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The Net Reboots Cinema

How long until films are wired straight into our minds?

By Dorothy Woodend 18 Jan 2008 |

Dorothy Woodend reviews films regularly for The Tyee.

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Melonie Diaz, Jack Black and Mos Def in 'Be Kind Rewind.'

In the January issue of Harper's Magazine there is a particularly interesting statistic in Harper's Index which reads: "Percentage of Americans who say they are willing to have an Internet-access device implanted in their brains: 10."

If the current U.S. population is 303,246,847 (with a new person added every eight seconds) what's 10 percent of that figure? I'll wait while you do the math, but basically it's a lot of people who need the Internet like they need air or water.

Naturally enough, this week Apple announced that you can now rent movies online directly from iTunes. It's been predicted for a long time and now it's here. Interesting? Yes. A little creepy? Even more so. One day you'll probably be able to download films directly into your brain, via the Internet-access device in your head. Which means, more than ever, the Internet has got you wound in its serpentine coils and has slid into your very synapses. We are all online now. Even the term is sort of funny when you think about it, like a hooked trout or an English queue, the very word conveys a sense of being tethered, and increasingly that's how it feels.

Just because you can now rent films online doesn't seal the end of theatres or video stores or film festivals, but likely it means increased marginality for such entities.

'Be Kind Rewind'

This week I watched Michael Gondry's new film Be Kind Rewind, which doesn't actually come out in theatres until February, but you can have a quick peek here. The film's central premise is that within that very marginality, between the decline of one format and the rise of another, creativity can flower. In Be Kind it's a battle between videotapes (remember those) and DVDs, but the same notion can be applied equally well to the current situation between HDNet and theatrical distribution.

There is an interesting section in the film in which a team of lawyers descends upon the poor embattled video store workers, played by Jack Black and Mos Def, who have been making homemade video versions of Hollywood movies. Said lawyers have a writ from every major studio, stating that for the infringement of copyright, the studios want billions of dollars in fines and many thousands of years in prison for the pirates.

In these days of copies upon copies, all of which seem to end up on YouTube, this may seem more than a little farfetched. But the notion of one technology outstripping another is only part of the story. The other part is the notion that people want to tell their own stories. Increasingly the Internet is where these stories end up. Even more interesting, however, is when established filmmakers come calling, looking to make something bigger from these personal narratives.

De Palma's 'Redacted'

In the most recent issue of Cinema Scope magazine, some of which you can read online but most of which is still printed on something called paper, there's an interview with Brian De Palma about his most recent film Redacted. Despite causing something of a stir at various festivals and screenings, Redacted made a grand total of $25,628 in the first week of its North American theatrical release, or, as is dryly noted in the preface to the interview, "fewer Americans came out in support of Redacted than have died to date in Iraq."

The director himself sees things quite differently, "I was looking for information, that led me to the Internet, and there I found all these unique visual forms: information from the soldiers, from the soldiers wives, from the insurgents -- it was all there. I wanted assemble these things -- blogs, web sites, amateur videos, documentaries -- in a way that people hadn't seen before. It's all like creating a new grammar to tell a story."

Given the fact that the film hasn't exactly flourished at the box office, there is talk of releasing it online. Whether or not the director's cut of Redacted will be available on the Net or in some version of pay-per-view HDNet, De Palma makes an interesting point about the ways in which the Internet has changed the way that we understand story, stating that the new media is often about jumping around, assembling fragments, unconnected bits and pieces of things into some larger creation.

Hello, YouTube generation

Movies and the Internet. It's an increasingly curious relationship, as indicated by the number of films that take as their subject matter the interconnections between self-generated and mediated realities, fractured multiple viewpoints and cinematic narrative.

JJ Abrams, the creator of Lost and Alias, and now the force behind Cloverfield, a film billed as a "movie for the YouTube generation," used the Internet to create a viral campaign for the film, in which people were encouraged to forward the trailer to their friends. A series of fake websites about the film further confused, intrigued or irritated people. Cloverfield opens on Friday, but already the early word is that film makes heavy use of cinéma-vérité-style tactics to create a sense of genuine menace. Images made to look as if they've been captured on cell phones, web cams or time-coded security camera footage are all the more frightening for the ugly blunt reality that clings to them.

Hand-held camera work, recovered footage, bits and pieces of story assembled piecemeal into a film isn't new. The Blair Witch rode it to cult status, but other filmmakers have taken that particular idea and run away with it, occasionally to good effect, more often bad.

What's the story now?

But if our sense of story is indeed changing, where is it going? When you introduce a new mode of keeping and storing information into a particular society, old abilities die even as new ones are born. In oral cultures, people's ability to remember great epics of poetry, stories that take days to tell, vanishes when literacy arrives. You can sometimes see this happening even in your own brain. Google has stripped me of my ability to retain vast amounts of arcane knowledge about old movies and pop culture. The brain, being an eminently sensible organ, quickly junks stuff it has no reason to keep.

But what replaces it, I wonder? The ability to suddenly do complex equations would be nice, but I am doubtful that will happen. In an article published in the New York Times, the argument was made that the Internet is actually returning us to an oral culture. Writes Alex Wright, "The growth of social networks -- and the Internet as a whole -- stems largely from an outpouring of expression that often feels more like 'talking' than writing: blog posts, comments, homemade videos and, lately, an outpouring of epigrammatic one-liners broadcast using services like Twitter and Facebook status updates (usually proving Gertrude Stein's maxim that 'literature is not remarks')." In this same way, YouTube is not cinema, but its influence is becoming more pervasive.

Although not quite as deadening to young minds as television, the Internet is acting upon the next generation in a new ways. A different type of mutability or malleability may be developing. I see it with young kids who can project themselves inside online role playing games in a fashion that older brains find more difficult to master.

Already, here we are: You're reading this online, and I'm writing it online. All of us ever more dependent on receiving a signal loud and clear.

The idea of downloading films directly into our brains might not seem so outlandish to the next generation.

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