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Digital Media, Artificial life and Post Classical Cinema: Condition,Symptom, or a Rhetoric of Funding?

 (First published in Leonardo ávol 31, no 5. 1998)

Michael Punt 


Technological determinism would argue that the popular cinema is driven by new technologies (especially digital media) in a very straight forward way. Digital imaging, for example has produced special effects and animations which were unimaginable before computer technology, and audiences are attracted to intellectually empty blockbuster films to experience the trilling spectacle of new technology. Moreover the organisation of the industry from camera control to box office has also been transformed by computer control systems. This paper proceeds from an acknowledgement of this technological change has altered films and the structure of the industry, but argues that there is also a relationship between the way that mainstream cinema organises its narratives and science and technology. As our understanding of these changes so does the internal logic of cause and effect in stories that we see. However unlike a determinist position this paper uses an historical approach to show the complexity of this interaction, and especially that it is not simply 'one way traffic'. On the contrary the extent to which science, technology and entertainment track the same trajectory throughout the century is apparent in the ways in which scientists have approached the problem of artificial intelligence. The paper concludes by posing the question; if digital technology is changing culture why is it that its closest cousins -- radio and television -- are creatively less responsive to it than its antique ancestor -- the cinema?

Digital Media, Artificial life and Post Classical Cinema: Condition, Symptom, or a Rhetoric of Funding?

Digital Culture and Cinema; an issue of history

It may seem odd to discuss an analogue media such as cinema in the same context as digital technology, especially since even when it was reputed to have been invented between 1890 and 1895, the Cinematographe and the Kinetoscope were technologically rather old fashioned. The late nineteenth century was a period when electricity became the symbol of progress and, in America, its commercial applications an expression of the nation's inventive genius. As the spectacle of electric light in particular became widespread from the mid 1880s onwards so a general fascination for it grew such that it was almost guaranteed to draw a crowd. David Nye's account of the electrification of America describes the almost supernatural effect that light, without the visible consumption of fuel, had on those who saw it (1) Moving pictures, on the other hand, used familiar photo-chemical technology and basic eighteenth century mechanics to produce a rather dim flickering illusion of movement which was often inferior to the visual richness and pictorial elegance of magic lantern shows. Moreover in the decade that followed the first showings the spectacle of the cinema remained much the same. To be sure very quickly color and some sort of synchronised sound was added, but until 1906 cinema was primarily the somewhat anachronistic technological attraction that it had been in 1895. And yet despite this it not only continued to attract huge audiences at fairs and semi permanent premises, but after 1907 it flourished economically to become, at the close of the century, the fourth largest industry in the world.(2) One explanation for this is that the movies began to tell stories in ways that circumvented the need for spoken language and touched its audiences in unique and socially meaningful ways. Cinema was understood (in today's vernacular) as an analogue technology which somehow manages to download some of its data directly into the mind. This may be dangerously simplistic, but the association between human mental activity and cinema technology and film language was made very quickly and has proved robust.(3) In a rather convenient reciprocity popular narrative cinema has been also been used by some film scholars and commentators in media studies to make claims about the social and psychological conditions in which they are understood. Postclassical and postmodernist cinema are not excluded from this analytical strategy, although in recent years the ahistoricism of such approaches have been confronted and more attention has been given to the interaction between textual strategies in the movies and the reading strategies of the viewer than to sociological readings of the text.(4) However in order to account for cinema in all its historical complexity, its enduring appeal might be better understood not as reflective of any particular psychological or social construction of the viewer, but in relation to the interaction of entertainment and science. In particular to examine cinema as a response to the changing scientific explanations of what it means to be a human being. This could suggest that changes in the dominant styles of film narrative are, to a greater or lesser extent, responsive to scientific research in some fields (consciousness and intelligence for example) and the preferred metaphors of funding agencies. Consequently, any historically informed discussion of digital culture should include a consideration of the way that entertainment affects science and technology as well as the impact of science and technology on what we find pleasurable.

New Hollywood; economic recovery or creative decline?

Even for those who never go to the cinema, the movies provide a powerful economic and cultural influence.Three decades ago this seemed unlikely as the new technology of television met the change in postwar demographics. The studio response of prestige pictures -- over length literary adaptations and biblical epics -- combined with a failure to respond to youth culture and the burgeoning diversity in the media market all but bankrupted some studios. Miraculously Hollywood has seemed to recover from the disaster of economic extinction which seemed all but inevitable in the late 1960s. (5) This recovery, in which cinema has become more profitable than it has ever been before, is the effect not simply of a radical restructuring of the studio system, but also a new kind of product which is actively engages with (and even shapes) digital technology. The New Hollywood product is a multimedia marketing concept spearheaded by the theatrical exhibition of massively promoted blockbusters. The films are presold to family audiences through book publishing, television and magazine coverage, and finally expensive advertising campaigns prior to a theatrical release around the major holidays. After worldwide saturation as theatrical releases they are then resold to the same audiences as both broadcast television and video commodities. To further increase profits, a wide range of entertainment franchises are tied into the film and launched with the theatrical release ranging from computer games and fashion garments to fast food. Only a small portion of the final profits come are calculated to come from the screening of the film, and more often than not the movie is nothing more than a spectacular advertisement for these other products. As a consequence, since the middle of the 1970s, mainstream movies have become a significant feature of contemporary life even for those people who never visit the cinema or even watch television.

The Hollywood blockbuster movie, as this product has become known, for some is symptomatic of Hollywood's drive for profit and is something of an artistic pariah for traditional cinefiles. It is undeniable that invariably blockbusters are effects driven action films with little time for character development or plot depth. However they represent new narrative forms which have been developed to meet the changing market for high investment products. They must appeal to both the youth market and have a wide family audience. Frequently they are a thinly disguised children's story or action spectacle structured around a simple struggle between overdetermined moral absolutes -- as for example in Star Wars. The problematic of these films is almost always how to restore social equilibrium in the face of massive disruption, rather than any higher aspirations for cinema as a site for social reform. Consequently, for many cinephile commentators the economic recovery of the industry has been at the cost of a substantial loss of content in popular films. Most especially popular cinema is condemned for its profoundly reactionary conservatism, the reduction of story to concept, and the collapse of character to one-dimensional stereotype. The hope for art film in this critical framework rests with an alternative cinema of independents, foreign, and third world productions which currently have small audiences and the economics of the industry may seem something of a Dinosaur.

The survival of this alternative cinema, however, is essential to the blockbuster. Although high investment films have proved to be far the most effective economic strategy for the film industry, the number of opportunities for such products is necessarily restricted to no more than a few each year. Consequently, between blockbuster launches it is commercially important to maintain the economic infrastructure of the industry and nurture a public enthusiasm for the cinema as an exhibition medium. Ticket sales are vital since while theatrical reception may directly account for only a minority of a film's revenue, box office receipts determine the price of the product to franchisers, television companies, and video distributors. Less expensive films (often referred to as 'smaller' productions) that are not so expensively presold are used to sustain an appetite for moviegoing and generate expectations for the major holiday release. These smaller films often provide a limited opportunity for variety, experiment, and risk in filmmaking and sometimes produce an unexpected hit in the so-called 'sleeper'. Public controversy around other small films produces a sense of variety in the medium and also raises awareness of the cinema in an indifferent consumer. In the past decades, many of the films whose economic purpose was primarily to sustain interest in preparation for the high-earning blockbuster are notable for their disturbing plots and excesses of violence. Consequently, while the blockbuster may be the source of greatest profit for the investor, it is often films that challenge the idealized values implicit in the family film which are influential in defining the public perception of the movies as an expressive medium. Even "art cinema" is shaped by the blockbuster logic of Hollywood.

Many of these smaller productions have shown socially dysfunctional individuals whose confrontation with the very social and political norms of the blockbuster family provides the story. In most, these are relatively mild expressions of rebellion; for example, unfettered ambition and irrational love (Ghost), a sanitized hippie lifestyle (House Sitter) or psychological damage and unstable erotic power relations (Pretty Woman). In others, however, full rein is given to controversial scenarios of extreme social and mental dysfunctionality. Most obviously this is seen in horror "'teenpics", sexploitation slasher films, and the currently chic nouvelle violence movies. Advertising budgets are low for smaller films, and often they acquire cult status by being promoted through word of mouth or go straight to video and a domestic subculture.Much of the impact and appeal of these films is undoubtedly attributable to a particular relaxation of the public conventions of self-expression and the institutional constraints on the depiction of nudity and sex that effective film censorship has imposed. In addition, many of these films confront blockbuster conservatism by sympathetically portraying disintegrating families, horrific crimes, and pathological criminals as intrinsic features of the social landscape. Some have a restricted exhibition through art house venues and out of town second-run cinemas, others go straight to video. The underground frisson of these movies promotes a culture of art house and cult auteurs which can migrate to mainstream big-budget productions. Some, like David Cronenberg, Jonathan Demme, David Lynch, Quentin Tarentino and the Joel and Ethan Cohen gain a high public profile, and their subsequent films find mainstream distribution and even significant theatrical profits. They take with them a legacy of many of the darker themes of their films, and these can be integrated with blockbusters as subtexts for a cinephile audience to appreciate. Some of the licence and obsession of cult films has formed barely concealed plot lines in high-body-count action movies (Terminator, Die-Hard), "grown-up" sex movies (Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Disclosure), and the underground serial killer movie (The Silence of the Lambs), as well as even the most apparently anodyne blockbuster (Toy Story). In summary, the cinema's recovery has been achieved through the economics of the crossover and it has precipitated a creative decline which is reflected in bleak expressions of the human condition, which has become tacitly understood as one of normalized social and psychological dysfunctionality by both the movie buffs and the non-cinema-going public alike.

Cinema and Old Science

Such pessimism, however, may be more the consequence of an excessive belief in economic determinism than a reflection of the virtues of the new Hollywood product.

The shared culture of consumption is not the only inescapable space of contemporary cinema. Science, especially the more abstract sciences of the mind, also interact with the movies. The economic inevitability of the crossover between cult films and blockbusters does not wholly account for the transfer of dark themes from minority auteurs to mainstream movies. After all, both producers and audiences are not only economic units but also social beings. Sociocultural explanations of the apparent twisted minds of contemporary cinema posit a model of the individual as a semi- autonomous part of a social whole. Acting in response to particular circumstances, within the limits of agreed conventions, the individual develops social strategies for self preservation. The film, it is argued, functions not simply as an aesthetic object but also as a representation of experience, and a representation that helps the viewer recognize and make sense of future experience. In cultural explanations of cinema, themes, individual viewers, and even auteurs are collapsed into socially coherent entities with limited space for independent action and interpretation. From this position, the dark themes of contemporary films are understood as thinly disguised expressions of deeply felt anxieties about such things as AIDS, the collapse of capitalism, the end of millennium, all of which are assumed to contribute to a deeply rooted social alienation caused by unfettered technological change. While these interpretations of cinema are built upon generalized theories of behaviour social change, economic and ethnographic studies of cinema viewing have revealed that the audience can no longer safely be theorized ahistorically nor as a unified mass at any given moment.

More personality-based accounts of these thematics uses psycho-social explanations regard the individual as a semi-autonomous expression of its own historical formation. The film, particularly the auteur film, is regarded as an inevitable reflection of an individual's expressed and concealed desires. Identification with a distorted world view in childhood, it is suggested, influences future interpretations of events in way that can be personally and socially damaging. In an attractive homology, sick films are the products of sick minds, and the experience of these films impinges upon the viewer in ways that are not always beneficial. The process of articulating these atavistic desires, it is argued, sanctions appetites in "normal" people for more extreme pleasures by reflecting them as expressible norms.

Evidence for this is supported by the often noted love affair that Classical Hollywood of the 'Forties and 'Fifties had with folk explanations of the mind- the so called Kitchen Freud. As, psychiatrists-turned-film-scholars, Krin and Glen Gabbard have noted, "If psychiatry had not existed, the movies would have had to invent it." Both the clinic and the studio, they suggest, have "as their prime focus human thought, behaviour and above all motivation." (6) Placing a psychiatrist in a classical movie, or laying bare Freudian explanations for actions, it has been suggested, provided shorthand clues to the motivations of two-dimensional characters. Some commentators opposed to the psychoanalytic textual analysis of film have suggested that the presence of psychoanalytic explanations (and even characters who are psychiatrists) in films functions like the strings in a puppet theater, a self-effacing voice to drive the action and attribute complexity. Psychiatry, in this view, becomes a convenient acquisition from science to solve a formal problem of storytelling.

There is sufficient evidence from the films themselves to suggest a symptomatic relationship between psychiatry and the cinema, to give this relationship a place in modern film theory. The incorporation of this explanatory model into film studies, however, is not uncontroversial. Freudian theory was imported into the humanities most enthusiastically during the 1960s at the very moment when it was a collapsing paradigm in scientific circles. In Film Studies, as in other disciplines, it was subject to close critical attention. Moreover, much of the perceived deficit of Freudian explanations was recovered by Jacques Lacan's rereading of Freud relative to specific linguistic theories. Lacan's dependence on Saussure linked it neatly with the existing paradigms in film theory. It provided a powerful tool to analyse spectatorial positions through sounds and images. This to happened at the moment when (according to film scholar David Bordwell) that theory was also being consigned to the margins by French intellectuals.(7)

Lacanian theory was thought to be significant, however, since it showed how the experience of watching narrative film could reflect both socially agreed and individually constructed perceptions of social hierarchies and the order of experience. Whereas cultural and Freudian explanations had been used largely to account for historical change in narrative form and individual traits and obsessions in auteurs, Lacan provided the basis of a meta-theory which suggested that mainstream cinema's signifying system and the stories that it tells might be understood as a reflection of the deep processes of socially determined human mentation. Consequently whole films, an auteur's output, and even the cinema itself might be analyzed as semi-autonomous entities interacting with psychologically defined groups of viewers.

The subsequent collapse of this grand theory has paved the way for a new strand of film studies that critically responds to this model of the mind and instead focuses on issues of cognitive processes and self referentiality in the movies. This approach can often convincingly anthropomorphize film, particularly at the level of mentation. Film scholar Tim Corrigan, for example, can speak of a number of films as "sharing a vision of a powerfully altered audience." He posits a continuity with the body of the viewer in which "audiences replace the securities and authorities of reading a film with a more assertive (and some times reckless) disregard for essential meanings or secrets in the movie, viewers are now performing that film as a kind of cult object that they can both appropriate and relinquish themselves to." (8) The weakened differentiation between the film and the viewer, which Corrigan and others have conjectured, has opened new possibilities for thinking about films especially in relation to the human body. One aspect of Corrigan's cinema, which he shares with a number of other contemporary theorists, is that the movie is always in the viewer's bodily present.

Corrigan's approach to the cinema relative to body metaphors and audiences elides the criticism of ahistoricism leveled at psychoanalytic approaches by locating subjectivity in what has become known as body history. As a technological artifact the cinematographe is, arguably, a prosthetic apparatus. Not only were its principal inventors interested in ideas of artificial life, organic chemistry, and other prosthetic machines like the telephone and phonograph, but the principle of the apparatus is founded in a well-observed disparity between stimulus and experience in a perceived economy of human perception. Moreover, as a number of recent studies of the cultural history of the cinema have suggested, the connection between science and the cinema was more complex than can be explained by the rampant eclecticism of aggressive entrepreneurs and the appetites of a mass audience.

As some historians are now beginning to suggest, 19th century experimental practice was posited on a quite specific concept of an observer. In the last decades in particular, a number of optical devices that had hitherto been little more than philosophical diversions found practical application. The stereoscope, for example, proved that it was not just individual subjectivity that made scientific observation problematic, but the very apparatus of the eye itself which could not be trusted as a reliable source of scientific knowledge. This finding not only did not reinforce instruments like the camera but for some scientists made it all the more suspect. During the last years of the 19th century the pioneering French pysiologist Jules-Etienne Marey, for example, was skeptical that the photographic image could be of use to him in his research into the movement of humans and animals. For much of his work he preferred to use pneumatic switches and smoked drums to record sequential stages of human and animal movement rather than a camera. It was necessary for him to understand the various versions of chronophotographic apparatus as an extension of the human body, which both amplified perception and reduced subjectivity, before he would incorporate it in his experiments. Not unnaturally, any attempt to reconstitute movement (as proposed by his assistant Georges Demeny for example) was dismissed. From a study of the written archives, historian Marta Braun has concluded that, for all the practical applications of his work at the Physiological Station in Paris, Marey's primary object in his chronophotographic studies was to redefine the observer by challenging the human senses and the language that we use to describe them. (9) Marey's use of complex instruments to verify theory was consistent with a widespread cultural delimitation of scientific research to exclude the untutored observer from the discourse. His chronophotographic machines provided insights into movement that were subsequently applied to many industrial processes, but, perhaps more importantly, they demonstrated the fallibility of the human observer. Nonetheless, almost against his will, the apparatus that he devise formed one of the technological foundations of the movies. The reinterpretation of scientific instruments as machines for pleasure and entertainment purposes is not simply financial opportunism but is also indicative of the tensions in the struggle for control of scientific enquiry between the layman and the professional. (10)

Cinema and New Science

The cinematic apparatus has remained relatively unchanged for a century, and the human observer has continued to be discredited as a reliable scientific witness. High science and its dominant assumptions and practices, however, still appear to have some effect on the changing uses of the cinematographe. As film production became more focused around Hollywood, for example, scientific principles of task management, derived principally from Frederick Taylor, shaped film form. The studio system divided what had previously been a relatively seamless production process undertaken by hierarchical teams into discrete defined functions. According to an historical analysis of classical Hollywood film Bordwell, Thompson and Staiger, suggest that this is evident in changes in film style. (11) The influential technology of the continuity script, which organized the individual contributions to the production process, also shaped the dynamics of the narratives and their visualization. This device favored screenplays that could be written according to defined organizing principles of film production. The scientific management of these tasks, they argue, is reflected in the structure of Hollywood narratives. The particular analysis of work processes in the film industry produced a method with which to simulate aspects of human thought, behavior and motivation that could be codified in screenwriting manuals. (12)

At the same time as Hollywood industrialized a complex creative activity such as film-making, some aspects of human mentation were similarly thought in scientific circles, to be expressible as the cumulative progression of complex algorithms. Work in this direction was greatly advanced during the Second World War as electronic computational devices were developed with the intention of decoding ciphers and calculating the complex mathematical equations that were used in gunnery. These objectives were not realized until 1946, when the ENIAC computer was completed and publicly displayed. This presentation was necessary in order to secure funding from a public to whom such machines were unfamiliar, and for whom arithmetic had a limited attraction. In the demonstration, the trajectory of a shell was calculated in less time than the missile took to reach the target. The flashing lights installed especially for the occasion showed in Hollywood fashion that computers could replicate some human mental processes. At a stroke, experimental work into artificial intelligence (AI) changed direction from a philosophical inquiry into the mind, to technological projects which showed that mechanical models built on the principle of recurring numerical series could manifest intelligence. Further research into the replication of organic behavior by computational means was stimulated both by the prevailing beliefs about human thought, behavior and motivation and by the apparently infinite capacity computers had for serial calculation.

The rapid development of computer technology masked two serious objections: the first that computers did not have an infinite power, and second, that scientific research cannot proceed without an agreed system of representation. Representing human thought as a capacity to manipulate numbers overlooked the obvious tautology that mathematics is an elegant and complex human construct. This has become more evident in recent work in the history of science which shows that the extent to which satisfactory explanations achieve professional currency is dependent on the acceptance of agreed metaphors.(13) The paradigmatic example often cited is Frederick Kekule, who claimed to have visualized the structure of Benzene in a dream. Kekule's model prevailed for more than a century even though it was recognised to be flawed. Since it explained some puzzling aspects of organic chemistry in a stereoscopic model, however, it persisted and coincidentally prepared the way for the double helix metaphor that is currently used to explain the structure of DNA. Similarly, the development of research into artificial intelligence in America has also been traced by Daniel Dennet as a story of changing metaphors. (14) Initially, the dominant representation of human intelligence in scientific circles was a series of algorithmic progressions that lead to specific outcomes. Memory was understood as a massive store of discrete data accessed through a complex and uniquely human cataloguing system that might be replicated. Changes in direction, however, require the collapse of prevailing metaphors. According to a number of accounts of artificial intelligence research, this was brought about in the 1980s partly by the failure of existing projects to deliver but more significantly by an emerging computer culture driven by the independent freewheeling West Coast sensibility which dominated the developers of Silicon Valley. Intelligence began to be envisaged as a network of small electrical impulses whose meaning was their habitual pathways and intersections. Memory in a neural network was understood as an intrinsic tendency to make familiar connections in response to certain stimuli rather than a catalogue of fixed information. The crucial feature of these new models is that the network becomes both the delivery system and the store. Using the so called wetware of the brain as the metaphor, artificial intelligence researchers overcame the hardware limitations of computational AI and could conduct their inquiries with relatively modest hardware as independent producers free from corporate structures.

A different rhetoric of funding and independent research programs have stimulated new metaphors of the mind in response to particular failures of wetware models. Since, it is argued, that every new network program, however brilliant, was a human construct, it followed that synthetic artificial intelligence was a logical impossibility. Increasingly it became clear that technological complexity merely masked the human determination that would always be at the heart of whatever humans invented. In something of a conflation with research in artificial life, artificial intelligence programs have begun to decenter the human brain and, under the rubric of behavioral AI, model themselves on insect life. (15) In these projects simple-minded machines designed to respond to low-level algorithmic instructions interact with each other to produce what is known as swarm intelligence. A simple instruction prohibiting collision, for example, will quickly produce wall-following behavior in computer-controlled devices placed in a confined space. Although the machines do not exhibit human intelligence, extrapolating from these experiments suggests that mentation involves processing data while simultaneously processing responses to the results. From this it is concluded that the mind works contingently with the environment and to this extent is understood as coextensive with all nature.

Cinema Science and Popular Culture

There is no reason to suppose that these current models of the mind are any more or less correct than earlier ones. However, in the rhetoric of funding, support for these lines of inquiry is forthcoming because of a certain compatibility with other social and scientific preoccupations posited on a particular understanding of nature as an ecological system. Earlier research programs, based on serial computation, (which required ever greater computer power) may have been appropriate when the gap between scientific enquiry and popular culture was comparatively large. But, in recent years, things have changed. The cultivated professional distance of the scientist has collapsed insofar as major projects, like space exploration, now require an entertainment component in order to proceed. NASA recognized that live television coverage of their missions was an essential component of their research strategy if they were to attract sufficient public money. Whether live launch coverage, or glamourized fictions such as Apollo 13, or Star Wars, the interface between science and entertainment is thinner than white-coated professionals like to think. As in artificial intelligence research, metaphors intended to garner support are more effective if they are in tune with the cultural imagination. In these as in other projects, the popular and scientific imaginaries overlap.

Since Hollywood invades many aspects of our intellectual and cultural life, regardless of our consent, it would be remarkable if the diffusion of the boundary between science and entertainment did not influence or affect popular film. On the one hand, the interrelationship between the cinema and the science of mind and body are long-standing, while on the other, movies are increasingly a component in extensive commercial strategies that embrace scientific projects. The collapse of the studio system of production opened the way for new topics and more visible textual strategies. Where, for example in films from the so-called "Golden Age of Hollywood" (more precisely the classical period which extended from the late 'teens to the 1960s) the underlying arithmetical framework is concealed so as not to bare the artifice of the film and stall it, in many contemporary movies the textual strategy has become an element in the pleasurable processes of fully understanding what is going on. Tim Corrigan sees this as the essential differentiating feature of contemporary films.

As he puts it:

Until recently, moreover, most films have willingly accommodated and encouraged [a hermeneutic] forms of reception and have addressed their various audiences along a path whose reading (in one way or another) promises decipherment. How and where this circuit of reading has been disrupted in recent years is the most broad based distinction of contemporary viewing. If many contemporary viewers have an increasingly distracted relationship with the images that they appropriate in one way or another, today that relationship and those images seem more and more structured to resist legibility.(16)

He proposes that the hermeneutical operations which films once invited have been wilfully transformed into ones in which the text can remain illegible provided it is substituted by a transparent textual strategy. In scientific circles this has a partial equivalent in the concept of swarm intelligence, in which the operation of the system becomes its significant meaning.

Small, high earning 'sleepers' and cult pictures, especially the chic noire and nouvelle violence movies of the '90s, have valorized low-IQ petty crooks and serial killers who are divested of deep psychological motivation and programmed to perform reactive to the environment at the same time as they process it. Narrative progression is no longer achieved through the 'realistic' depiction of human thought, behaviour and motivation identification. Grey suited psychiatrists, who once conveniently appeared to provide psychological explanations for motivation, are not quite the frequent habituÚ of narrative film that they used to be. Instead brilliant serial killers, some with a taste for their victims, are placed in the same space as an ambitious cops, compulsive perverts, and psychopathic doctors (to choose a few at random) and simply told to survive. Closure in The Silence of the Lambs, for example, does not depend on plausible explanations of thought, behavior, or motivation, but, like many films of the past decades, on the best case scenario for survival within given parameters.

It seems impossible to take seriously the idea that screen writers are AI specialists, or that the denizens of the Media Lab and Stanford are closet movie directors. But without it, how else can we explain this parallel? The temptation may be to regard a generalized heightened awareness of systems and their foregrounding in mainstream film as the spirit of the times. And since many contemporary movies teeter at the brink of urban dystopia and/or technological apocalypse, the twisted minds can be analyzed with sociological and psychoanalytic paradigms as symptomatic of our age and as cautions against the excess and perversion of civilization and especially the evil of autonomous technology. In which case the movies, conveniently become, once more, a talking cure, a return to the dark space in which deep anxieties are cured when they can be expressed as symptoms. For some commentators with little faith in psychocultural explanations, these zeitgeist theories are at best merely satisfactory descriptions masquerading as explanations.

A more symbiotic explanation might show how the gap between science and entertainment is much smaller than imagined. Moreover, the interaction and exchange might occur not only in shared technologies, but in the very imagination that seems necessary to negotiate our consciousness of the world as complex and ultimately unknowable. Science in narrative cinema and the cinema in scientific research do seem to function reciprocally to help account for difficult things, providing images, metaphors, and useful descriptions for each other. As Braun suggests, Marey's research in the closing decades of the nineteenth century at the Physiological Station, for all its practical applications for the military, industry, and manufacture, was philosophical in that it primarily addressed what he saw as a discrepancy between the experience of the body and language. This rather abstract project, however, formed the basis of a spectacular popular exposition known as early cinema, the enthusiasm for which outstripped all informed expectations. In a rather different scientific culture, films like True Romance with their high body count, meaningless oaths, convoluted plots, and three-way shootouts are perhaps more reflective of the twisting systems of explanation that we use in science today to account for human thought, behavior and motivation, than they are symptomatic of any particular social or intrinsic psychological condition.

This possibility, however appealing, has one important deficit. If the current obsession in the cinema with virtual worlds, technological dystopias and collapsing time and space are connected with the popular appetite for science, especially science that can explain the quotidian aspects of life, there are some particularly puzzling questions. How did the cinema ever become implicated in the metaphors of science in the first place? How does contemporary cinema continue to stay in touch with the more remote projects of science? And why has the cinema continued to incorporate science's various systems of explanation in its textual strategies when, with the exception of their pioneering stages, both radio and television have abandoned them ? The answers to these questions may well have bearing on another troublesome issue that the advent of digital media poses -- if we are now witnessing the end of television, as some media gurus propose, why is it that popular cinema shows so little sign of collapse and on the contrary promises, even greater cultural significance in the coming decades? New modes of entertainment delivery inevitable in the convergence of the television and computer networks will make ever greater demands on studio back-libraries. Digital media will increase further levels of cine-literacy and cultivate an appetite for new movies as well as obliging us to reconsider the importance of our film history.

Notes and references.

1. For an account of the reception of electricity in America see David E. Nye, Electrifying America; Social Meanings of a New Technology (Cambridge:MIT, 1991), also Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Disenchanted Night: The Industrialisation of Light in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

2.For an overview of new approaches to early cinema history, see the introductory section of Thomas Elsasser, Space Frame Narrative (London:BFI, 1990).

3. For an early example of a link between the mind and the screen play see Hugo Munsterberg, The photoplay: A Psychological Study (New York: Appleton, 1916; reprinted New York: Dover, 1972).

4. See David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989).

5. See Thomas Schatz, "The New Hollywood" in Film Theory Goes to the Movies, J.Collins, et al, eds. (London:Routledge, 1993)8--36.Thomas Schatz's account of New Hollywood follows the dismantling of the studio system under economic and legislative pressure and Hollywood's revival and subsequent ascendancy need not necessarily have followed the trajectory that it has. But Schatz, who with some justification sees the turning point as Steven Spielberg's Jaws, in retrospect can claim that "Jaws was a social, industrial, and economic phenomenon of the first order, a cinematic idea and cultural commodity whose time had come. In many ways, the film simply confirmed or consolidated various existing industry trends and practices." These trends were learned from both high investment films (many of which failed financially) and some unusual movies which, according to Schatz saved the whole movie industry from oblivion, films like The Godfather, American Graffiti, The Sting, The Exorcist, and Rosemary's Baby some of which were presold and others mere sleepers.

6. Krin Gabbard, and Glen Gabbard, Psychiatry and the Cinema (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987) p.xi.

7. David Bordwell, and Noel Carroll, Post Theory; Reconstructing Film Studies, (Wisconsin:University of Wisconsin Press, 1996).

8. Timothy Corrigan, A Cinema Without Walls: Movies and Culture After Vietnam (London: Routledge, 1991) p. 3.

9. For a study of the Marey archives see Marta Braun, Picturing Time: The Work of Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904) (Chicago:Chicago University Press, 1992).For discussions of vision and the body in the nineteenth century see also Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer (Cambridge: MIT, 1990), and Lisa Cartwright, Screening the Body (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995).

10. For an extended discussion of the emergence of science as entertainment see Michael Punt, " "Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?": A Problem of Digital Photography," The Velvet Light Trap 36, 3--30 (Fall 1995).

11. For an authoritative account of classical film style see David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).

12. A film such as Sunset Boulevard (1950) is a paradigmatic example form the studio period of a movie that makes an impossibly complex plot structure comprehensible through an arithmetical serial structure. The story charts the rise and fall of an aspiring screenwriter and the tragic decline of an old film star. The plot, however manages the complexities of a voiceover narration by the writer who witnesses his own murder and is dead before the titles roll. From the opening Paramount trademark the film gathers its resources in a linear and systematic way. Text, music, graphics, sound, and photographic image are marshaled sequentially in a few minutes and located in the dead body of the omniscient narrator. The conceptual acrobatics necessary to understand the film as realistic are facilitated by an orthodox act structure of 1:2:1. Approximately 25 minutes are spent on the setup (act I), 58 minutes on the development (act II), and 23 on the final act and closure. The whole film is divided precisely in two with the first half depicting the writing of the film and the second its production. Neat framing devices at either end of the movie mark the moment of the writer's entry into this process and the moment of his expulsion. Both of these are eight minutes long. Close analysis with a stop watch shows many more elegant arithmetical correspondences. A popular film like Sunset Boulevard convincingly depicts a 1950s version of human thought, behavior, and above all motivation in a narrative structure that can be expressed as an algorithm. As such, it is entirely in keeping with high-level scientific abstractions of intelligence.

13. See Michael Lynch and Steve Woolgar, eds. Representation in Scientific Practice (Cambridge: MIT, 1990), especially Bruno Latour "Drawing Things Together".

14. The issue of representation and scientific practice is developed particularly in relation to AI by Daniel Dennett "Computer Models and the Mind -- a view from the East Pole, " Times Literary Supplement 1453--1454 (December 1984)

15. For an overview see Manuel De Landa "Virtual Environments and the Emergence of Synthetic Reasoning" South Atlantic Quarterly 92, 793--816 (Fall 1993).

16. Corrigan [8] p.52.

Film References

Ghost Jerry Zucker, 1990. UIP/Paramount.

House Sitter Frank Oz Image Films

Pretty Woman Gary Marshall, 1990. Buena Vista/Touchstone.

Terminator James Cameron, 1984. Orion/Hemdale/Pacific Western.

Die Hard John McTiernan, 1988. Fox/Gordon Company/Silver Pictures.

Fatal Attraction Adrian Lyne, 1987. Paramount.

Basic Instinct


The Silence of the Lambs Johnathan Demme, 1900. Rank/Orion

Star Wars George Lucas, 1977. TCF/Lucasfilm.

True Romance

Sunset Boulevard Billy Wilder, 1950. Paramount.


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