Exploring the Virtual World

Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to fall into a gorge? To soar across the sky, chop down a tree, or sit in the front of the classroom?  A visit to Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) might allow you to try any of the above and more besides – by way of a simulated experience.  Last week we visited this experimental work space designed by cognitive psychologist Jeremy Bailenson and run by his team in the Communications Department.  We were able to try out a couple of the demos including an adventure in logging that involved the use of a kinetic device as a saw.  But the most affecting of the experiments was by far the oldest known to psychologists working in the field – the pit demonstration.

The facilities in Bailenson’s lab are custom designed, state of the art and brand new.  In a special room equipped with a multitude of concealed sub – woofers and speakers, we were directed to a plank of wood on the floor.  Donning a $40,000 stereoscopic head-mounted display – reminiscent of the Matrix’s cyber punk mise-en-scène, complete with a power cord extending from the ceiling – we endeavored to “walk the plank”.  At first we saw an animated representation of the same room, rendered in 3D.  We had read about virtual pit experiments and were eager to participate, yet nothing had quite prepared us for the sudden appearance of a chasm beneath the plank.  We shuddered as the floor dropped out from under us and, despite lab manager Cody Karutz’s reassurances, we couldn’t help trembling as we scurried over the board/virtual bridge.  A further challenge involved jumping into the pit (a brick cellar of sorts with a visible floor and walls); the tumble, simulated via images, sound and vibrations, induced an involuntary shriek.  And not only …. we grasped for the spotters, clutching their forearms as if they might prevent the inevitable horror.  Or so it seemed.

The strengths of the experiment lie in its ability to cultivate an atmosphere and an interactive environment – one that can be seen, heard, felt and engaged with.  The combination of sensory perception with action in choice (intellectual) and movement (physical) is essential to the totality of the effect.  Though most of our experience was merely imagined, we were reeling for some time afterward.  Further, statistics show that only 1/3 of adults venture to cross the void and even fewer jump –  naturally one begins to question how we define reality.

Prof. Bailenson’s new book Infinite Reality (William Morrow, 2011), co-authored with Jim Blascovich of the University of Santa Barbara, examines the growing presence of the virtual within our world.  From chat rooms and chat bots to social networks, video games, kinetic devices, 3D LCD displays, avatars and second life, our culture is both colliding and coalescing with an immeasurable computer generated universe.  The authors of Infinite Reality are primarily concerned with the practical possibilities of this alternate realm – immersing the U.S. military in foreign custom, instilling an environmental conscience in school-age children, creating optimum learning conditions in college classrooms, work-shopping racial and sexual prejudices – to name a few of the dozens of examples they provide.  Perhaps above all however, their research shows the ways in which we might use the virtual cosmos to study ourselves as biological and social animals.

The implications for film and media studies are vast and exciting. Concepts like Francesco Casetti’s “cinematic reflexivity” have suddenly exploded under the pressure of a multiplicity of digital realities and the “viewing” experience is evolving and expanding in ways that are as fascinating as they are frightening.  Moreover, if our existence is becoming a mixed medium – something like a movie that integrates animated sequences – how does this change our social, political and moral systems? And then, what is the role of artistic representation in this place?

Anatomy of a Sequence

In this interesting feature from the NYT, filmmakers discuss technique in the context of a particular scene.  Darren Aronofsky plays with mirrors, Kathryn Bigelow shoots explosive close-ups and Lars von Trier moves seamlessly from his dogma-era hand-held camera to brain surgery using computer animation.  Catch insider details on the making of ‘Black Swan’, ‘The Hurt Locker’, ‘Antichrist’, ‘The Fighter’, ‘127 hours’ and 30 others.


Modernist Multi-Media “Papers” at NYU

This week my Modernist Italian Cinema & Culture class posted their analysis projects on film and media in Italy in the 1950s and 60s.  This original work – by current New York University students – is the result of careful research and scene selection and each paper includes a series of clips and images.  Ranging from investigations of the family, the feminine condition and cold war- era alienation to close analyses of Ermanno Olmi’s style, the sources of Federico Fellini’s creativity, Michelangelo Antonioni’s actors and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s cinematic censure – these projects capture the essence of Italian film in the decade of the “economic miracle”.  Highlights to come.

Ermanno Olmi: Banal to Beautiful

One consistent quality present in several of Ermanno Olmi’s films is the sublimation of the banal by using modernist and neorealist aesthetics in order to create an engaged cinema (Marcus, 212).  Sublimation here is intended as the process of elevating of the banal from ordinary status to beauty (Cohn & Miles, 289).  The reason that such an assumption is justified can be gleaned from Boileau’s writing on the sublime, which, “…would carry into English two significant aspects of the word sublime itself: the sense that the sublime need not and indeed should not reside in a deliberately grand style, and the implication that the measure of the sublime would lie in the effect it had on an audience”(Cohn & Miles, 297).   As an auteur, Olmi’s style is not “grand”, and precisely for his subtlety, as will be seen, he is able to achieve what he most strives for, which is to have his film(s), “…demand that the spectator take responsibility for it”(Marcus, 211).

His first feature film was Il Posto, released in 1961.  In brief, the film follows the transitioning moment in young Domenico’s life in which he enters the workplace.  The clip selected belongs to a longer sequence that tracks his travel route from home to work, which should be quickly noted, as it informs the clip selected.  The larger sequence begins with Domenico leaving for the train station from his rural setting and heading for work.  In earlier scenes, his home is established as being on the periphery of the city in a former agricultural setting, where the parked cars in the background occupy spaces that were once stables.  Even his home, as Olmi states in an interview, was a farmhouse before the war (Olmi, Interview). In contrast, there is Domenico’s workplace in Milan, which is always represented through architecturally defined compositions that accentuate the rigidity of the spaces the workers inhabit.  One such example is a still from the film in which Domenico walks down a long hallway.

il posto still

The blank walls, as well as the repetition of ceiling lamps and entrances create a sensation of eternal monotony.  Paired with the space itself is the fact that within the film, Olmi allows the shot of Domenico’s walk to last in real time.  The combination of the two sends a powerful message as to what the office space signifies.

The clip relates to the contrast between Domenico’s home and his workplace insofar as it demonstrates the effect the alienated workplace has had on its workers in comparison to those, such as Domenico, who have yet to be initiated into the hegemony of the working world.

The train ride is an ordinary event for everyone taking it except Domenico, whose gaze endows the scene with its sublime quality. At first, when Domenico is looking out the window, the viewer is denied the image of what he sees.  Instead, Domenico looks back into his train car, with the camera cutting to show other passengers that are ignorant of what he sees.  In only two cuts, Olmi establishes Domenico as the privileged gaze, which is why only he takes note of what lies beyond the train.  Furthermore, only Domenico is softly lit, visually connecting him to the hazy softness of the sun that he watches.  The beauty is so persistent that even with the dark disturbances of the buildings or bridges outside of the train, it continues to reappear and shine.

Though a seemingly insignificant moment, the film’s power lies precisely in the stringing together of several small vignettes of life that once united, create an emotionally charged message.  The emotive quality of this scene, as well as many others throughout the film, harkens back to neorealism, in that, “…consiste unicamente in un clima morale ed emotivo che ha permesso di riconquistare une dimensione umana concreta che fino a quel momento il cinema aveva dimenticato….”(Tabanelli, 70).  Not surprising is this clip’s use of neorealist aesthetic practices that render the moment emotive.

The sequence is shot and edited in a neorealist manner, meaning that within twenty-five seconds of film, there are a total of three cuts with a long take focusing especially on the sun.  Another small detail is that the filmmaker chose to leave in the interruptions of the landscape, which creates a yearning for the sun to return and substitute the drab environment from town to city.   By using very minimal but precise editing and camera choices, Olmi allows the viewer to experience the beauty of something as ordinary as the sun, thus taking something rather banal and rendering it beautiful so that the viewers become aware of what Domenico, (as well as we ourselves), stand to lose in conforming to the homogenous factory work culture.

The second and third clips come from Olmi’s film, I Fidanzati.  This film, made in 1963, is less neorealist than Il Posto, but as we shall see with the second clip, neorealist aesthetics are still very much a part of the film, even if the first clip is closer to modernist aesthetics.  Ultimately, both achieve what Kovacs describes about Antonioni’s L’Avventura, which is that, “Instead of contiguity, there is a strong contrast between the characters’ desolate psychic state and the diversity and beauty of the world around them”(Kovacs, 150).

Within the loose narrative of the film, this clip takes place on Giovanni’s first day at work during his stay in Sicily. Again, Olmi takes something banal, the construction site, and converts it into a place of industrial beauty.  The effect of beauty lies in the shot compositions and angles, as well as the diverse point of view shots from different camera positions.  Though the monumental low angles remind one of the soldier and little boy sitting on rubble in Rosselini’s Paisa’, the overall impression of the clip is that it resides in a modernist aesthetic approach.  The sequence, unlike any other in the film that takes place in present time, is very dynamic which is greatly due to the pacing of the editing.

Besides the faster paced editing in comparison to the rest of the film, Olmi’s use of tracking shots, pans up and down and side to side, movement captured within still frames, as well as the extremes of low and high angles create an entire world in its own respect, and returning back to Kovacs, this beauty contrasts Giovanni’s psychic state, which is not fully in sync with the industrial environment.  The way this is conveyed is through subtle shifts in camera point of view.  At first, the viewer sees Giovanni looking around.  The camera then cuts to what he sees, but continues cutting to other shots that are physically impossible to be from his point of view.  Therefore, as an omniscient camera that presents this site, and not Giovanni’s perspective, the viewer understands that Giovanni isn’t invested in the gaze.  He only reappears at the end, when the viewer sees his face becoming aware of the sound of the ambulance siren.

One of the key points in Bazin’s essay, “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage”, arises from his discussion of montage in relation to spatial unity.  He says, “It is simply a question of respect for the spatial unity of an event at the moment when to split it up would change it from something real into something imaginary”(Bazin, 50).  Olmi uses that principle as a means of creating not only the agricultural environment, but the pace of life on this particular salt farm.

The sequence begins with a long shot of Giovanni wandering into the salt fields, surveying the farmers.  The camera shifts from his perspective and begins tracking him.  There is a long take of Giovanni and the salt farmer walking along a narrow path.  Then, the sequence cuts to two more shots from different camera positions of them walking along the same path.  Olmi’s choice to spend so much time on documenting Giovanni walking is reminiscent of Bazin’s statement because the minimal editing and shot length is what creates the temporal and spatial reality of the salt farmers, whose work differs a lot in space and pace in comparison to the frenetic lifestyle of working on a construction site.

The construction site sequence is made beautiful by the selection of objects presented and the fact that not once is the site shown in its entirety.  Instead, it is presented through a plethora of close-ups of certain machinery, and building parts set in motion and shown from varying high and low angles.  The salt farm sequence, on the other hand, is equally beautiful, but for the opposite reasons.  Though there are a few close ups of the windmill being set up and running, the dominant shot scale is the long shot, which creates the painting-like frames. Despite the aesthetic differences between the clips that establish diverse environments at odds with each other, both are equally visually beautiful, informing the viewer that both bear the same value of importance.

Nowhere better does this come through than at the end of the salt farm sequence. The exchange between Giovanni and the salt farmer is one-sided, because when Giovanni says, “buongiorno”, the salt farmer doesn’t reciprocate the greeting.  This connects the two clips because though Giovanni belongs to the industrial sector, it is important to note that while working on the site, he never speaks nor is spoken to.  Therefore, he is not a fully integrated member of that world, nor can he be part of the agricultural world, which comes through in the fact that he is snubbed by the salt farmer. The discourse that then emerges is how to create dialogue, literally and figuratively, between the two sectors, without having one suffer more than the other.  This desire for balance and equality is precisely the reason Olmi created dazzling, as well as truthful representations of these two separate environments.   

The last clip is from his 1967 film, La Cotta.  This clip was chosen to demonstrate the inverse of what has been discussed up to this point.  Perhaps demonstrating the negative will help reaffirm the positive.  Therefore, with this last clip, we will see how Olmi applies the inverse process to beauty, in which within a context of the beautiful, a disturbing moment occurs, which makes the spectator take responsibility of what he/she has just witnessed.

La Cotta differs from Il Posto and I Fidanzati in that it’s not a drama, but a light romantic comedy.  That’s not to devalue the film, as it also has its profound message, but the exaggerated “seriousness” of Andrea’s woes differs greatly from Domenico and Giovanni, who are both inward protagonists of little words. The beauty then of this film is its lightness and sweetness that consistently rings a heart-warming note.  However, there is one instance, perhaps the only disturbing moment in the film, when Andrea leaves a bar on New Year’s Eve and witnesses a man hitting a woman.

Aesthetically, the abusive moment is only broken up once with a cut away to Andrea and another bystander’s reaction.  Otherwise, it is captured in a very documentarian fashion. Furthermore, the action is captured in real time without camera frame manipulation, again, belonging very much to the documentary aesthetic closely linked with neorealism.  On the modernist flip side, the depiction of the man hitting his wife is narratively irrelevant to Andrea’s goal of getting to Jeanine.  Though the brief moment is a documentation of life as it unravels before Andrea’s eyes, it is also a spectacle, a distraction from the plot, adding to the elliptical feel of the narrative.

Thematically speaking, this brief sequence belongs to neorealism and  modernism as well.  It can be seen as pertaining to the neorealist practice of focusing more on community, versus the modernist preference for the individual.  But with the combination of the aesthetic and thematic choices from both movements, Olmi manipulates his seemingly random plot disruption into a disturbing moment that, in contrast to the gaiety and festivities, sticks out in our minds, engaging us in taking responsibility of not only for the beauty in life, but the ugliness as well.

In the essay, “Olmi’s Il Posto: Discrediting the economic miracle”, Millicent Marcus poses the question, “…if neorealism first arose in response to a concrete set of historical circumstances, how could the ten years of political and economic changes which separate Umberto D from Il Posto not bring with it the need for aesthetic changes of a corresponding order?(Marcus, 213)”. Though a rhetorical question, it is one that should be thought about.  With Olmi, the changes that did separate him from his neorealist predecessors played a significant role in his filmmaking, because he was not simply a continuer of neorealism.  As we have seen, he also integrated late modernist aesthetic practices into his films, creating products that were artistically updated, but that inherited the neorealist drive for responsible cinema.  He took universally banal subjects and topics, but transformed their ordinariness into beauty, or vice versa, in order to spread messages that were accessible to the majority in content and in thought.

Works Cited:

Bazin, Andre’.  “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage”, What is Cinema? (Berkeley, 1967, University of California Press) 41-52 .

Cohn, Jan and Miles, Thomas H.  “The Sublime:  In Alchemy, Aesthetics and Psychoanalysis”, Modern Philology, Vol 74, No. 3 (Feb. 1977) 289-304. Print.

Kovacs, Andras Balint. “Chapter 7: Styles Modernism”, Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950-1980.  (Chicago, 2007, University of Chicago Press) 150.

Marcus, Millicent. “Olmi’s Il posto: Discrediting the Economic Miracle”, Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism (Princeton, 1986, Princeton University Press) 211-227.

Olmi, Ermanno. Interview. Il Posto. Dir. Ermanno Olmi.  DVD, Criterion Collection, 1961.

Tabanelli, Giorgio. Ermanno Olmi: Nascita del documentario poetico. (Roma, 1987, Bulzoni Editore Roma).

Films Cited:

I Fidanzati, Ermanno Olmi (1963)

Il Posto, Ermanno Olmi (1961)

La Cotta, Ermanno Olmi (1967)

Paisa’, Roberto Rosselini (1946)

Umberto D, Vittorio De Sica (1952)

Glee Knows How to “Vogue” Madonna Style!

Remakes are either hit or miss. No one likes to see something classic destroyed before their very eyes- it just puts a bad taste in your mouth. However, a recent remake of Madonna’s iconic 1990 music video, Vogue, produced by David Fincher, appeared on Fox’s new show Glee. Although I rarely, if ever, watch this show as it airs on TV, it has become one of my favorite shows to watch on Hulu on my computer. Yes, I admit, I am a “Gleek.”
The Glee video features one of the show’s stars, Sue Sylvester (played by Jane Lynch), in a shot-by-shot remake that bears an uncanny resemblance to Madonna’s original. The costumes, set, and dance moves are expertly recreated to match, although Lynch at times looks a bit over-rehearsed. But, really, who can compete with Madge? The backup dancers in Glee’s version also include two of the show’s stars, Kurt and Mercedes (played by Chris Colfer and Amber Riley), who, like the original, give the video a sense of diversity and message that anyone can “vogue.”
While the remake does an excellent job keeping the essential elements the same as the original, parts of the Glee video pay homage to elements of the show. For one, the vocals are all Lynch’s, and she does a great job considering who she is up against. In addition, there are a few subtle line changes that add to its originality such as Lynch’s line that mentions her character, Sue, “Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Sue Sylvester dance on air.”
The video was fun to watch and, overall, was a great combination of an accurate remake and added bonuses that made the performance a Glee original. With all the layers of performance that this video portrays, it is hard to decipher if Jane Lynch is playing Madonna or playing Sue playing Madonna. Either way, she rocked it.

Vampire Weekend Video Review: Giving Up The Gun

Vampire Weekend has recently released a music video for Giving Up The Gun, the newest single off their second album. The video is filled with an all-star celebrity cast, including Joe Jonas, Jake Gyllenhaal, rapper Lil Jon, and RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan. It’s centered on a series of ironic tennis matches. The heroine of the video, Jenny, a friend of Vampire Weekend, plays everyone from Jonas, a samurai, a set of twins, and an alter-ego version of herself. Jenny is also matched against the comedic Gyllenhaal, a flask-drinking tennis player who rips off his pants before playing.

The visuals of this clip are both strong and perfectly choreographed with the light melodies of the song. The video effects are interesting too, like when the tennis ball turns into ball of fire or the official is able to teleport himself to the opposite side of the court and determine if the ball was ‘in’. The mise-en-scene of the video also compliments the light music, from the white clean background, to the patriotic-colored wardrobe of the performers. Vampire Weekend’s vocalist Ezra Koenig was quoted saying, “The heroine of the video isn’t an amazing tennis player, but she has heart. She stays calm despite the unfairness of it all.” The same can be said about this video. It may not be the most technically advanced, but there is a charm and originality present that only further enhances the enjoyment that comes from listening to the music.

Blowjob (1964)

Last week I had the privilege of watching Andy Warhol’s Blowjob at the alternative cinema screening. The film consists on one 36 minute long monochrome close up shot of a man sitting against a brick wall. Throughout the film the gestures and facial expressions of the man suggest that there is someone below the frame performing a certain act. This underground film is fascinating because its prolonged minimalism forces you to observe and study the minute details of the man. The minimalism also tends to have a teasing quality in the film. During the entire film the audience has to wonder what is actually going on. Is the camera going to move at all? Is there actually someone below the frame carrying out this act? Is that person a woman or a man? What is this film about? During the 60s when this was made, not only was a “blowjob” a taboo subject, but the possibility of it being a homosexual act done onscreen would have been outrageous. Because this film is so minimalist, it offers a wide variety of interpretations. Whatever they may be, sexuality and gender are certainly to linger in the audience’s mind after viewing this film. By self censoring such a taboo subject onscreen, Warhol triggers thoughts into the minds of the audience to about the socially constructed discourse of sex and sexuality at that time.

The Great Debaters

Movie Review: The Great Debaters (2007)

After seeing “The Great Debaters” twice before, I sat down to watch the film once again for my Western Traditions class, and saw it in a completely new light. Directed by and starring Academy Award winner Denzel Washington, and former new comers to the business, Nate Parker, Journee Smolett, and Denzel Whitaker, the film (based on a true story) sheds light on the black college debating scene in 1930’s Texas. Denzel Washington plays Melvin Tolson, the harsh, but considerate debating coach at Wiley College by day, and southern farmer’s union organizer and advocate by night. The astounding Miss Samantha Booke is played by Journee Smolett. The first and only female member of the debate team, she captures audiences with her passionate and heart-felt delivery of arguments and becomes the love interest of Henry Lowe. Lowe, played by Nate Parker, is the stubborn and outspoken leader of the group. After he is basically forced to try out for the team, we quickly see his true talent as becomes the strongest member, able to think quickly on his feet and show the inexperienced, younger ones the ropes. Denzel Whitaker, plays the young (he is only 14) James Farmer Jr., son of respected, minister James Farmer Sr., played by another Academy Award Winner Forest Whitaker. James is disciplined and eager to learn and perform. Although he starts out as the researcher for the team, by the end of the film, he is the one who helps to lead his team to victory.

The team starts out debating other black colleges, easily defeating them, but they soon rise to debate some of the best in the country, catching the attention of larger all-white schools who challenge them to debates that they just as effortlessly win. They face real challenges when they witness the lynching and burning of a black person at the hands of a white hate-mob, but they channel the fear and anger they experience from this ordeal when facing their biggest challengers of all at Harvard College.

The film recognizes the plight of the black college student trying to be successful during Jim Crow segregation. Although it does all this while making debate team training look like army boot camp, muddle some of the actual events that took place for this particular team, for a Hollywood movie, the filmmakers do a very good job. The film is a mild tear-jerker, and very inspiring (as most films produced by Oprah are). I left both the classroom and movie theater feeling like I should be doing more with my life when people like the main characters suffered so much so that I might have the opportunities I do. In other words, great film!

Terminator 2 review

                James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day is one of the rare cases of a sequel that surpasses the original in almost every aspect. The original Terminator had been revolutionary in defining the science fiction action movies of the 1980’s. The second film, which was released seven years after the first, builds upon the initial foundation that Cameron created in the first film. One of the biggest strengths of Judgment Day is how well Cameron simply picks up where the first one left off.  The Terminator ends with Arnold Swarzenagger having his robotic arm lodged off and Sarah Connor barely surviving with the knowledge that machines will someday take over the world, and that her unborn son, John will lead the human resistance. At the beginning of the second film, Sarah Connor has been put in a mental institution for trying to alert the authorities about the coming of the machines.  John Connor is now a thirteen year old boy who lives with two foster parents.  The missing arm of the first terminator has been found by a technology company known as Skynet, and they are currently manufacturing the technology that will eventually destroy them. Once again, the machines have sent a back a terminator to kill John Connor before he becomes the leader of the humans. However, unlike the last film, the John Connor from the future has also sent back a terminator (Arnold Swarzenagger) to protect him from the other one.

                Cameron strings together a plethora of action scenes while mixing it together many themes of machines, man, and inherent violence at the same time. The relationship between the terminator and John Connor really shows the good and bad sides of the advancement of technology, as well as the positive and negative aspects of human nature itself. One of the best shots of the movie is a following pan of a dark highway for at least half a minute, with a narrator saying our fate is what you make. This shot along with so many others gives such a great balance to the film, half being a summer blockbuster, and the other being a beautifully shot critique about the advancement of technology. This is the type of viewers have come to expect when going to see a movie directed by Cameron, his reputation being almost untarnished with other films such as Avatar, Aliens, Titanic, and The Abyss.