Cyber-realism in Filmmaking

In which I gush over James Harkin’s essay; discuss the answer to ‘Mullholland Drive’; and riff on the idea that digital media is changing the way we think and tell stories.

James Harkin’s essay in The Observer Film Quarterly, adapted from his new book Cyburbia, highlights non-linear storytelling in film-making, and asks what these techniques say about the state of our culture.  When Kubrick made The Killing in this fashion, the film was considered to confusing for the audience, and the project was shelved.  A generation later, such films were making millions, with Pulp Fiction probably taking credit as the ‘breakthrough’ film.  Pictures like Crash, Syriana and Amores Perros weave disparate narratives and characters together, by way of a key event (usually dislocating and disturbing).  Others, such as Memento, withhold key events until the end of the film to keep us guessing.

Harkin is right to say that non-linear techniques have become mainstream.  I would go further, and suggest that they are in danger of becoming cliché.  Any film in need of an extra layer of depth can play about with the timeline in the sure knowledge that a fairly standard plot turn can be transformed into a ‘twist’ if you delay its arrival.  Even the one-trick pony that is He’s Just Not That In To You makes claims at complexity, by opting for an interlinked ‘ensemble cast’ of characters who are all one coincidence away from each other.

Its clear that our interpretation of film has been profoundly influenced by the slew of modern, non-linear story-telling.  Visual cues and clues that were not in common use a few years ago, are commonplace now.  Our visual language, the grammar of film and TV, has evolved, and in a short space of time, too.  This was illustrated to me last week, via a second viewing of David Lynch’s Mullholland Drive.  I had first seen the film soon after its arrival on DVD, and I remember how confused I found its structure, and lack of revelatory moments.  However, watching it again recently, the same scenes are not nearly so confusing.  After four years of Lost on our screens every week, the transition between the first and second ‘worlds’ that Naomi Watts’ character inhabits is easy to spot.  One might argue that I think this only because I’ve seen it twice, and that someone who saw the film for the first time would be  confused, but I don’t think so.  The clues in shot and edit which reveal the riddle are easy to pick up on.  There is no big revelatory moment, where we are told which of the two worlds is ‘real’ (for Watts’ character) and which is imaginary… but that doesn’t matter.  It is enough to discover that the two worlds are a Through the Looking Glass mirror image of one-another.  It is merely this interplay between the first and second acts that is the solution to the riddle.  Once we’ve worked out what is happening, it doesn’t actually matter that the characters themselves never get that far.  (By contrast, The Matrix is told in a completely linear way, despite the fact that the characters have to fundamentally rethink their entire world).

Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)

My point here is not to provide spoilers, or even make a boast that I’ve finally managed to work out what Mullholland Drive is about.  Its not even to show how the very essence of the film is contained within its structure.  Its simply that, to my eye, a film that does this now looks normal and mainstream, in a way that it did not when it was released eight years ago: In 2001, when the internet and digital culture was still vainly struggling to conform to the linear, walled structures that other media had forced upon it.

I think that this is just one example of what James Harkin has put his finger on: that our new digital tools are altering the way we think.  We are now comfortable making hyperlinks between our own thoughts and others.  As well as thinking bigger and smaller, its normal to think meta as well…

Harkin’s essay is a personal joy, because we used to talk about this stuff all the time at Fifty Nine, and I’ve seen every single one of the films he references, for precisely the reasons he cites them in the first place.  I would love to think that Sweet Fanny Adams in Hyperspace Eden, our sprawling internet film by Judith Adams, could be added to that canon of films.  While in Mullholland Drive, you can only sit back and watch as the visual refrains (blue keys, cowboys, name badges for waitresses) flow by, in Sweet Fanny Adams… we built actual hyperlinks between them.  Four years ago there was no YouTube.  Bandwidths were small, delivering video online was a niche activity, and embedding hyperlinks into those movies was a right royal pain in the arse.  Now its easy, as the Interactive Jacuzzi Girl demonstrates.

2 thoughts on “Cyber-realism in Filmmaking”

  1. I agree that what could be called non-linear storytelling (rather than narrative) has become a cliché in mainstream cinema; even films like Amores Perros don’t challenge the viewer’s sense of the linearity (and morality) of cause and effect, as you need to obey those conventions to assemble the story. I’m intrigued by the idea of a hyperlinked film, not least because of Lev Manovich’s argument that in digital culture narrative is increasingly becoming modelled on the database, but also because of the question as to whether it can truly create an active and autonomous viewer (as opposed to link-directed and -defined) in the way that Mulholland Drive does — can hyperlinked narratives create the kind of imaginative ‘outside’ to linearity that, say, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves achieves through its linguistic layering?

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