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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Media Journal Entry

March 23, 1993

A software theory of film - a la McLuhan:

The yolk of one medium is the embryo of another. The metal age allowed electricity to be processed, and in the age of the steam engine it was the telegraph, which made it possible to keep track of many thousands of steam locomotives and their carriages. Alongside the movement of heavy quantities of steel, and passengers, flashed electric information.

Eventually the telegraph metamorphosed into the computer, which today is the machine for managing  a new sort of content, software. The software today is both subject, and new machine both, as discussed above.

The technological processes behind filmmaking enabled the manipulation of many psychological and physiological principles embedded in man's being. Film as it were, became a machine to lead the heart, to inspire passion. Initially, as a means of communication and propaganda, it occasionally took form as art. But the idiom progressed, and the language of psychological manipulation became commonplace, films became predictable in their ability to perform a task and achieve a measurable reaction. (cf. advertising). At this point the film as a thought process, became the machine, operating with the assistance of another older mechanism, film technology.

So what today is the subject of film? Do we answer this by considering all forms that streamed images take, whether over the television, on the growing computer network, or in the cinema theatre?

It is no accident that the heyday of the 35mm film as shown to millions in movie theaters in this country, coincided almost exactly with the changeover from steam locomotive technology to the use of the automobile, and from the telegraph to the telephone.

Whereas locomotive is managed with the telegraph line beside the track, and thus follows a very centralized, urban central layout, the automobile enabled point to point methods of transportation. Hence telephone wires enabled the same type of communication, one point to any other. Switching systems were designed to emulate the exact manner in which one would drive from one place to any other.

The film, as a metaphor for the earlier pair, and achieving its economic zenith immediately prior  to WWII, gave its life to the new and emerging form, video and television, over a long and protracted period which has not ended yet. We still see films in theaters, just as we occasionally ride trains. The metaphor extends further, a film is viewed by many persons at once whereas a videotape or a television broadcast is consumed in the the privacy of the home. One is centralized, the other localized. One is high resolution shared by many, the other low resolution shared by few. The train carriage carried many persons at once, from urban center to urban center, the auto transports usually a few or a single person point to point each according to his needs.

The telegraph, signaling the late arrival of a particular train, serves as the information link for the managing of the physical unit. A station master knows the whereabouts of all due trains and when they will arrive. The inevitable, and predictable medium, is what classifies filmmaking as one of the first of the new information technologies. The 5:45 will come through. Film functions by a clock - it is not interactive, once a soundtrack has been added, and is viewed in respectful silence by an audience that though gathered in a public space, respects private reaction to the film with little or no social intercourse before or during the projection. The film is in this sense a visual train. You must board on time, and when the train stops, there are no more views to be seen.

Films may then be seen as software equivalents to the train tracks themselves, as material or content for the simple linear processor, the projector, engine or computer. In fact, present computer design emulates the film medium in nearly all respects, its linearity, one-frame-at-a-time,reversibility, numerical addressing. A reel of film, with all its hypothetical addresses, counted in feet and frames, provides the sound editor with a precise means of locating a desired effect. The medium is a simple program, run in a linear fashion, but the output is not linked with itself. The feedback component is missing. Human beings read films, the same way that trains read tracks. Films do not as yet read other films. Nor do films read human beings. Computer programs do read other computer programs, and are beginning to read human beings.

But it is precisely this linearity, and its limitation, the Von-Neuman bottleneck, that impedes computer advances to this day. Parallelism, long understood by any mechanical engineer who builds locomotives, paper mills, or any machine that employs simultaneously moving parts, has yet to find its exact equivalent in motion pictures or television, or the computer sciences.

We may imagine information technologies as being at an infantile stage, similar to the axe blade which was capable of one use at a time, and unable to put to work many of the advanced concepts of co-ordination, parallel action, and scheduling, that operate in even the simplest mechanical device with moving parts.

Computers today, are less parallel, than the 'machine' that cranks out the New York Times. Admittedly it is a factory environment, employing thousands of people, but one that is massively parallel. Computers rely for the most part on brute speed, and employ single processors - that is they perform one step at a time.

Computer networks are poised at the edge of an equivalent advance. Many computers, in communication with each other, work simultaneously, and draw their material from common databases. Yet the programming itself, is at present worked out laboriously in simple strings. And the processor sees them in strings, and handles them thus.

If the stuff of all human-created media is "stringing", ie. linking together of processes, and if our endeavor is to produce a 'machine', (remember in this model a thought process is also a 'machine'), which in turn reflects and emulates from our mythos, then we have to be concerned that what is leading the whole circus parade, are our mythologies, which I can show have not changed much in several thousand years. We know our reasoning, and thought to be ultimately parallel - our frustration arises from the fact that all our outputs have been about only one aspect of our natures, a creature that thinks in logical strings, reads in sentences, reasons in sequence.

Machine mind is a program, with an expected result. Rituals on the other hand do not have the expected result, yet, the programming inside of us that makes machines, and thinks like machines, are ritually embedded.

Our only output free of linear process oriented thinking, are our arts, religion, and myth. None of these have a 'result'.

Yet they hover over everything else that we are and do.

Art remains the one realm where we are at a loss to explain the whole 'why'. It is there, reflects our being, the essence of it, and defies us to find a bottom. As the vehicle for religion and myth, it is limitless as our own souls, which yield to become the soul of the universe itself.

So is art the perfect machine? Yes if we accept the criteria of infinite parallel processes. Subject? Ourselves and everything Else. It may even one day lead us to successfully break down that distinction.

As an art, filmmaking must be analyzed in a method that is released from these strictures of linearity. Films exists in a space time, a diegesis, outside that of the metronomic progression of events. The time sequence within a film is something quite outside of real time and even the order of the shots as they are projected. It is therefore apropos to consider the shots in a film as if they were edited in different order. It is indeed correct, and with this in mind, to project a film backwards, and all the shots contained within it in any order at all. Ken Jacobs is a good example of a filmmaker experimenting with this concept. Mythologies may be the only structures that exhibit time reversal invariance, primarily because they are ritually based. Zeus descends / ascends to and from Olympus.

The 'meaning' of a film, its 'freight' as a common carrier, is larger, and independent of the means by which it is rigorously, and most often, exhibited. As a work of art, it bears meanings which stand up to the stresses of being presented out of context. Each piece is important, and can be as powerful as the whole.

Film delights in being broken, into shards.

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