Lev Manovich on Tue, 15 Dec 1998 19:24:02 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Database as a Symbolic Form 3/3

Database Cinema: Greenaway and Vertov

Although database form may be inherent to new media, countless attempts to
create "interactive narratives" testify to our dissatisfaction with the
computer in the sole role of an encyclopedia or a catalog of effects. We
want new media narratives, and we want these narratives to be different
from the narratives we saw or read before. In fact, regardless of how
often we repeat in public that the modernist notion of medium specificity
("every medium should develop its own unique langauge") is obsolete, we do
expect computer narratives to showcase new aesthetic possibilities which
did not exist before digital computers. In short, we want them to be new
media specific.  Given the dominance of database in computer software and
the key role it plays in the computer-based design process, perhaps we can
arrive at new kinds of narrative by focusing our attention on how
narrative and database can work together. How can a narrative take into
account the fact that its elements are organised in a database? How can
our new abilities to store vast amounts of data, to automatically
classify, index, link, search and instantly retrieve it lead to new kinds
of narratives? 
        Peter Greenaway, one of the very few prominent film directors
concerned with expanding cinema's language, complained that "the linear
pursuit - one story at a time told chronologically - is the standard
format of cinema." Pointing out that cinema lags behind modern literature
in experimenting with narrative, he asked: "Could it not travel on the
road where Joyce, Eliot, Borges and Perec have already arrived?"26 While
Greenaway is right to direct filmmakers to more innovative literary
narratives, new media artists working on the database - narrative problem
can learn from cinema "as it is." For cinema already exists right in the
intersection between database and narrative. We can think of all the
material accumulated during shooting forming a database, especially since
the shooting schedule usually does not follow the narrative of the film
but is determined by production logistics. During editing the editor
constructs a film narrative out of this database, creating a unique
trajectory through the conceptual space of all possible films which could
have been constructed. From this perspective, every filmmaker engages with
the database-narrative problem in every film, although only a few have
done this self-consciously. 
        One exception is Greenaway himself. Throughout his career, he has
been working on a problem of how to reconcile database and narrative
forms. Many of his films progress forward by recounting a list of items, a
catalog which does not have any inherent order (for example, different
books in Prospero's Books).  Working to undermine a linear narrative,
Greenaway uses different systems to order his films. He wrote about this
approach: "If a numerical, alphabetic color-coding system is employed, it
is done deliberately as a device, a construct, to counteract, dilute,
augment or compliment the all-pervading obsessive cinema interest in plot,
in narrative, in the 'I'am now going to tell you a story school of
film-making."27 His favorite system is numbers. The sequence of numbers
acts as a narrative shell which "convinces" the viewer that she is
watching a narrative. In reality the scenes which follow one another are
not connected in any logical way.  By using numbers, Greenaway "wraps" a
minimal narrative around a database. Although Greenaway's database logic
was present already in his "avant-garde" films such as The Falls (1980),
it has also structured his "commercial" films from the beginning.
Draughtsman's Contract (1982) is centered around twelve drawings being
made by the draftsman. They do not form any order; Greenaway emphasizes
this by having draftsman to work on a few drawings at once.  Eventually,
Greenaway's desire to take "cinema out of cinema" led to his work on a
series of installations and museum exhibitions in the 1990s. No longer
having to conform to the linear medium of film, the elements of a database
are spatialized within a museum or even the whole city. This move can be
read as the desire to create a database at its most pure form: the set of
elements not ordered in any way. If the elements exist in one dimension
(time of a film, list on a page), they will be inevitably ordered. So the
only way to create a pure database is to spatialise it, distributing the
elements in space. This is exactly the path which Greenaway took. Situated
in three-dimensional space which does not have an inherent narrative
logic, a 1992 installation "100 Objects to Represent the World" in its
very title proposes that the world should be understood through a catalog
rather than a narrative. At the same time, Greenaway does not abandon
narrative; he continues to investigate how database and narrative can work
together. Having presented "100 Objects" as an installation, Greenaway
next turned it into an opera set. In the opera, the narrator Thrope uses
the objects to conduct Adam and Eve through the whole of human
civilization, thus turning a 100 objects into a sequential narrative.28 In
another installation "The Stairs-Munich-Projection" (1995) Greenaway put
up a hundred screens - each for one year in the history of cinema -
throughout Munich. Again, Greenaway presents us with a spatialised
database - but also with a narrative. By walking from one screen to
another, one follows cinema's history. The project uses Greenaway's
favorite principle of organization by numbers, pushing it to the extreme:
the projections on the screens contain no figuration, just numbers. The
screens are numbered from 1895 to 1995, one screen for each year of
cinema's history. Along with numbers, Greenaway introduces another line of
development. Each projection is slightly different in color.29 The hundred
colored squares form an abstract narrative of their own which runs in
parallel to the linear narrative of cinema's history. Finally, Greenaway
superimposes yet a third narrative by dividing the history of cinema into
five sections, each section staged in a different part of the city. The
apparent triviality of the basic narrative of the project - one hundred
numbers, standing for one hundred years of cinema's history -
"neutralizes" the narrative, forcing the viewer to focus on the phenomenon
of the projected light itself, which is the actual subject of this
        Along with Greenaway, Dziga Vertov can be thought of as a major
"database filmmaker" of the twentieth century. His Man with a Movie Camera
is perhaps the most important example of database imagination in modern
media art. In one of the key shots repeated few times in the film we see
an editing room with a number of shelves used to keep and organize the
shot material. The shelves are marked "machines," "club," "the movement of
a city," "physical exercise," "an illusionist," and so on. This is the
database of the recorded material. The editor - Vertov's wife, Elizaveta
Svilova - is shown working with this database: retrieving some reels,
returning used reels, adding new ones. 
        Although I pointed out that film editing in general can be
compared to creating a trajectory through a database, in the case of Man
with a Movie Camera this comparison constitutes the very method of the
film. Its subject is the filmmaker's struggle to reveal (social) structure
among the multitude of observed phenomena. Its project is a brave attempt
at an empirical epistemology which only has one tool - perception. The
goal is to decode the world purely through the surfaces visible to the eye
(of course, its natural sight enhanced by a movie camera). This is how the
film's co-author Mikhail Kaufman describes it: 

An ordinary person finds himself in some sort of environment, gets lost
amidst the zillions of phenomena, and observes these phenomena from a bad
vantage point. He registers one phenomenon very well, registers a second
and a third, but has no idea of where they may lead... But the man with a
movie camera is infused with the particular thought that he is actually
seeing the world for other people. Do you understand? He joins these
phenomena with others, from elsewhere, which may not even have been filmed
by him. Like a kind of scholar he is able to gather empirical observations
in one place and then in another. And that is actually the way in which
the world has come to be understood.30

Therefore, in contrast to standard film editing which consists in
selection and ordering of previously shot material according to a pre-
existent script, here the process of relating shots to each other,
ordering and reordering them in order to discover the hidden order of the
world constitutes the film's method. Man with a Movie Camera traverses its
database in a particular order to construct an argument. Records drawn
from a database and arranged in a particular order become a picture of
modern life - but simultaneously an argument about this life, an
interpretation of what these images, which we encounter every day, every
second, actually mean.31
        Was this brave attempt successful? The overall structure of the
film is quite complex, and on the first glance has little to do with a
database. Just as new media objects contain a hierarchy of levels
(interface - content; operating system - application; web page - HTML
code; high-level programming language - assembly language - machine
language), Vertov's film consists of at least three levels. One level is
the story of a cameraman filming material for the film. The second level
is the shots of an audience watching the finished film in a movie theater.
The third level is this film, which consists from footage recorded in
Moscow, Kiev and Riga and is arranged according to a progression of one
day:  waking up - work - leisure activities. If this third level is a
text, the other two can be thought of as its meta- texts.32 Vertov goes
back and forth between the three levels, shifting between the text and its
meta-texts: between the production of the film, its reception, and the
film itself.  But if we focus on the film within the film (i.e., the level
of the text) and disregard the special effects used to create many of the
shots, we discover almost a linear printout, so to speak, of a database: a
number of shots showing machines, followed by a number of shots showing
work activities, followed by different shots of leisure, and so on. The
paradigm is projected onto syntagm. The result is a banal, mechanical
catalog of subjects which one can expect to find in the city of the 1920s:
running trams, city beach, movie theaters, factories... 
        Of course watching Man with a Movie Camera is anything but a banal
experience. Even after the 1990s during which computer-based image and
video-makers systematically exploited every avant-garde device, the
original still looks striking. What makes its striking is not its subjects
and the associations Vertov tries to establish between them to impose "the
communist decoding of the world" but the most amazing catalog of the film
techniques contained within it. Fades and superimpositions, freeze-frames,
acceleration, split screens, various types of rhythm and intercutting -
what film scholar Annette Michelson called "a summation of the resources
and techniques of the silent cinema"33 - and of course, a multitude of
unusual, "constructivist" points of view are stringed together with such
density that the film can't be simply labeled avant-garde. If a "normal"
avant- garde film still proposes a coherent language different from the
language of mainstream cinema, i.e. a small set of techniques which are
repeated, Man with a Movie Camera never arrives at anything like a
well-defined language. Rather, it proposes an untamed, and apparently
endless unwinding of cinematic techniques, or, to use contemporary
language, "effects," as cinema's new way of speaking. 
        Why in the case of Witney's computer films and music videos are
the effects just effects, while in the hands of Vertov they acquire
meaning? Because in Vertov's film they are motivated by a particular
argument, this being that the new techniques to obtain images and
manipulate them, summed up by Vertov in his term "kino-eye," can be used
to decode the world. As the film progresses, "straight" footage gives way
to manipulated footage; newer techniques appear one after one, reaching a
roller coaster intensity by the film's end, a true orgy of cinematography.
It is as though Vertov re-stages his discovery of the kino-eye for us.
Along with Vertov, we gradually realize the full range of possibilities
offered by the camera. Vertov's goal is to seduce us into his way of
seeing and thinking, to make us share his excitement, his gradual process
of discovery of film's new language. This process of discovery is film's
main narrative and it is told through a catalog of discoveries being made.
Thus, in the hands of Vertov, a database, this normally static and
"objective" form, becomes dynamic and subjective. More importantly, Vertov
is able to achieve something which new media designers still have to learn
- how to merge database and narrative merge into a new form. 


The first half of this article appeared, in a slightly diffirent form, in
RHIZOME (www.rhizome.org)

1. "database" Britannica Online.  <http://www.eb.com:180/cgi-
bin/g?DocF=micro/160/23.html> [Accessed 27 November 1998]. 2.
Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge,
trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1984), 3. 3. As early as 1985 Grolier, Inc. issued
text-only "Academic American Encyclopedia" on CD-ROM. First multimedia
encyclopedia was "Compton's MultiMedia Encyclopedia" published in 1989. 4.
Http://www.teleportacia.org/anna 5. George Legrady, personal
communication, September 16, 1998. 6. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson
define motivation in cinema in the following way: "Because films are human
constructs, we can expect that any one element in a film will have some
justification for being there. This justification is the motivation for
that element." Here are some examples of motivation: "When Tom jumps from
the balloon to chase a cat, we motivate his action by appealing to notions
of how dogs are likely to act when cats are around." "The movement of a
character across a room may motivate the moving of the camera to follow
the action and keep the character within a frame." David Bordwell and
Kristin Thompson, Film Art: an Introduction. 5th Edition (New York: The
McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1997), 80. 7. Chris McGowan and Jim
McCullaugh, Entertainment in the Cyber Zone (New York: Random House,
1995), 71. 8. This is true for a procedural programming paradigm. In a
object-oriented programming paradigm, represented by such computer
langauges as Java and C++, algorithms and data structures are modeled
together as objects. 9. Mediamatic 8, no. 1 (Summer 1994), 1860. 10.
http://www.oracle.com/database/oracle8i/, accessed Nov. 28, 1998; 11.
http://artnetweb.com/guggenheim/mediascape/shaw.html 12. Harwood.
Rehearsal of Memory, CD-ROM (London: Artec and Bookworks, 1996.) 13.
http://www.telepresence.com/MENAGERIE, accessed October 22, 1998. 14.
http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/wax/, accessed September 12, 1998.
15. http://www.cs.msu.su/wwwart/, accessed October 22, 1998. 16. Mieke
Bal, Naratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative (Toronto:
University of Toronto Press, 1985), 8. 17. The theory of marketdness was
first developed by linguists of the Prague School in relation to phonology
but subsequently applied to all levels of linguistic analysis. For
example, "bitch" is the marked term and "dog" is unmarked term. Whereas
the "bitch" is used only in relation to females, "dog" is applicable to
both males and females. 18. Fredric Jameson, "Postmodernism and Consumer
Society," in The Anti- Aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal
Foster (Seattle: Bay Press, 1983), 123. 19. Roland Barthes, The Elements
of Semiology (New York: Hill and Wang, 1968), 58. 20. Qtd. in ibid., 58.
21. Christian Metz, "The Fiction Film and its Spectator: A
Metapsychological Study," in Apparatus, edited by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
(New York: Tanam Press, 1980), p. 402. 22. Rosalind Krauss, "Video: The
Aesthetics of Narcissism," in John Hanhardt, ed., Video Culture
(Rochester: Visual Studies Workshop, 1987), 184. 23. Qtd. in Sam Hunter
and John Jacobus, Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, 3rd
ed. (New York: Abrams, 1992), 326. 24. Frank Dietrich, "Visual
Intelligence: The First Decade of Computer Art (1965 -- 1975)," IEEE
Computer Graphics and Applications (July 1985), 39. 25. Gene Youngblood,
Expanded Cinema (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co,Inc., 1970), 210. 26. Peter
Greenaway, The Stairs--Munich--Projection 2 (London: Merrell Holberton
Publishers, 1995), 21. 27. Qtd. in David Pascoe, Peter Greenaway: Museums
and Moving Images (London: Reaktion Books, 1997), 9-10. 28.
Http://www.tem-nanterre.com/greenaway-100objects/, accesed November 3,
1998. 29. Greenaway, The Stairs--Munich--Projection 2, 47-53. 30. Mikhail
Kaufman, "An Interview," October 11 (Winter 1979): 65. 31. It can be used
that Vertov uses "the Kuleshov's effect" to give the meaning to the
database records by placing them in a particular order. 32. Linguistics,
semiotics and philosophy uses the concept of metalanguage. Metalanguage is
the language used for the analysis of object language. Thus, a
metalanguage may be thought of as a language about another language. A
metatext is a text in metalanguage about a text in object language. For
instance, an article in a fashion magazine is a metatext about the text of
cloves. Or, HTML file is a metatext which desribes the text of a Web page.
33. Ibid., 55. 

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