Look! Voyeurism in the panoptic society

“Sure he’s a snooper, but aren’t we all? I’ll bet you that nine out of ten people, if they see a woman across the courtyard undressing for bed, or even a man puttering around in his room, will stay and look; no one turns away and says, ‘It’s none of my business.”
(Hitchcock, When asked by Truffaut if the main character in ‘Rear Window’, L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart), is a snoop. Later in the interview they expand that perspective to include the cinema audience)

The beginning of the 21st century may just well be among the most culturally and socially confused eras to emerge in recent history, when you consider society’s mass-fascination with reality shows, webcams and camera phones on the one hand and its ever-present obsession with surveillance and mass observation technologies, fueled by the Post 9/11 anxiety, on the other. This dichotomie has been explored by lots of creative producers in the past decennia, which was the subject of exhibitions like ‘ctrl (space): Rhetorics of Surveillance’ (curated by Thomas levin for ZKM) and ‘Balance and Power: Performance and Surveillance in Video Art’ (curated by Michael Rush), with great work by Sophie Calle, Jim Campbell, Jordan Crandall and Harun Farocki, to name a few. The impact of ubiquitous observation technologie was also very present in recent feature films as varied as Andrea Arnold’s ‘Red Road’, Michael Haneke’s ‘Cache’ or Paul Greengrass’ ‘Bourne Ultimatum’. But while these movies use CCTV footage to draw on feelings of paranoia and unease, here is a new film that has another take on the complex relationship between the intentional exibitionism that seems to be an essential part of our relation towards the internet and television, and our involuntary relinquishing of privacy to the cameras of power systems. The official description of ‘Look’ (it came out in december in the States) goes like this: “There are now approximately 30 million surveillance cameras in the United States generating more than 4 billion hours of footage every week. And the numbers are growing. The average American is now captured over 200 times a day, in department stores, gas stations, changing rooms, even public bathrooms. No one is spared from the relentless, unblinking eye of the cameras that are hidden in every nook and cranny of day-to-day life.” By shooting his feature entirely from closed-circuit viewpoints (but actually shot with Hi-end cameras – the ‘dirty’ look was created in post-production!), director Adam Rifkin wants to bring forward the question: “who are we when we don’t think anyone’s watching?”

But is this really a critical statement, or just a marketing stunt? The trailer suggests the latter. It suggests a film that draws on the new fascination of surveillance and sousveillance, as new playgrounds of the mass media, as a new market based on narcissism, exhibitionism and voyeurism in a so-called “panoptic” society (pan = everything; optikos = to see). This looks like a film that lures us, uncritically, in a silent acknowledgment and even enjoyment of the “tyranny of intimacy and the end of privacy” (taken from ‘ctrl (space)’ catalogue). No trace here either of a perspective on the voyouristic notion of cinema itself, while brilliant films like Powell’s ‘Peeping Tom’ and Coppola’s ‘the Conversation’ have proved that giving cinema an opportunity for self-reflection, can have an unsettling impact. In ‘Peeping Tom’ director Michael Powell plays a brilliant mirroring game, involving himself, as filmmaker, and the spectator in the process of voyeurism, so that by the last shot – showing a blank cinema screen – we are all aware that we have become victims of our own gaze, confronted uneasilly with the relationship between watching and participating. Is ‘Look’ equally confronting, or will it just provide us with a way to get around our prohibitions and exploit our voyeuristic tendencies, using a format that is just another smoother way to bridge the the gap looming between us, the screen and the events in the image, between our notions of reality, simulation and fiction?

The Tracey Fragments Refragmented

The movie ‘The Tracey Fragments’, directed by Bruce McDonald was released last year (not yet in this part of Europa), to critical acclaim. Not only because it features Indie sweetheart Ellen Page (now in ‘Juno’) and a soundtrack by the Canadian band Collective Broken Social Scene, but thanks to its narrative, that unfolds as a non-chronological series of split-screens frames. Nothing new of course – see for example Pablo Ferra’s cool split-screen scenes in Jewison’s 1968 ‘Thomas Crown affair’, Fleischer’s 1968 ‘the Boston Strangler’, Godard’s 1979 ‘Numero Deux’, and of course the de Palma movies, to name a few. Now there seems to be a comeback, probably influenced by the ’24’ TVseries, the interaction between cinema and comic books and the multi-screen installations that are spreading in art spaces today. Far from ideological or critical motives (split screens f.e. as a way to focus on the mechanics of screen culture by announcing their very constructedness, generating a critical rupture — one that we posit as intrinsic to audiovisual media), here it is supposed to serve as a device to convey the emotions of the main character, “like an echo, or like embroidery. We thought, the more we can experience the world the way little Tracey Berkowitz does, the closer we’ll feel to her romantic notions, her tendency to exaggerate. We want to feel her crisis.” As a reporter from CBS news states: “At various moments, images and dialogue recede, foreground and overlap. The effect is a shattered film for a shattered adolescent psyche”. I’m curious to find out if it really brings something fundamental alternative to the hip pseudo-rebellious teenage angst genre, that is charming the press and audience in the States nowadays.

But anyways. The story has a more interesting dimension:McDonald has also launched Re-Fragmented, an online initiative in which all the footage from the shoot of the film was released (via Bittorrent) for users to download and re-edit their own related projects including music videos, new trailers or to re-edit the entire movie themselves. The Creative Commons licensed initiative also makes available the musical score.

Most of the new versions are assembled here

Eyes on the Fair Use of the Prize

Watch how copyright law is re-writing history, starting with the Civil Rights documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” which has been out of print because of legal trap doors and outrageously expensive licensing fees. Due to the film’s heavy saturation with archival footage and images, its licenses were extremely expensive. The filmmakers could only afford temporally limited clearance contracts. Some lasted for up to ten years. However, after a few years when the first license expired, it became illegal to commercially distribute Eyes on the Prize. It now exists scattered across the V.S.. on VHS in random school libraries. Unless copyright and fair use undergo serious reform, Eyes on the Prize will vanish. So will many other films that have undergone similar predicaments. Not to mention the important projects that copyright intimidates their prospective authors from attempting to create.

Movie directed/produced by jacobs Caggiano, awarded with Fair Use award on the Media that Matters Festival.
licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0

Cloverfield, the mythology continues


We recently went to see ‘Cloverfield’, and were pleasantly surprised. It’s good to find out that an action flick doesn’t need the laughable Bay/Bruckenheimer mayhem to appeal to a large audience. Instead of the usual chest-thumping, combustive bombast, aiming for direct impact (I actually think the score during the credits at the end is meant as a joke, adressing the usual overly dramatic all-over soundtracks in Bay-esque movies) here is a film that is quite effective in communicating the sense of individual fear and tension, in situations where the reality of every day life is crushed in extraordinary ways. There’s only one small explicit reference to 9/11 in the film, but it could have been a subtext with much more weight. It’s the individual, direct perspective in the context of blockbuster cinema that is kind of refreshing (and it’s very much part of our new way of seeing the world, mediated by mobile media and online video platforms) – it’s supposed to be a limitation, given the all-encompassing power of cinema narration, but here it’s very exciting in all its suggestion of the ‘bigger’ event. The camera-image is concentrated on the action on the ground, lifting only once in a while just to catch a brief, fleeting glimpse of the carnage happening around, and that’s what strikes chord, immersing the audience in confusion, anxiety, the sense of not-knowing. Of course this is Hollywood cinema, and unlike the ‘Blair Witch’ project ‘Cloverfield’ is a big-budget film, and although it looks like it’s shot in guerilla style, including jump cuts, creating a feel as if it was all edited in-camera (I praise the makers for that), it’s scripted in every detail. So, as the story unfolds – leaning on the obligatory love plots between people looking like H&M models – the dread and anticipation are being build up, and towards the end it’s sort of sad to get to see the ‘bigger’ picture (well yes, there’s a monster in a bad mood goin’ around town, and you get to see the thing in close-up). The film is succesfull in engaging the audience from the start – actually even long before it came out – so it didn’t really have to follow that narrative logic.

But anyway, some mysteries remain, leaving lots of opportunities and even clues for (unavoidable) sequals (or who knows, versions that provides another perspective on the same events). New myths are being created on the internet, where according to some the overarching story of Cloverfield takes place. The internet was actually the place where the story was established, long before the movie came out, and looking back on the previous months of online mythology creation, it’s really brilliant, a wet dream not only for marketeers but for story-tellers as well. Sure it’s essentially a viral marketing stunt (as for ‘Lost’, or ‘Snakes on Plane’), but even more so it serves as a the source for the backstory, bringing, in the footsteps of ‘Blair Witch’ a new dimension to the so-called ‘faux documentary’ tradition in cinema. Using a combination of subjective, mobile camera perspectives, news formats (lots of Cloverfield newsflashes are circulating on the net) and networked media bridge the space between the camera and the event, screen and viewer, reality and fiction, resulting in a dynamic that’s even more effective than television in penetrating, even overtaking the everyday environement of the audience. The first online video teasers, followed by many sites that were specially created, like the fake MySpace profiles for all the characters, as well as the references to fake companies (Slusho, Tagruato, Tidowave), brought about an immense wave of reactions of people who desperately tried to piece together the mystery, getting fed new clues as time went by. And apparently, according to sources like http://cloverfieldclues.blogspot.com (this guy has actually been interviewed by several traditional media as a “Cloverfield expert”) the clues are still coming (on sites like 01-18-08.com), unfolding new mysteries (where did the monster come from? is there more than one? what was that thing you see falling in the ocean in the last scene of the film? What is the meaning of the sounds you hear after the end credits? Damn, I didn’t even NOTICE these clues). For people who’d like to keep on deciphering: check the video diaries on jamieandteddy.com (focusses on a minor character in the movie), the “Chuai” news footage (provide insight about “attacks” before New York), the Kishin manga that appeared out of nowhere (that is supposedly a prequel to all of the events) and especially: when you see the film, keep a lookout for cameos of characters and logos, and please don’t forget to stay till AFTER the credits. The mythology continues. More than ever.

… And new ones are created. JJ Abrams (producer of ‘Colverfield’) is working on the new ‘Star Trek’ episode (scheduled for 2009). The first teaser just was “leaked” online. And yes, it works.

UPDATE: The ‘subjective POV’ format is spreading like a virus. Just heard about the recent Spanish movie (REC), directed by Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza, in which a TV reporter, following a few firemen for a reality show, ends up surrounded by zombies. An American version is already in the works, working title: ‘quarantine’.

The movie has an interesting viral ad, focussing on audience reactions:

Arthur Lipsett Soundtracks

I was just having fun with sound at first. One day I joined two scraps of sound together and they sounded interesting. I began collecting scraps of sound from the wastage…. It was initially a sound experiment – purely for the loving of placing one sound after another.
–Arthur Lipsett on ’very nice, very nice’

The soundtracks of some of the films of the legendary Canadian filmmaker Arthur Lipsett have just been remastered and released on Vinyl. Although Lipsett (who committed suicide in 1986) has been categorised as a “found foutage” filmmaker, the vision of his work is pretty much based on the juxtaposition of (found) sound and image (”I cannot tell whether I am seeing or hearing – I feel taste, and smell sound – it’s all one – I myself am the tone.”, he wrote). In his collages, in which he evokes his “complex, tragic-comic view of the world” (William C. Wees), sound becomes a subversive agent of the image, allowing a critical reflection on what is being shown. This juxtapostion creates after-images which carry over as sonic bridges to other sequences.
The importance of the sound, as instructions for observing and critiquing the images, is highlighted by this LP, which illustrates Lipsett’s highly structured system of field recordings, loops, speech and music. It proves all the more that Lipsett was really a postmodern bricoleur avant la lettre, rearranging the debris of the cultural past. (fragments are available here. The LP is published by Global A, the label owned by archivist Johannes Auvinen, better known – for those into Acid/House – as Tin man)

At the moment we’re composing some programs for the upcoming Courtisane festival in Ghent, which will probably feature some of Lipsett’s work.

Michael Baker wrote a nice piece on the sound-image relationship in Lipsett’s film ‘Very, very nice’. btw: If the video posted here (21-87) rings a bell: it was referenced several time in George Lucas’ ‘Star Wars’ films (also in ‘THX 1138:4EB’ and ‘THX 1138′). (For freaks only: Princess Leia’s cell aboard the Death Star is number 2187. THX 1138 took place in the year 2187, and Maggie McOmie’s character in it dies on the coded date “21/87.” Also, as the legend goes, one of the sound samples in Lipsett’s film, a conversation between Warren S. McCulloch, a pioneer of artificial intelligence, and Roman Kroitor, a cinematographer and director who helped develop the IMAX film format (”Many people feel that in the contemplation of nature and in communication with other living things, they become aware of some kind of force, or something, behind this apparent mask which we see in front of us…”) helped shape Lucas’ ideas about ‘The Force’. How about that, huh). Stanley Kubrick was also a big fan, and asked him to make the trailer of ‘Dr. Strangelove’. Lipsett declined, but his influence is clearly visible in Pablo Ferro’s brilliant trailer: