Aaron Smith’s Response Journal


Mulholland Drive and Art Cinema

When I watched Mulholland Drive on my own the other day, I noticed that the DVD came with a viewer’s guide:

David Lynch’s 10 Clues to Unlocking This Thriller
1. Pay particular attention in the beginning of the film: at least two clues are revealed before the credits.
2. Notice appearances of the red lampshade.
3. Can you hear the title of the film that Adam Kesher is auditioning actresses for? Is it mentioned again?
4. An accident is a terrible event… notice the location of the accident.
5. Who gives a key, and why?
6. Notice the robe, the ashtray, the coffee cup.
7. What is felt, realized and gathered at the club Silencio?
8. Did talent alone help Camilla?
9. Note the occurrences surrounding the man behind Winkies.
10. Where is Aunt Ruth?

Because I had never seen Mulholland Drive before, I was immediately cued for interpretation and investigation. Knowing David Lynch, that was not surprising. But I wonder: Does Lynch’s 10 cues contradict or reinforce the film’s art cinema tendencies?

On the one hand, this is perhaps the most explicit form of authorial address. Some of  the questions (where is Aunt Ruth?) point to certain ambiguities and ask the viewer to hypothesize about them. On the other hand, the author is literally telling us what to think about. Art cinema, while soliciting a higher interpretation, is often not made to be figured out, solved, or “unlocked.” As Bordwell writes, “narration is more complex than art can ever be, the only way to respect this complexity is to leave dangling and unanswered questions.” So what is the usefulness of these questions when many of the answers remain ambiguous? Art cinema is supposed to be about unfocused gaps and less stringent hypotheses. Do we really need to find answers to these questions or can we allow them to be unanswered and dangling? It is possible that directing the viewer how to unlock the film may render certain interpretations while limiting others.

Thus, while Mulholland Drive deals with dream logic, loose causal relations, a self conscious style, and heavy interpretation, it still calls on the viewer to, as Murphy says, “piece together the various strands of what has been deliberately constructed to be a mystery.”  But does playing detective fit with the mode of art cinema, where narrative comprehension is not the primary concern?


The Intersection between Film and New Media: Narrative Databases

In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich introduces the concept of a database as a term normally antithetical to that of narrative. A database involves many trajectories through many possibilities of a text. A narrative has one trajectory-a beginning, middle, and end. Yet Manovich says films can be both a database and a narrative, noting the machine-like structure of The Man with the Movie Camera. I’d like to explore films which are based on a database logic and compare them to the databases/narrative structure of hypertexts.

Jim Bizzocchi  discusses Run Lola Run as adopting a narrative database since it is “a highly structured set of parallel plot events…[compelling] the viewer to examine the relationship between the consistency of event iteration and variation in event outcome.” Ultimately Bizzocchi decides of Run Lola Run: “if cinema does not afford explicit physical interaction, it can and does support implicit psychological interaction.” Certainly all films generate a degree of interactivity (in the most general sense) But I aim to research ‘higher level interaction,’ where films more closely resemble hypernarration than traditioanl film narration in the way they present time, space, and causal relations. Besides Run Lola Run, other examples include Short Cuts, Time Code, The Norman Conquests, and Rashomon. (all briefly mentioned by Bizzocchi, but not thoroughly examined) (Perhaps Mulholland Drive and Slacker would be interesting to look at as well) These films involve the construction of a complex narrative database requiring viewers to work harder to make plot connections. What can we learn from these films in relation to new media narration? How does their form and style tailor the story and to what effect? I wish to research how the films relate to Salen and Zimmerman’s four levels of interactivity in Rules of Play and how they compare to various hypertextual works such as Afternoon, Hot Norman, and Patchwork Girl.

Preliminary Thesis: Films containing narrative databases are useful tools in understanding the potential for new media narration since they provide a framework for introducing a higher degree of interactivity without compromising narrativity.

Bizzocchi, Jim. “Run, Lola, Run: Film as Narrative Database.” MIT Paper.

Harries, Dan. The New Media Book. London: British Film Institute, 2002.

King, Geoff, and Tanya Kryzywinska. ScreenPlay: cinema/videogames/interfaces. London: Wallflower Press, 2002.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.

Murray, Janet. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1997.

Rieser, Martin, and Andrea Zapp. New Screen Media: Cinema/Art/Narrative. London: British Film Institute, 2002.

Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design and Fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004.

Scholder, Amy, and Eric Zimmerman. Game Design and Game Culture. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, 2003.

Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, and Pat Harrigan. First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.


Video Essay Reflection

One essay that I think is extremely relevant to film and media students, this narration class, and the video essay assignment in particular is Greg M. Smith’s “It’s just a movie.” Smith writes a compelling response to film students who wonder, “Are we reading too much into films? After all, it’s just a movie!” Admittedly, I’ve asked this very question myself when thinking about Bordwell’s arguments. I’ll paraphrase a few of Smith’s points because I think they’re important as we close the ‘film unit’ of narration.

  1. Everything in a film is a choice.
  2. Films are not messages that we ‘get’ or ‘don’t get.’ They are more complicated than the sender-message-receiver model.
  3. Audiences already read into films based on intrinsic norms, extrinsic norms, and extratextual knowledge. Narration is an active process that demands interpretation.
  4. Films hold valuable cultural and historical meanings.
  5. Analyzing a film while simultaneously being entertained by it results in a richer, more complex experience.

I would argue that the average film class at Middlebury does not adequately reinforce all of these five reasons for studying film (and there are more) Why? Because often written analytical essays are the only way a student can convey their engagement with the material. Yes, academic papers are absolutely essential to studying film and media and in gaining a liberal arts education in general. Papers should be the primary contributor to a grade, at least in the Film Department, but I don’t think they should be the only type of required assignment.

In creating this video essay, I know I gained a greater appreciation for Smith’s 1, 2, and 3. Instead of merely observing an author’s choices, I made my own. And by understanding the infinite possibilities that could have changed everything, I was able to recognize the skill in the choices that were made. Instead of analyzing the message of the text, I thought about how a message can be manipulated through editing. Instead of concentrating on analyzing the author and the text, I focused on their effect on the active role of the viewer. These are all learning experiences that a paper simply could not have done justice.

I probably could go on and on about the importance of integrating media literacy into a liberal arts education but that might be for another post. The point is this: the video essay provided valuable insights about the construction of movies that I could not have obtained any other way. Ultimately, it was a great tool in developing number 5, learning how to have a deeper, more complex viewing experience.

Video Essay Reflection 2
This video essay provided a learning experience that I could not have gotten from an analytical paper. Completing the assignment involved four steps. First, I needed to analyze how the original text’s narration was operating. How was it cuing and constraining the viewer’s fabula construction and how was this process heightened by style? A written essay would have ended after a satisfactory discussion over this question. But then I needed to think creatively about how I was going to manipulate the narration and create my own cues to alter the viewer’s response. This required a fundamental understanding about how the formal and stylistic features of a film guide a spectator’s story construction and comprehension.

Once I came up with an idea, I problem solved about how I was going to effectively convey my desired message and how I was going to overcome any potential technical difficulties. Utilizing these three skills—critical analysis, creative thinking, and problem solving—I gained a greater appreciation for the constructedness of narration and the careful decision-making that goes into it. I can imagine how this would be important to an aspiring film writer/director/producer who must access and apply all three skills simultaneously.

Finally, the fourth step involved a re-analysis of my re-edit. After looking at the piece days after producing it and after discussing it in class, I discovered insights about it that were unintentional yet interesting nonetheless. This demonstrated to me how a viewer can interpret a text in a completely different way than the author’s original intent, but that doesn’t mean the interpretation is wrong.

In response to Snap Z Pro, as a digital media tutor I understand how it can be frustrating, time consuming, and unhelpful. There are only four computers that carry the program and sometimes there’s a bug that requires you to delete a corrupt preference file before you can record audio.
However, the main issue with SnapZ is that it is made for capturing up to 5 minute clips. Any more than that and it becomes a tedious process to maintain the quality of the video while keeping the file size down. For this assignment, you want to be able to play with a lot of footage and experiment a little, not force together short captured clips. It takes awhile to capture a long clip. It takes awhile to encode and export it. And it takes awhile to import it or render it in a video editing software. Because editing is so time consuming, it is especially aggravating when there are problems just acquiring the footage.


The Singing Detective Video Essay

During the first week of class, we talked about how in time based media, the beginning of a project teaches the audience how to read it. My video essay attempts to re-cut the first five minutes of The Singing Detective so that we are taught how to read the series in a different way.

In the first five minutes of the original text, the dark city setting, the stylized emphasis on shadows, the ominous music, and the introduction of clues (the Skinskapes coin) all cue the audience to expect a film noir detective genre. By cutting between the Singing Detective and Marlowe in the hospital, the film asks us to apply the genre conventions of the film noir detective story to Marlowe’s experiences. We must examine (as Marlowe does) the clues from Marlowe’s past to discover their significance. It is an introspective, psychoanalytic detective story.

My re-cut attempts to present this idea in a faster and more explicit manner. The first musical number introduces Marlowe’s subjectivity and the text’s genre play. Musical outbursts are not wishful expressions of desire, but unwanted, terrifying hallucinations, later involving suppressed memories. Like the musical numbers, much of Marlowe’s childhood memories cannot be controlled. The only way to stop them is to think about the Singing Detective, but even that story incorporates the characters and feelings of the past.

In my video, I’ve attempted to introduce the various levels of narrative from the very beginning. The viewer may have no idea what is going on, but one thing is clear: it’s all coming from Marlowe. Marlowe is as confused as we are, but he has made his decision to figure all the clues out (as evident by calling himself the Singing Detective) and accept his unconscious hallucinations as part of the process. Thus, I would say my re-cut informs us how to read the text much sooner. It quickly shows us that there will be scattered clues throughout this work, from various narrative levels, and that we must collect, aggregate, and signify them to find any answers.

Thinking on it now, I probably would have included more images from Marlowe’s past (not just mostly audio from it), such as Marlowe in the classroom and in the forest, to be shown during the musical and film noir scenes. This would further illustrate the interconnectedness of these three mental narratives going on in Marlowe’s head and accentuate the idea that Marlowe (and the viewer) must sort it all out.

Why does it matter how soon you understand how to read the text? Because in television, the viewer must know what to expect or they will quick change the channel. Think about Pushing Daisies, from very early on we know it’s a fairy tale story. The more a show puts off revealing what genre or type of narrative it is, the more a viewer will lose patience. In this way, I’ve designed my re-cut to fit a more traditional television model (despite deviating from it with its subject matter). By the opening credits, the viewer understands that this is going to be a puzzle involving genres and narrative devices that they have never seen before. Hopefully, after these first five minutes, diving into the mind of Phillip Marlowe might seem like an appealing investment.

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