UPCOMING SHOW: 12d (April 17-27th)

For a change from discussing past events, here’s an advert for a future piece. Those of you in Scotland, and specifically the Tayside area can pop by the Dundee Contemporary Arts Centrespace from the 17th-28th April to spy my latest film/painting installation piece.

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The screen is not a boundary.

[In our lives we watch, we think, we exist. These overlap. The worlds of the screen and our minds are one. Our different choices could all be happening, mentally or literally. The screen is not a boundary, instead it joins. It is a portal to other possibilities, to other imaginations, to other worlds.]

[I am an artist and PhD Researcher at the University of Dundee. My work uses layered images and multiple screens, connecting painting and film work.]

[My latest work, “12d” is an installation piece made up of multiple screens, paintings and household objects to provide an experience of many worlds, the freedom of film and multiple facets of the human mind.]

[It is on display in the DCA Centrespace (Floor LG, downstairs from the bar) from the 18th-27th April, 10am-4.30pm each weekday and 12-4pm on Saturday. Throughout this time will be three talks on the techniques and themes (dates and times TBC).]

[First however, is an opening event on the 17th April. This will take place in the Centrespace from 6-8.30pm and refreshments will be provided. All are welcome.]”

A FB event page is available here: https://www.facebook.com/events/304139626669549/

Beginners Guide to Digital Layering

This is quick guide of how I do my layering to those who’ve never opened Premiere. There’s no great mystery technique here that you couldn’t discover elsewhere or anything too technical. If you’re an old hand at these methods and want to discuss it in more detail, drop me an email.

In my films the general software I use is Adobe Premiere Pro. This is my favourite due to the easy to use layering. In the timeline it’s a simple matter of putting each image on top of the next.

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This leaves you with an opaque image on top of another opaque image. If you simply want to create a double exposure, then you turn down the opacity and hey presto.

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For the more specific layering you can change the size of each image. Change the top layer to 90% and you have a frame within a frame.

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Move it to the side and shrink it to 40% and then you can make images like this.

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For a complex shape you can add an opacity mask. This makes only the area within the mask visible, the rest is 100% transparent.

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With enough time, manipulating the rotation, position, scale and the corners of the mask, the image can then be manipulated to fit any shape.

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And that’s it. All my layering is achieved through these simple techniques. For the kind of films I make there are often large amounts of layers and masks, with colour correction and visual effects on each. Also I often move the masks frame by frame to match the image they are layered upon. It’s painstaking and time-consuming, but the basics are easy to grasp. This basis is helpful to explain other most complex aspects in more detail, and hopefully interesting for those of you not versed in editing software.

FILM: ‘Untitled’ – My Degree Show Film

Finally I’m able to post this. People have been asking for while, but due to film festival commitments I wasn’t allowed to release it publicly until now.

This is the film that I may for my Masters Degree Show in August 2016. It was orginally displayed in a darkened enclosed space with benches, projected onto a large wall. In a room next to the projection, the set used for filming was left in the state it is seen in the final images of the film.

I’ll be returning to this film a few times over the next few weeks to explain how certain elements were achieved, why, what worked and what could’ve been better. For now though, here it is:

Thanks to all involved, full credits in video description.

“Remember Only Thy Last Things”: Cinematic Memory in Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist”

Last Monday I posted a short adaptation of an extract of Portrait of the Artist and promised an essay to accompany. Now, the thrilling conclusion. This will cover the cinematic aspects of his aesthetic and comparison to aspects of my adaptation, as well as looking at a number of multi-layered image films.

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James Joyce has been described as the “most cinematic” of the modernist writers. As one of the “foremost representatives” of the movement, it seems fitting his work parallels film, the most “modern” medium of his time, both defying traditional forms of representation. As well as their mutual focus on visual experimentation, much of Joyce’s portrait_cover_2style is directly comparable to cinematic technique. His imagery often draws on the relationship of light and shadow, even from his earliest childhood works. While his luminous imagery may have begun in the era of the zoetrope and magic lantern, the more complex optical descriptions in Joyce’s later work contain direct parallels with cinema itself. Specifically, this essay will examine 1914’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Here, such cinematic imagery is mixed with another filmic technique: the flexibility of time. Portrait’s temporal continuity is fluid, as the novel smoothly transitions between periods of its protagonist’s life, allowing the reader to “literally wander about in time, as if it were part of a solid and seemingly permanent landscape.” This temporal fluidity is a central tenet of the cinema. Within the plot of a typical film there are often flashbacks and flash-forwards, but even the most basic film editing requires the combination of scenes and shots filmed at different times. This renders any film into a collection of different moments, similar to Stephen Dedalus’ fragmented history in Portrait. The novel’s temporal jumps, as well as its particularly cinematic imagery, are most notable when the narrative becomes a subjective memory of earlier events. This essay will therefore examine these extracts in order to explore the novel’s relationship with the cinema, and will attempt to bridge the gap between existing critical theory on both Joyce and film through their mutual association with the faculty of memory.

While written in third person, Portrait is a strong example of “sustained intra-diegetic focalization”, as all of its events are mediated through the consciousness and “mobilized virtual gaze” of Stephen. Its imagery therefore exists on different layers of interiority, with memory constituting one of the deepest. Cinematic visuals permeate all of these levels, starting with the most superficial: Stephen’s immediate perception of the external Picture1.pngworld. The experience of watching other boys playing football is described: “Then Jack Lawton’s yellow boots dodged out the ball and all the other boots and legs ran after.” The legs and boots appear independently to the boys they belong to. This example of synecdoche also parallels the cinematic close-up. Often parts of the body will be shown alone, as the action cuts between them , fragmenting the body in a similar way to Joyce’s language.

Stephen’s perceptions again parallel film when his glasses are broken and “the fellows seemed to him smaller and farther away and the goalposts so thin and far and the soft picture2grey sky so high up.” Keith Williams compares this distorted image to a similar scene in F.W. Murnau’s 1924 film The Last Laugh, in which a janitor’s vision is similarly obscured due to poor eye-sight, with his struggle to read forcing a letter’s contents to appear as individual words. These are objective “facts” of Stephen’s world, however; the next layer of his interiority comes from his interpretation of such experiences. When performing a play:

“He found himself on the stage amid the garish gas and the dim scenery,
acting before the innumerable faces of the void. […] When the curtain fell
on the last scene he head the void filled with applause and, through a rift in
side scene, saw the simple body before which he had acted magically
deformed, the void of faces breaking at all points and falling asunder into
busy groups.”picture3

The break-up of this “void of faces” has been compared to a cubist painting, such as Picasso’s Girl with a Mandolin as both feature an amorphous whole comprised of discrete shattered elements. The cinema again seems to have the most relevance, however, as Joyce’s imagery implies a process rather than an instant. Instead of a painting, this seems more comparable to the surreal multi-frame images of Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures (1924), for instance a crowd of eyes all constantly moving and watching, and a photograph of a group being torn apart.

These examples only show Stephen’s mediation of the external world in the present moment. Joyce’s techniques in Portrait stretch beyond that, for example into dream picture6sequences, the most notable being when Stephen is taunted by Satyrs, similar to many early trick films of demonic transformation. Due to these dreams being wholly fictional constructions, the representation of memory is rendered unique due to its transformation of the real. Joyce’s manipulation of memories takes events which have occurred and defamiliarises them, turning simple human moments into visually dynamic experiences. Such memories “pass sharply and swiftly before [Stephen’s] mind”, almost becoming his reality as he retreats within them to the point that he must be re-awoken by a violent external influence. When remembering his arrival to Clongowes, Stephen is unaware of a loud football match around him, only brought back to the present by being “caught in the whirl of a scrimmage”. This implies that the memories overlay on top of Stephen’s current experiences, obscuring his view.

The most explicit example of this occurs during his friend Davin’s story of a flirtatious young woman. After Davin concludes, Stephen’s impressions of this woman are replayed upon the faces of those he passes: “The last words of Davin’s story sang forth in his memory and the figure of the woman in the story stood forth reflected in other figures of the peasant women whom he had seen standing in the doorways”. Upon being approached by a flower girl, Stephen perceives: “her young blue eyes seemed to him at the instant images of guilelessness, and he halted till the image had vanished and he saw only her ragged dress and damp coarse hair and hoydenish face.” This layering of the two girls’ picture7faces creates a multi-layered image, one covering the other. In silent cinema, this effect was comparatively common, for example allowing the camera to tower over cities in Man with a Movie Camera (1929). A more technological connection can be extracted from Alan Speigel’s claim of Ulysses’s ‘Circe’ episode, that Joyce “projects the unconscious life of his protagonists outward, and all memory and desire seem to shift and glide before the eye of the reader in a dramatic and fully externalized form.” The connection of thoughts and “projection” can also be seen during the memory sequences of Portrait. Remembering often occurs in conjunction with the imagery of light sources, such as when Stephen thinks back to “the firelight on the wall of the infirmary where he lay sick”. The light helps to ‘cast’ the memory back into Stephen’s consciousness, as a cinema projector similarly reclaims the past by reproducing its image. Another example can be seen when Stephen remembers his childhood appearance: “It was strange to see his small body appear again for a moment: a little body in a grey belted suit.” This idea of Stephen seeing himself as a distanced external image adheres strongly to an aesthetic of projection. Finally, specific memories are also framed like cinematic shots. When thinking of his friend Cranly, Stephen can “never raise his mind the entire image of his body, but only the image of the head and face.” As with the legs and feet being cut off during the football match, this disconnected head is reminiscent of the camera frame cutting off parts of the body. These are only a small number of examples, but Joyce’s imagery of memory throughout the novel appears consistently comparable with equivalent cinematic techniques.

It is important to note however, that these are only comparisons. According to Spiegel, Joyce was not explicitly influenced by cinema, but rather the parallels of style that exist between the medium and the writer are due to both working on the same topics. This question of influence or parallel is beyond the purview of this essay. However, there is truth in cinema and Joycean technique sharing common themes not only in specific imagery (as seen so far), but in a broader sense of structure and intention. The very nature of cinema is temporal, the control and manipulation of time being its lifeblood, similar to the flowing time periods of Portrait. In Joyce’s original 1904 draft of Portrait he discusses the aging process as: “a fluid succession of presents, the development of an entity of which our actual present is a phase only.” This idea of fluidity is transferred over to the 1914 publication, with Stephen’s world comprised of these multiples “phases” of time which overlap and flow into one another. This is similar to Susan Sontag’s theories on photography. She claims “photography reinforces a nominalist view of social reality as consisting of small units of an apparently infinite number.” The compilation of these discrete units can be seen in a photo album, or photo book, which Sontag claims as the “most influential and way of arranging photographs, thereby guaranteeing them longevity”. A strong parallel can be seen between this and the basic structure of Portrait. Stephen’s “small units” of memories, different discrete parts of time, are brought adjacent to one another into a fluid whole. Spiegel’s ideas of the “temporalization of space”, making time a physical landscape, appear to be in agreement with this theory, with the “landscape” simply being a grander term than a photo album. Sontag, however, inaccurately claims that this makes reality “opaque”, and that it “denies interconnectedness”. Within Joyce’s work this is evidently not the case. Each memory is collected in order to provide new insight into Stephen’s present. In the following extract, filmed as a companion piece to this essay, Stephen jealously looks at his potential sweetheart:

Rude brutal anger routed the last lingering instant of ecstasy from
his soul. It broke up violently her fair image and flung the fragments
on all sides. On all sides distorted reflections of her image started
from his memory: the flower girl in the ragged dress with damp course
hair and a hoyden’s face who had called herself his own girl and begged
his handsel, the kitchen-girl in the next house who sang over the clatter
of her plates, with the drawl of a country singer, the first bars of By
Killarney’s Lakes and Fells, a girl who had laughed gaily to see him
stumble when the iron grating in the footpath near Cork Hill had caught
the broken sole of his shoe, a girl he had glanced at, attracted by her small
ripe mouth, as she passed out of Jacob’s biscuit factory, who had cried to
him over her shoulder.

Multiple images from Stephen’s past are physically laid out in front of his eyes, spatializing the past in a fashion almost identical to a set of photographs. The remembered images connect to his current experience with new found relevance. Each girl is one Stephen had a similar romantic or sexual desire for, and had been unable to act out that desire, with the complete picture being one of jealous frustration. Each individual image interacts with those around it to create a meaningful composite whole. Obviously Sontag’s theories are about photography not Joyce’s work, but showing photographs of people/locations from different times would similarly create thematic links and contrasts, so it appears that while she denies photography’s “interconnectedness”, her photo book idea is a perfect analogy to Portrait.

While Sontag’s ideas are on photography, in many ways her “photo book” is the precursor to cinema, as a film is similarly a composite whole made of collected time. This is demonstrated in my accompanying short film, as the preceding extract is transferred into equivalent cinematic techniques, bringing the “memories”, shot at different times, together into a single framepicture8. Film theorist Laura Mulvey explains this process as “Film time [being] extended and remixed out of [its] original context”. Joyce’s role in this comparison changes from a photo collector to a cinematic editor whose “work personifies the reordering and transforming of raw material”. Spiegel similarly unites the cinematic novelist and the filmmaker’s ability to “cut up space and splice” the results together. Mulvey, however, does not believe the editor reorders reality itself; instead they transform the subjective reality captured by the camera. By combining the idea of the cinema as an “image of reality across time” with reality being “unable to escape the human consciousness”, Mulvey implies that cinema is a capturing of this very human consciousness rather than an objective certainty. This relates to existing critical theory on Joyce’s work, specifically Maud Ellmann’s conception of Portrait not as an attempt to “express, represent, reconstitute or describe ‘experience’ or ‘reality’, but to construct it.” The world of both the cinema and of Portrait is one inspired by reality, but not of it. This idea appears to originate within the text itself, when Stephen talks of how a person sees the world, expounding:

In order to see that basket […] your mind first of all separates the
basket from the rest of the visible universe which is not the basket.
The first phase of apprehension is a bounding line drawn about the
object to be apprehended. An esthetic image is presented to us either in
space or in time. […] Temporal or spatial, the esthetic image is first
luminously apprehended as self-bounded and self-contained upon the
immeasurable background of space or which is not it. You apprehended it
as one thing.

Once one has focused on an individual object and separated it from its surroundings, then it is no longer part of objective reality. Naturally the world has no framing devices, those we observe are created by human perception itself. Just as a film is no longer the subject as their image ceases to exist in the physical world, Stephen’s memories are no longer “really” occurring as they are removed from their original context. Both the cinematic image and the Joycean memory are moments “removed from the continuity of historical time.”

The fact they are not representative of objective reality brings in a level of uncertainty to Joyce and cinema, allowing mistakes or even lies to be propagated. Ellmann explores a specific example of this within Stephen’s train journey in Chapter 2: “Stephen was once again seated beside his father in the corner of a railway carriage at Kingsbridge.” She focuses on the inaccurate wording, noting:

‘Once again’ is a curious sleight of hand: Stephen has never shared
a railway carriage with his father in the text before. This is a first time
masquerading as a repetition. […] This passage does not repeat a real
event, but a dream that Stephen had at Clongowes. […] Just as the
beginning of Stephen’s story is another story, so here the real train evolves
out of the dream. This order makes a fiction of experience.

If the earlier example is a dream, then the mental faculty which labelled this as a “repetition” is flawed. When decided whether to accept a religious vocation, Stephen’s memory similarly fails to picture the face of “Lantern Jaws”, seeing it as “an undefined face or colour of a face” which forms into an “eyeless and sour-favoured and devout” face with little physical detail. Earlier he attempts to reclaim a memory of his youth only to discover it “grew dim” and he could not “call forth its vivid moments”. These examples of memory “degenerating into images and echoes of themselves” all effect Stephen’s present decisions and feelings. Joyce is therefore commenting upon the fragility of memory and how this frailty can influence decisions made years on. Mulvey tackles a similar idea in her work. If the composite whole of a film is the “art of the index”, it is an index comprised of “human consciousness”, and therefore cannot be objectively reliable. When discussing Man with a Movie Camera, Mulvey quotes the director Dziga Vertov’s assertion that cinema renders “uncertainity more certain.” This implies cinema fixes the human consciousness into an objective reality, the film itself, allowing for the transfer of meaning. MWAMC however, does not display the “real” world, instead being a work of indexSoviet propaganda. It is a City Symphony film, displaying life in Russian cities, and the specific shots used only show the good sides of such a life. The time captured, the memories used, are all of happy and productive citizens, proving the “meaning” imparted by the cinema need not be the objective truth. Similarly Joyce allows for inaccurate memories which falsely influence Stephen when he reinterprets them. For instance, when remembering his school years Stephen “recognized scenes and persons yet he was conscious that he had failed to perceive some vital circumstance in them”, replaying these memories to gain new insight into his childhood experiences to help him decide whether to become a priest. Ellmann claims this as similar to Freud’s ideas of repressed memories and delayed action, a theory Mulvey also uses to describe cinema. Mulvey states the “storage function [of cinema] may be compared to the memory left in the unconscious by an incident lost to consciousness. […] Both need to be deciphered retrospectively across delayed time”, precisely paralleling Ellmann’s evocation of Joyce’s “literature administering deferred effects”. Joyce uses this psychoanalytic theory to comment upon the unreliable of memory, an unreliability that is deeply ingrained into the very basic nature of film itself. Spiegel is therefore correct, cinema and Joyce are both working from the same basis, the human experience of memory, with their techniques and structure being exceptionally similar to the extent that parallel critical theory exists on both.

Portrait then is a perfect example of Joyce’s cinematic similarities, whether conscious or not. The specific imagery of Stephen’s experiences matches with examples which can be seen in various early silent films, especially when exploring the faculty of memory. Joyce’s memory imagery and structure have a particular affinity with the cinema, but it is clear that this is neither an accident nor Joyce simply copying cinematic technique. Instead it is a deeper thematic and almost philosophical connection, each using the unreliability and visually dense properties of the subjective experience of memory in equivalent manners. This solidifies film’s reputation as the modernist medium, as the same thought processes Joyce used to write Portrait are those at the basis of cinema. Memory therefore becomes the bridge that unites Joyce, the cinema, and their respective critical theories.

 

As I always note with re-printed essays, this was written one year ago. I stand by my points, but some could have be elucidated more precisely and more accurate cinematic examples.

SHORT FILM: Extract from “A Portrait of the Artist”

Next week I’ll post the essay this piece was a companion piece to. For the moment, here is an adaptation of a segment of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The essay will touch upon why this extract was chosen and why Joyce’s work is particularly cinematic/multi-layered. For now just enjoy.

Rude brutal anger routed the last lingering instant of ecstasy from
his soul. It broke up violently her fair image and flung the fragments
on all sides. On all sides distorted reflections of her image started
from his memory: the flower girl in the ragged dress with damp course
hair and a hoyden’s face who had called herself his own girl and begged
his handsel, the kitchen-girl in the next house who sang over the clatter
of her plates, with the drawl of a country singer, the first bars of By
Killarney’s Lakes and Fells, a girl who had laughed gaily to see him
stumble when the iron grating in the footpath near Cork Hill had caught
the broken sole of his shoe, a girl he had glanced at, attracted by her small
ripe mouth, as she passed out of Jacob’s biscuit factory, who had cried to
him over her shoulder.

Sherlock vs. Dr Mabuse, The Hypnotist

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That title may be mildly misleading in terms of how exciting this post will be.

I was struck while watching the new Doctor Who spinoff Class by a scene in which a character’s texts are shown on screen when their phone is shattered.

This is a technique seen often in modern TV, popularised in Sherlock. Here the words of texts are displayed onscreen, but Holmes’ thought processes are also expounded in a similar way.

These techniques appear in a world in which quick visual storytelling is popular, where close ups on phones and interior monologue voice-overs are somewhat passé. It seems fitting then that they return to tricks seen originally in the silent era, another period of technological and dramatic innovation. Words appearing on screen were not limited to intertitles.Often they would appear over the image.Untitled.png

To specifically connect with the modern usage, this happened for two purposes.First was when a radio signal was being broadcast but on other occasions the technique was used to relay the thoughts of characters. As early as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari this madness of the Doctor is literally displayed when his thoughts appear around them.

Later this can be seen as Dr Mabuse hypnotises various characters in his titular 1922 film and later his instructions appear haunting a victim into committing suicide. Character’s thoughts haunt them as semi-physical manifestations are displayed as text in a very similar form to Sherlock.

When sound cinema’s techniques have become overused, the creators of these modern shows looked back to the silent film for inspiration. Far from creating a fantastic new mode of storytelling, they are simply honing skills founded in the past, skills that were originally discarded as old fashioned. It’s also important to note then that while silent cinema’s less realist imagery had vanished from the mainstream, if this aspect can be re-appropriated into one of TVs most popular programmes, then others can return to populist culture as well.

ART: Mind Journey

As seen in Quantum I had been experimenting with adding my paintings into my film projects. This is an example of the opposite.

After a residential art trip to the Greek island of Aegina we were asked to create a piece is reaction to our experiences for Elika Vlachaki’s Oscillations exhibition. ‘Mind Journey’ was mine. Originally I had filmed large amounts of footage from the island, but I couldn’t think of a way to edit it that excited me. Instead it seemed like a holiday video with nice imagery. So I thought back to a stereoscope viewer, an ancient relic and a conversation. Combining the measuring of time and the aged distortion on the artefact (the Antikythera mechanism), the mental journey of recollection with the physical experience of looking in the viewer and the loss of past experiences related to me by artist Ioannis Dedes I created a painting. This is it.

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I don’t like it. So instead I recreated it with the ethereal projected cinematic image taking the place of the obvious memories. It then became something far more universal than simply being a piece about a single week in my life. I’m really quite fond of this one.

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{I wondered about posting the elements of this piece, but a large amount of its purpose was to discuss the impossibility to retain past experience fully in memory. Therefore here is the video that played over the white areas of the painting. You can attempt to recreate the piece in your mind with these fragments but like the true Antikythera Mechanism its totality is gone.}

“What’s the use of a good quotation if you can’t change it?”: Remakes in Early Cinema

Cliché opening sentence about the current climate of remakes.

Remaking isn’t new. The early pioneers of cinema liked a cheeky lift as much as anyone.There’s Une Partie de Cartes where Méliès blatantly steals the whole of the Lumiere’s Card Party. There’s De Chomen’s Voyage to Jupiter which contains a marked similarity to another ‘Voyage to insert heavenly body‘ film. And Melies was obsessed with taking his head off and remade his own The Four Troublesome Heads so many times that it drove me mad watching the same stuff for days.

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These are generally people wanting to play with each others’ ideas, or simply fancying a cheap buck. Unlike now however, there’s actually a fair amount of use to be made of these. For instance Buy Your Own Cherries is both a magic lantern slide collection and a short film and the addition of movement and removal of more fantastical elements shows the changing tastes between mediums. Paul’s The Countryman’s First Sight of Animated Pictures is mainly missing, but we can experience it as Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show. This allegedly almost identical and was created by an audience member of the original. Technical advances can also be seen as the original Reve a la Lune is a simple static shot of an actor shaking, whereas the increasing abilities of superimposition allows its remake Dream of a Rarebit Fiend to take the viewer inside the subjective madness of its protagonist. Even later films which use earlier tricks, such as the use of a train coming to run over a camera in Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera show rather than a rip-off of the Arrival of the Train in the Station, a level of cinematic literary, referencing earlier documentary work to inform current efforts in the field especially when combined with disparate elements like a superimposition drawn from Man Ray situating MWAMC in both traditions.

So while remakes may have lost their importance in the world of easily traceable originals and limitless technology and referentiality, they can be vital in a historical study of the early silent era.

QUANTUM: A Short Film

The Christmas break over 2015/16 was spent by applying for the current PhD I’m doing. This gave me a lot of time to think about layered images and I decided to push their limits in the 2D frame of a projected 16:9 image. This was the result.

Provided that any of you still have any concentration left, I’ll take a look at a couple of aspects. I’m still not sure if the film succeeds (I suspect it may be slightly too complex and inaccessible to any viewer except myself), but it’s worth looking at its aims. Generally the film grew from its central element: that of the multiple universes created by electron uncertainty at the quantum level. I wondered if the many worlds occurring simultaneously could be shown literally by the cinematic image. This then became intermingled with the knowledge that there are competing theories for electron behaviour and more generally for the nature of the universe.

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[This is a scan of page one ofthe script. Trying to write for three different worlds on a single level A4 was slightly impossible. One of the main hopes of the project was to create something that could only be seen in its own medium and was not translatable]

This meant I could create three distinct worlds, with their own looks, ideas, purposes and characters that still intermix. There are explanations for the same phenomena in each frame (sometimes more than one) but these become interfered with by the sheer amount of information on offer. This seemed to match the difficulty many of us feel with the topic. I normally describe ‘Quantum’ as a documentary, but it’s more accurate to call it an experience of the subject that an explanation.

“Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise the kids”: War of the Worlds and Cinema

To coincide with the “Being Human” events celebrating the 150th birthday of HG Wells I thought I’d dust off an old essay I wrote about the Tripods from War of the Worlds. It looks at their relation to the new technology of the camera, before exploring that connection in both the 1953 Bryon Haskin film adaptation and Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. I wrote this around three years ago, so while I stand-by most of the points on offer here, some elements are somewhat superficial. Keep that in mind while reading. Also it’s far longer than anything I’d normally post on here, so feel free to read in chunks, or skip anything dull.

With no further ado:

“THE CAMERA THAT FIRED THE HEAT-RAY”: THE WAR OF THE WORLDS AND ITS ADAPTATIONS AS COMMENTARIES ON CINEMA

The late 19th century was a time of great technological upheaval. New inventions and discoveries abounded, such as the telephone and x-rays, and these in turn sparked the creative drive of H.G. Wells. His scientific romances often commented on the state of technology, or used these new discoveries as metaphors in allegorical tales. This is especially true of his 1897 novel, The War of the Worlds, which despite being seen as the archetypical alien invasion story, is far from an “empty fantasy”. It explores many subjects, one of which is the Lumière brothers’ new invention, the film camera and by extension, cinema. Created in 1895, cinema was quickly becoming highly popular with the masses, and recognising the power of the medium, Wells filled his tale of alien invasion with allusions the visual style and technology of film. This essay will examine these references and explore why Wells chose to focus on film. It will also analyse the 1953 Hollywood adaptation of WOTW for any trace of Wells’s cinematic commentary, before considering the possibility of a wider reaching influence in Soviet Cinema with Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Through these filmic examples it will discover whether Wells’s concerns about the new medium are simply of their time or are instead, universal.

Within Wells’s novel there a number of allusions to film, the intense imagery used to describe the action being particularly cinematic. In the first book the Martians roam England in an unrestricted fashion, and as does the plot itself concentrating on both the unnamed narrator and his brother. This freedom is paralleled in Wells’s imagery. When the Martians are first revealed, the vivid language of a “flickering light [that] was blinding and confusing” and the narrator’s unsure comment of “How can I describe it?” generate a very cinematic, but also very personal image. In contrast, Martian military progress is highlighted with reference to specific locations almost in the style a map, for example: “through the charred and desolated area – perhaps twenty square miles altogether – than encircled the Martian encampment on Horsell Common”. This implies an aerial view to the mind of the reader. The freedom to use such varying visuals is highly reminiscent of the different camera angles used in cinema. This is most apparent when the narrator and a curate are trapped in the basement of a “ruined house” destroyed by a Martian cylinder. From this confined space the two men are able to covertly observe the invaders at work through a “vertical slit open in the debris”. The idea of secretly watching action through a static opening is evokes the image of an early film audience. Wells had previously dealt with similar themes in his short story, Through a Window (1894). In this work an injured man (named Bailey) is forced to stay indoors, watching the outside world from his window. He witnesses various different ‘set pieces’ of action such as the hunt of a native Malay and begins to gain a perverse “glee” through observing. Both this and WOTW feature a sense of judgement upon the viewer, portraying the act of watching as “sickeningly voyeuristic”, and the pleasure gained as immoral. The viewer is punished for their misdemeanour, as in Window Bailey is violently attacked by the insane Malay and in WOTW the curate is captured by the Martians, with the implication that they will feed on him.

It could be argued that these viewing experiences have a wider scope than simply a commentary on film. Certainly due to the heavy reliance on imagery Wells is describing a visual experience, but it is possible he is commenting on the theatre or paintings. There are a number of reasons however that make film the most likely target of Wells’s text. Firstly it must be noted that while film is now filled with moving cameras and changing frames, in the period in which Wells was writing the camera was locked in a specific position paralleling the ruined house sequence. As for the other options of art forms: the amount of movement in frame, such as the rioting crowds, as well as the varying locations, seem to discount the static form of painting. The theatre can be discounted due to the scale and surrealism of Wells’s visuals. It seems almost impossible to imagine a looming tripod “higher than many houses”, as a product of the stage. Instead this seems closer to the trick early films of Georges Méliès. Méliès would later demonstrate a flair for the scientific romance with A Trip to the Moon (1902), but even at this early point in his filmmaking career he was producing non-realist pieces, such as A Terrible Night released in 1896, one year before WOTW.

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This short film features an impossibly oversized insect crawling up a hotel wall, and it seems likely a similar trick film could have inspired some of Wells’s more outlandish visuals. Even if Wells had not yet seen such a film, he would certainly be aware of the concept of the cinema as well as both the trick photograph, in which a “double exposure” could produce the image of a transparent ghost, and the magic lantern show, in which such trick photographs were projected for the entertainment of a crowd. Linking these well-established traditions with the new technology of film could easily be the inspiration for the “blockbuster” style imagery presented in WOTW. Later in his life Wells would go on to write a number of film scripts and describe the medium as “the art form of the future”. WOTW is an earlier flirtation with these ideas as he attempts, through choice language and description, to appropriate the visual style of early cinema to enhance his literary work.

In reference to WOTW’s allusions to the specific technology of the cinema, it has been noted that “Wells’s writings are fascinated with advanced instruments of vision”. This can be observed from the very first chapter in which humankind is “scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water” by the Martians. Humans in turn, specifically the narrator and astronomer Ogilvy, watch Mars through a telescope. Both of these activities involve the use of technology as an aid to natural sight. The idea that the humans would not “have believed” they are being watched, also reiterates the themes of voyeurism. The strongest example of this technological gaze is through the Martians’ “Fighting Machines”. These Tripods are clearly relatable to the film camera and projector. The three legged shape is reminiscent of a camera stand, but it could also be related to any other tripod, for example the heliograph (an early form of military communication) which is specifically mentioned in the novel. If reading the tripod as a heliograph strong parallels can be drawn between the British Army and the Martian war force, and the idea that the Martians can be read as simply “imperialists who use superior technology”. In Wells’ novels however, there are often many different interpretations available for each aspect, and with the Tripods he provides abundant evidence to read them as metaphors for film. Specifically their heat ray projectors are referred to as “cameras”, and the heat rays themselves have connotations of the light of a film projector. The Tripods’ need of a living operator also evokes the cameraman who is as invisible to the audience as the Martians are to the narrator, who claims the machines “so far as I could see [are] without a directing Martian at all”. Similarly an article printed one year before WOTW in Pearson’s Magazine details an “electronic eye” for detecting a newly discovered form of radiation, whose illustrations bear a striking resemblance to the Tripods.

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Obviously this idea of technological surveillance resonated with Wells as it not only appears in WOTW but also in a number of his other works. Two specific examples are The Crystal Egg (1897) in which the titular artefact acts as a camera and screen for Martians and humans to observe each other across space in scenes prescient of television; and When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) in which the government of a futuristic metropolis watch their citizens through visual technology in the style of Orwell’s Big Brother or modern CCTV cameras.

In WOTW Wells uses the Tripods as metaphorical film cameras for two reasons. One is a paranoid response to new technology. In a number of Wells’s earlier works he questions the use of machines and their role in shaping the future of human society. In The Land Ironclads (1903) tank-like war machines sweep away any resistance in a manner not unlike the Tripods, while in When the Sleeper Wakes the CCTV-style camera system is used by the government to oppress their people. In these early pieces Wells seems to be highly suspicious of technology’s capacity for misuse. With the Tripods Wells is commenting on the power of cinema and specifically its negative destructive ability if placed in the wrong hands. As noted, neither the Tripods nor film cameras can work without an operator, and Wells is worried about who that operator may be. There is also a warning of overreliance on film through the horrific description of the Martians “huge round bodies – or rather heads [with a] pair of very large, dark coloured eyes”. Specifically the narrator makes a meta-textual reference to Wells’ earlier essay: The Man of the Year Million, claiming it: “pointed out […] that the perfection of mechanical appliances must ultimately supersede limbs, the perfection of chemical devices, digestion – that such organs as hair, external nose, teeth, ears, chin, were no longer essential parts of the human being” and would degraded through time. The descriptions in the essay of humanity’s descendants as “enormous brains [with] liquid, soulful eyes” whose “entire muscular system will be shrivelled to nothing” are almost identical to the Martians. It seems clear then, that the invaders are twisted mirrors of humanities own future. In linking this “supra-rational, technologised humankind” with the cinema, Wells argues one should not be overly drawn toward film. This parallels with The Plattner Story (1896) an earlier short about a scientist’s journey into a surreal spirit world. These spirits are specifically referred to as both “tadpole-like” paralleling with the Martians’ appearance and “Watchers of the Living”, implying their lifestyle of observation has made them metaphorically dead. This and WOTW are both warnings of the degrading effects of the cinema.

The second reason for the use of the Tripods as film cameras is to provide what Keith Williams describes as the “alien gaze”. Williams refers to Wells’s use of the Martians as “defamiliarising” the ordinary world allowing the reader to view it from a new perspective. This is shown through the narrator’s perspective as his experiences with the invaders allow him to view the world anew. One specific point this is highlighted is when the narrator leaves the ruined house to discover the familiar English countryside is now “the landscape, weird and lurid, of another planet”. After this experience the narrator begins to question his own world, specifically reinterpreting the British Empire’s campaign in Tasmania as a truly “ruthless” atrocity. In the use of Martians as cinematic metaphors, Wells is commenting on the great power which the medium holds for defamiliarising the ordinary world and allowing the audience to view it anew. An example can be seen in Building Up and Demolishing the Star Theatre (1901) in which the demolition of a hotel is played backwards creating the illusion of reversed time in a fashion unimaginable before cinema. This may be a very simple example, but later cinematic techniques are still is used today make serious political points. Therefore in WOTW Wells’s “alien gaze” anticipates the power of the new medium through the metaphor of the Tripods.

With a novel containing so many cinematic elements and comments on the nature of film, WOTW seems the perfect subject for adaptation. It took 56 years, however, to reach the silver screen when director Byron Haskin and producer George Pal finally released their own updated version. Time had passed resulting in a change in world politics and public familiarity with the technology and techniques of the cinema, meaning Wells’s commentaries were rewritten by the filmmakers to make it more contemporary for the 1950s. The first notable difference between the original novel and The War of the Worlds (1953), besides the change in location to California, is the lack of Tripods. In this adaptation, due to the limitations of visual effects, Martian’s new travel machines float above the ground, similar to the flyer saucers which were popular in the media of the time.

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The only hint of the original Tripod nature is referenced is when they first rise out of their impact crater, and three green lines of light can be seen below the flying machines, described by lead scientist Forrester as “some sort of magnetic flux, like invisible legs.” Even this seems, however, not to have any particular metaphorical point behind it, instead only existing as a knowing nod to the source text. Similarly some of Wells’s other messages are completely removed, such as the vampiric aspect of the Martians (as metaphor for capitalism) being completely excised, replaced by their status as godless communists from the “Red” Planet.

This thematic pruning may damage a number of Wells’s aims, the interest in the defamiliarising powers of cinema escapes largely unscathed. With the lack of Tripods, their nature as metaphors for the camera has necessarily been replaced by a number of different aspects. In the Martians’ first scene a periscope-like eye rises from their meteor-like ship.

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This eye then fires a heat-ray or laser into three men turning them to dust.

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This explicitly links the powers of optical technology and destruction even more than the original novel, as it is the same device the Martians use to both see and kill. This ‘eye’ pulses with a red glow linking the destructive power of the camera with the Soviets, as a critique of the dangers of communist propaganda. The explicit link between the Martian eye and the camera provides an interesting parallel with their technological superiority over the humans as the latter are never shown with any media technology more powerful than a radio microphone. As in the original novel, from weapons (as the atomic bomb is no use against them) to media the Martians outclass humanity in every aspect. It is also notable that the fall of the Martian meteor occurs while a crowd are queued up outside a cinema. Seeing the meteor this crowd abandon the film to investigate the Martians. This idea of an audience for the Martians reaches back to the original text when the cylinder is at first watched by a “crowd of perhaps twenty people”. In the adaptation it is unclear whether these invaders more thrilling and interesting than “mere fiction” or if this a warning for America to put aside all else and concentrate on the dangers of communism. The film never reveals the answer, but both sides can be read in it.

Finally, the film also deals with Wells’s “alien gaze”. When the two leads (Forrester and Van Buren) are trapped in a ruined house (an adaptation of the narrator and curate incident from the text) the Martians send in a probe to look for them. Unlike in the text, however, where this probe is “blind” and finds its way through touch, the film’s version has an electronic eye, explicitly referred to as like a “television camera”. This camera is split into three distinct “lenses” which are coloured red, green and blue.

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These colours can be seen as a reference to the three-strip colours of technicolour used in the making of the film itself, with the Martians themselves being shown to have identical lenses in their eyes again linking them and the cinema. Later the camera eye is removed from the Martian ship and its output signal is projected by the human scientists. The viewer is then able to see the world in the same way as the Martians, and it appears to be distorted and incorrectly coloured.

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The reason in the film is given as “a shift in their spectrum” due to the three lenses, but thematically this is the literal distorting “alien gaze” of the Martian eye, and by extension, the real-life camera. It has been suggested that the film does present a more metaphorical “alien gaze” of the modern America, as the original text does of Victorian England. This occurs on occasion, for example when the Martians first meet humans, one is a Native American and the “alien gaze” focuses on the ““taboo” history of internal imperialism” in America. The operative word is occasionally, however, as this happens infrequently and the film never challenges the American status-quo to the same degree as Wells’s biting satire of his own culture. Overall the Haskin/Pal collaboration produces a film still interested in Wells’s themes, but never quite reaching the same level of in-depth analysis.

None of the direct filmic adaptations of Wells’s novel look particularly deeply into the power of the camera, with this 1953 effort exploring it the most. For a more comprehensive study of these themes, a wider selection of cinema than simply direct adaptations must be taken into account. Wells’s influence can be seen throughout visual media from Nigel Kneale’s anti-military series Quatermass trilogy (1953-9) to Roland Emmerich’s retelling of WOTW as a jingoistic war story with Independence Day (1996). Soviet Russia in particular fostered a great fascination with Wells’s work, especially WOTW, possibly due to his socialist leanings. One particular Soviet filmmaker who appears to take inspiration from WOTW is Dziga Vertov with his 1929 film, Man with a Movie Camera. This silent feature’s plot, if it can be said to have a plot at all, follows the “day in the life” of a cameraman. Over this day the cameraman journeys around “the city” filming various different events in the lives of its citizens. These range from birth to death, work to play, from realist footage of the masses to surreal meta-textual montages showing the editor of the film at work. In essence the plot of the film is the entire life of a city and its citizens. This may appear to stretch the contention that MWAMC is based on Wells’s novel, as their plots appear to be widely different.

There are, however, many visual and thematic similarities between WOTW and MWAMC’s cinematic commentaries. The camera is often shown within Vertov’s film itself, filming the footage that the audience are watching. Visually some of these later appearances match with Wells’s descriptions of the Martian Tripods, with the camera superimposed over crowds and looming over the entire city.

There is also a sequence in which the camera apparently moves through its own volition, with no cameraman in sight. This effect is achieved through stop motion animation, and has strong parallels with Wells’s seemingly autonomous Tripods as the camera has metaphorically “come to life”

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These examples are not simply empty nods however, as there are a number of thematic similarities between this evocation of the Tripods and their original purpose. The camera is portrayed as able to see into any aspect of human life, from a grieving family after a death, to a woman dressing in the morning. This is described by Philip Cavendish as “an ubiquitous, omniscient and quasi God-like eye” in a similar fashion to the Tripods’ “inescapable and all-penetrating” heat-ray. This evokes the ruined house sequence bringing to mind the voyeuristic power of the cinema, as a medium able to display anything or anyone without the subject having any knowledge of the viewer. The shots of crowds also display the power of cinema as a medium, as when a camera is superimposed on a shot, it towers above the people and when a human-sized cameraman walks through a crowd all eyes turn toward him and a path clears for him to pass through.

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Continuing this idea, there are a number of sequences of large crowds sitting in the cinema self-reflexively watching MWAMC. These begin from the very opening scene in which a band only start moving with the rolling of film, as if the film itself has given them life. This parallels with the crowds at the pit in the original novel, and the cinema queue in the Pal/Haskin adaptation, in showing the almost “mythological” mass appeal of the cinema.

As with Wells there is a strong connection between technology and humanity, with human actions and industrial machines being edited in time with each other, to show both as cogs in the machine that is “the city”. Within the filmmaking process itself, human and machine are connected, with a number of behind the scenes glances which explain that the technology displayed on screen is controlled by humans, such as seeing the editor. There is also a number of parallels between human movements, specifically of the eye, and the camera, such as a woman blinking matched with the opening and closing of the camera shutter. These culminate with a human eye superimposed over the lens of a camera literally making human and machine one.

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The idea that the camera is at one with and controlled by humans, is essentially an update to Wells’s paralleling of the Martian intelligences behind their seemingly robotic Tripods and the camera operator. Finally, Vertov uses the camera’s metaphorical “alien gaze” in order to politically explore the contemporary Soviet Union. Many cinematic techniques are used throughout the film, such as superimposing two shots together to create a kaleidoscopic view of the world.

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It has been suggested that these “tricks” are a “metaphor for the complexity of “life as it is””, but this does not seem completely accurate. Instead it appears Vertov is using the uniquely cinematic techniques to highlight specific aspects of the world in a new way, for instance, the editing together of human action and machine in rhythm foregrounds the Soviet ideal of the worker state. As Vertov claims, the camera “show[s] you the world only as [it] can see it.” These ideas are very similar to Wells’s use of the Martians alien perspective to highlight the concerns of Victorian England. Therefore Wells’s “alien gaze” and Vertov’s “Cine-eye” are one and the same. It is clear then that WOTW has generated a far wider influence than simply on its own adaptations, or even the science fiction genre.

Wells’s original text paralleled the Tripods with the camera to explore the power of cinema, but it focused on the destruction caused if such technology was placed in the wrong hands. As with many of Wells’s earlier works, while being highly interested and knowledgeable about machines and progress, there is a level of suspicion, and an implication that humanity may not be ready for such power. The “alien gaze” may help humankind evolve, but the Martians behind it are certainly not regarded as a positive force. With the 1953 adaptation this changes, the camera instead being strongly identified with the “red menace”, and Wells’s earlier concerns warped into a commentary on the power of Soviet propaganda. Again however, there is an uneasy tension between these negative connotations and the positive power of the “alien gaze” to reveal the world in a new way. This tension was resolved however, in a film released 24 years earlier, as MWAMC removes the stigma of danger attached to the camera by the metaphorical Tripods. Vertov agrees with Wells about the power of cinema, and its mass appeal, but unlike the author in the late Victorian era, he no longer worries about these aspects. The power of cinema allows filmmakers to project their message in an exciting and accessible form. Vertov planned for MWAMC to be for everyone by creating a “totally international absolute language of cinema”. This provides a fascinating contrast with original novel and the 1953 adaptation, with Vertov realising that cinema and its “gaze” are great powers for good in a way that Wells could not predict and Pal and Haskin have been jaded against, due to years of propaganda during WWII. Wells in his later life recanted the pessimism of his earlier works, hoping for a brighter, technocratic future. It would appear then that Vertov tapped into the aging author’s changing views and his film is a more accurate adaptation of the cinematic themes at play in the original text than the 1953 adaptation, simply through an optimistic perspective.

[Generally I agree with this work, but I’d say there are some important details missing. The comparison between the two works looking at views on the USSR never gets going, I think a closer look at the Futurist movement MWAMC grows from and the influence of SF on that would have been interesting, and I think the general look at MWAMC is fairly simplistic. Maybe I’ll come back and write an addition at some point, but for now view this as work in progress]