The Way New Cinema

Part Three of "Bits and Bytes and Flickering Lights" by Brian Dennis


Silicon Injection

Advances in computing have led to a significant increase in the capabilities of filmmakers to alter visual reality. So what does Hollywood do with this technology? Blow things up, make toys come to life, and put hair on the top of balding actors.

Like many another technology, (image editing software, camcorders, and television come to mind) computer technology in general and the Web in particular have been thrown in to the vast Hollywood marketing maw causing nary a burp. It's been 20 years since Star Wars came out. In that time we've gone from a mainframe per company to a mainframe per desk. All George Lucas can think about is restoring the bits of Star Wars that didn't look cool enough in 1976.


Digital Termination

This effect can be seen most glaringly in the work of director James Cameron. Simply focusing on the messages of his two films "The Terminator "and "Terminator 2: Judgement Day" one can quickly capture the seductive nature of technology for Hollywood.

"The Terminator", a low budget hit in 1984, featured an Austrian bodybuilder who couldn't act, a struggling actress, and a bit actor most notable for playing a pshyco who stalked Lauren Bacall. The film had a decidedly anti-technology bent. Most of the people killed by The Terminator became easy prey due to everyday technology.  Sarah Connor, the main protaganist, was hunted down simply by searching through a phone book.

The other heroic character of the story, Kyle Reese, was sent back in time from a decidedly dystopian future. The noble Kyle gets the girl and sacrifices his life. The inventive Sarah Connor finally faces The Terminator and crushes it herself. Humans save the day.

The movie, while containing a number of futuristic plot elements, is decidedly low tech. The most advanced sequence involves creating a lifesize metallic robot, probably done through stop motion animation which is an old and well understood technique. Occasional views from The Terminator's eyes are overalaid with various digital style displays and readouts. I doubt that any computer technology was heavily used.

Most importantly though, The Terminator , an emotionless cyborg from the future, was the embodiment of evil.

Fast forward to 1991. Cameron has had a taste of computer graphics while working on 1989's The Abyss. For his sequel to The Terminator, he pulls out all the technical stops. Numerous sequences involving a new villain, an advanced version of the original Terminator, involve heavy use of 3D graphics. This is in addition to the standard devices of car chases, gun fights, and exploding buildings doctored with digital effects to make them more spectacular.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is back in his role as The Terminator, only now he's a big movie star, ergo a huge marketing campaign. He's sent back to protect a young teen, Sarah Connor's son John Connor. Sarah Connor, is reprised as well, only this time she's a buff Rambo lite. Still she can't do the job and needs The Terminator to keep the forces of evil at bay. The genesis of the future dystopia is being created at this very moment and The Terminator has to stop it.

Of course Arnie saves Sarah, saves the kid, acts like a father to him, stops the T1000, and destroys all vestiges of the technology that leads to the future dystopia (ignore the circularity it's Hollywood). All this with a mandate from John not to kill anyone. The Terminator blithely follows the order by only maiming those who get in his way.

Clearly technology the salvation of humankind.

Terminator 2 set the standard for overhyped special effect laden action films. Hollywood has been stamping them out ever since. From Jurassic Park to Twister, Virtuosity to Independence Day, technology is the new star of Hollywood cast into the same old formula.


Personal Animation

But there is some hope for innovative use of the technology. A glance at the program for the Low Res Film and Video Festival presents not only filmmakers with a grasp of technology, but a vision of how to marry it to narrative. From completely live action to completely animated, the voices here tackle issues that Hollywood can't afford to touch. The Web itself is used innovatively here as well to promote the film with trailer clips directly to the home, links to websites, and information on how to make a do it yourself film. In a similar vein, the non-profit Web Cinema group attempts to promote independent digital film making.

In addition, or maybe as expected, respected universities are forming New Media groups to analyze and understand how computer technology can be used to push the envelope. Such schools as San Francisco State University,  NYU, Northwestern, and UCLA have burgeoning programs studying the intersection of new technology and film.

As well, cinema and the Web are interacting to form whole new pieces of art. The very, shall we say,  "challenging" film "Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees" is matched by the very "challenging" WAXWeb Web site. Where does the movie end and the Web site begin? Is there a hive conciousness being developed among viewers of the film and Web site. At the very least, Wax demonstrates the capabilities of the new technology to generate a different kind of cinema.

Also, examining the Pixin Compendium, among other sites, I get a sense that animation and random image collection are the two areas where auteurs can actually push the edge. A film per-se is difficult to pull off, requiring multiple talents and people, but animations only require imagination and a computer. Similarly random image collection, somewhat analogous to "found sound" requires a camera, some editing software, and some vision to make sense of it all. Due to the constraints of the technology, though, many digital pieces are quite short in length.


Little Salvation

Of course it's not surprising that there isn't much of a new aesthetic to find. Hollywood has all of the money and none of the wherewithal to do anything other than make feature length films more spectacular. It has only been recently that solid movie editing tools have come down enough in price that amateur film makers have had access. Meanwhile, auteurs still have to eat and put a roof over their heads.