Monday, August 22, 2011

What's the Matter With Hollywood, Part 9: Art Requires Distance

Yesterday we talked about how 3-D and Surround Sound short-circuit our identification with the character, but the problem is actually even worse than that. These processes represent a failure to understand the way that art creates meaning.

Quite intentionally, 3-D and Surround Sound have turned moviegoing into an ordeal. That’s the whole point. The first time I ever noticed Surround Sound was when I saw Forrest Gump in the theater. Forrest went to Vietnam and got shot at, and suddenly bullets were whizzing past his head… and my head.

I didn’t know that Surround Sound even existed, so I was really shocked when I heard bullets whipping past me and landing somewhere behind me. I jumped out of my seat! “Wow,” I thought, “I really feel like I’m in Vietnam!” And my next thought was, “But I don’t want to be in Vietnam! I want to watch a movie about someone in Vietnam!”

I’m going to say something controversial here, but I think it’s true: art cannot be interactive. That’s right, I just said that videogames aren’t art (which often causes flame wars on the internet, but there it is).

Art must be received at a distance to have meaning, because meaning is created in the space between the viewer and the art, both the literal space and the figurative space. We contrast our point of view with the point of view of the art, and that gap teaches us about our own lives. A video game may have a story, but there is no distance between the viewer and that story, so there is no greater meaning, only the thrill of a first-person experience. We learn nothing about our own lives, because we do not contrast our lives with the character’s life.

(For a different perspective, let’s compare video games to painting. When you see a piece of modern art that you hate, you think “That’s not art: I could do that!” The modern critic responds, “Sure you could, but it never would have occurred to you to do it!” Combining those two points of view, we could say that art is either what you can’t do or what you wouldn’t do, for lack of imagination. Either way, art is something greater than yourself and outside yourself. Video games are very intentionally limited to what you can do and would do if placed in that situation.)

3-D and Surround Sound attempt to turn movies into video games. When the bullets land behind us, there’s no space left between the viewer and the screen in which meaning can be created. We’re not considering Forrest’s experience in Vietnam, we’re having our own experience in Vietnam.

Okay, so that’s been four days of me ranting about modern technology. So am I just a luddite? Am I opposed to all technical innovation? Nope. Tomorrow I’ll explain how to do it right...


Christine Tyler said...

Wow, what an unique perspective. I've never thought of that definition before. Gives me something to think about. In the meantime, looking forward to the upcoming posts!

j.s. said...

I don't know about this rule. I think the relationship between art and the audience has to be more complicated than you're making it out to be. And I'd wager that the pursuit of immersion (if not interaction) does have something to do with it for big portion of the audience.

Here's the way I feel when I'm in the grip of a truly great story, regardless of the medium: There's no distance between me and the story. Time melts away and so do all my other concerns.

It's this very feeling, in fact, that's the driving force behind my desire to tell stories of my own.

Assuming that you're completely right about interaction: What about the entire history and tradition of live theatre where (even if no one's cell phone goes off and the actors don't stop to address the audience directly) there's a subtle different give and take for every night of the week? What about performance art like, say, the work of Maria Abramovic and Vito Acconci? I doubt most people who sat and faced Abramovic at the MOMA last year would deny its status as art.

As for both 3-D and surround, there are any number of excellent artistic uses of the latter and perhaps just one of the former that bear mentioning: Have you seen Werner Herzog's 3-D cave painting documentary (hands down the greatest and most necessary 3-D film I've ever seen)? Have you heard a David Lynch sound mix in 5.1 surround?

I'm not sure I agree with you about videogames either. But I won't even try to start that argument. For the most impassioned and intelligent defense of video games as art I've yet seen try the book EXTRA LIVES by Tom Bissell.

Clockworkjoe said...

Sculpture is interactive. You have to move in order to perceive the entire sculpture. As a three dimensional object, a single point of view is not able to show an entire sculpture.

El Castillo in Chichen Itza was engineered to produce new sounds when it received a sound. Clap and you heard a sound not unlike a bird chirping. That's pretty interactive. Are you saying that's not art?

Matt Bird said...

This isn't really a rule, just an opinion, and one that obviously invalidates a lot of perfectly good art. The editorial format of these pieces give me leave to be more provocative. Troll-ish, even, one might say.

J.S.: I certainly feel that live art should react to the audience, and vice versa, but it should not be limited by the desires or imagination of the audience. According to this definition, even improv comedy (shudder) could still be meaningful art, as long as they took the audience input and riffed on it until they created something more than the audience could create on their own.

Or, put another way: I don't mind if audience input provides the foundation of a piece, as long as it doesn't provide the ceiling as well.

As for the feeling that distance is dissolved, I agree that that's the goal, but I feel that, paradoxically, that can only be achieved by leaping over a gap between one's self and the character. If there is no gap, it's impossible (See: the failure of Lady in the Lake, the prototype for all first person video games). As Kierkegaard would say: faith requires a leap. The viewer must leap into the character. If the character attempts to leap into the viewer (as in 3-D, Surround Sound, and video games) then the experience is unearned and unmoving.

I did want to see Herzog's cave documentary, but the 3-D process gives me too much of a headache. I'll catch it in 2-D on DVD.

j.s. said...

I like Clockworkjoe's invocation of sculpture in the round. Surely Bernini didn't expect us to passively take in his masterpieces at a safe distance.

What about novels like HOPSCOTCH or PALE FIRE, which are probably more rigorously interactive than 99.9% of videogames?

In fact, now that I've thought about it some more, I'm prepared to argue that all the best art -- and the best narrative art too -- demands interaction from the audience. It's passively received, distanced and distancing art that's closer to what ails Hollywood. TRANSFORMERS rather than even another blockbuster that makes us think and dream with it a little like INCEPTION.

It's the too literal (mis)understanding of what constitutes interaction -- say, merely choose-your-own-adventure first-personism rather than deep imaginative immersion in a world -- that creates bad 3-D, bad surround sound mixes, bad videogames (see again, EXTRA LIVES by Tom Bissell) and junky bad videogame-like movies.

Unfortunately, seeing CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS in 2-D will be missing the point entirely. 3-D glasses give me a headache too, but for the Herzog film -- the artistic achievement of it, the possibilities it opened up for the future of the medium -- it was well worth it. AVATAR and everything else, not so much.

Sean said...

Your main point remind me a bit of Adam Cadre's consideration of sensory distance, which he approaches here from the angle of static art:

When you look at a landscape, your mental recreation of it is blurry and fragmentary, like an impressionist painting... but when you look at an impressionist painting, your mental recreation of it is a blurrier and more fragmentary version of something that is already blurry and fragmentary, and so it feels wrong! There's too much degradation of the signal!

(But then he goes on to argue, with Last Year at Marienbad scribe Alain Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy as cautionary example, that closeness/impressionism/immersion is absolutely crucial to good prose. And then he casually brings up a computer game that demonstrates character through sensory contrasts. So: this is an area in which reasonable people can part ways extremely quickly.)

Matt Bird said...

I'm enjoying the different views, but let me jump in and clarify that viewing sculpture from different angles isn't what I would call interactive. All art should be examined from multiple angles, both literally and figuratively, and all art appreciation is subjective.

As I said before, even art that depends on viewer input can still be meaningful, as long as the viewer input doesn't define the limits the output.

The story of a video game, by its very nature, cannot exceed the capacity of the viewer, while art must exceed it.

3-D and Surround Sound are not limited by the input of the viewer, but they still fail to respect the distance that I feel that viewers secretly crave.

j.s. said...

In this thread it seems like videogames -- and/or a willful misunderstanding of the appeal, possibilities and best examples of the young medium -- are becoming a bit of a straw man for bad filmmaking.

One of the key points in Tom Bissell's book on videogames is that the best games can be immersive quite apart from their narrative because they have a structure of openness -- both in terms of the design of the world and the aesthetic of the gameplay itself -- that necessarily exceeds the capacity of the player. A game happens only in the interaction between the player and the game but is not strictly limited by the player's input.

Bissell rhapsodizes in particular about a specific session he experienced in the middle of an "open world" mercenary shooter game called FAR CRY 2 in which the openness of the world itself and the highly specific concatenation of events (starting with one of his choices at a unique moment in time interacting with the artificial intelligence of the game's engine) produced a seemingly unrepeatable moment.

If that kind of experience isn't about the sublime potential of art, I don't know what is!

He spoke to the game's designers about this experience and his marveling at the beauty and strangeness of it, asked them if they'd ever planned of this outcome or seen it themselves in testing. And they were as surprised as he was.

I'm not an avid gamer. I prefer to give my free time over to books and films. But I do think it's a mistake for anyone interested in telling film stories right now to dismiss videogames out of hand, either as a separate and worthy artistic medium or as a potential influence on film narratives (PRIMER, INCEPTION, SOURCE CODE, etc.).

Jonathan Auxier said...

I agree 100% that objects of art facilitate the communication of an idea from one conscious mind to another, and that most forms of interactive entertainment cannot be art for the simple reason that they invert the power structure by putting the audience in control.

I would, however, add that I do think *certain* interactive experiences do have the waft of art -- namely, the ones that push audiences actions beyond the pale of things they would normally do. This includes more traditional works of art like Marian Abramocic's "Rhythm 0" as well as avaunt-garde video games like Lose/Lose.

Also, we should be honest about just how interactive most contemporary story-based games are today ... which is not at all. Most have on-rails narratives and no actual opportunity for user choice. Not sure that's too different than a reader "interacting" with a novel by turning the page.

As far as what JS is saying about stories he's been immersed in: I would use this as an opportunity to point out that the sooner people disentangle story from art, the better off they will be. Art should not be constrained by the definitions attached to story and vice-versa.