training. Now, we all see as filmmakers. Our gazes produce value. Anything a fan creates in the name of, say, the world of the Matrix -- fiction, clothing accessories, a critical essay, hours logged on the MMORPG -- is free attention/advertising that directly or indirectly generates profit, but only that authorized by the Wachowski Bros. and Time-Warner can affect the 'official' laws of the fictional universe, and only a far smaller part can generate profit for the player/creator. The opportunity to live portions of one's life in relation to the commodities of these image-worlds, to interpret experience in various ways through the lens they provide, is treated as a pleasure in itself, and in the most successful instances is the only pleasure the proprietors are obligated to deliver. In this strange theology where property refers to nothing specific, but the power to regulate an apparently limitless creative potential, competition for the divine power of ownership demands nothing less than the rebranding of its expression for the seduction of converts. Cinema hasn’t died: it has gone to heaven. Criticism, simply in order to be recognizable, can only rest on a perspective that accepts no limits.