TECHNOLOGY AND THE CHANGING ROLE
OF ARTISTIC COMMUNICATION
Written by Rob Ager March 2015 ©
For over seven years now I’ve been publishing videos and articles communicating my interpretations of classic movies. The vast majority of movies that I choose for study are over twenty years old. Many fans of my work have requested that I publish my interpretations of more recent films such as There Will Be Blood or Prometheus and many times I’ve been asked outright why I don’t publish studies of modern films.
My usual answer to the above question is that “I don’t think many modern films are very good” and I stand by that statement. However, it is a simplistic answer that deceptively avoids a complex range of factors that, in my opinion, have led to a general decline in not just the quality and importance of movies, but of all forms of art.
Of course there are some modern films I really like – The Master, Snowtown, Cloud Atlas and even children’s films like Wall E and Despicable Me have stuck in memory for me and are worthy of discussion. But despite having such films on my now lengthy to do list for future study, I simply haven’t been able to find sufficient motivation to carry out those writing projects. This has puzzled me for some time as I have repeatedly been drawn back to older movies, recently publishing studies of largely forgotten films like Revenge of the Nerds and Death Wish II (both films are from the early 1980’s and are generally, and mistakenly, considered highly commercialized fodder) that have virtually never been requested for study by fans of my work.
I’ve devoted a fair bit of thought recently to figuring out this motivational dilemma and have reached some conclusions about the current relationship between technology and art that are both deflating and encouraging at the same time. I’ll start with what is probably the most easy to identity factor that has changed the world of film viewing (and in turn film making) and I’ll gradually get into issues that are less talked about. I’ll also save my more positive statements on the subject until last.
From childhood through to my thirties I witnessed a revolution in communications technology, which has taken us from broadcast television based entertainment (no pause and reverse function, no recording mechanism – you either watched that movie while it was transmitting or you probably wouldn’t get another chance to see it for years) to the availability of hundreds of thousands of movies available, illegally, for download direct to your personal computer – allowing you to watch almost any movie at your leisure. While this has allowed an extremely positive effect of allowing viewers to experience the same movie multiple times and thus explore its conceptual depths in ways a single viewing would not allow, it has also had some very detrimental effects.
Downloading is cutting the funds for honest art
Art, like just about any other human endeavor, requires time and resources for artists to produce. The financial funds tend to come from one of two sources – 1) Funds from the artist’s own pocket – often from profits earned from sales of their previous works, and 2) Investment provided by others who seek to gain in some way from the new works the artist is intending to produce. The latter, unless facilitated by a financially well to do art collector or enthusiast, generally comes as investment from political institutions or big business and the price tag for such investment will virtually always be that the “art” must serve some form of marketing / propaganda function and often to the point where the investor’s demands strip the finished work of art of any personal expression the artist hoped to infuse in it. The artist thus reduces himself to the role of a marketing salesman in disguise unless he is sufficient in contract negotiation to retain a worthwhile degree of artistic freedom in the project.
The propaganda investment factor is largely unaffected by the phenomena of downloading because such investors expect their product to return a profit not through direct sales, but through whatever knock on effect of public opinion the finished “art” is designed to induce. Such movies are considered advertisements for something other than the movie itself. However, art that is funded by big business for direct profit (as in sales of the finished art itself based on popularity among the public) is suffering greatly. The music industry in particular, has suffered immense damage due to the smaller file sizes, and thus downloading time, of audio files in comparison to movie downloads.
An interesting aspect of the downloading effect on how art is financed is that certain genres are being disproportionately affected compared to others based on the IT skills of the social demographic viewing audience associated with such genres. For example, classical and opera music is likely to have an audience that includes many upper class listeners who are easily able to purchase official copies of the music they like instead of trying to save money to pay their bills. Romantic comedy movies, on the other hand, tend to be watched by a lot of women who are less interested in computer technology than they are in families and personal relationships. Their comparative lack of internet savvy means they will be less likely to know how to download the movies they want to see, unless a friend or family member does it for them. Electronica music audiences, however, are more likely to be internet savvy, and thus more likely to download and not pay for the product.
Putting all these factors together, the infusion of product placement and political propaganda into works of art that are expensive to produce (movies in particular) is becoming much more commonplace. And such shallow movies are subject to less competition for audience attention due to the market collapse of movies that depend on direct profit from paying audiences.
Downloading is denying artists market feedback
It may seem contradictory to use capitalism as a yardstick for valuing a work of art, but prior to the download age it was quite a reliable yard stick that at least guided artists in knowing how to package their movies to gauge audience attention. This feedback mechanism ensured that from the 1960’s through to 80’s movies were economical in their use of time – scenes were written in order to get to the point without any boring and unnecessary fluff. It was quite common for a movie to have a run time of just ninety minutes (the ideal runtime, in this author’s opinion, for maintaining audience enthusiasm), where as today a great many movies clock in at well over two hours in length.
It is very hard for the film industry to assess exactly how many viewers of a particular movie release are watching an illegally downloaded copy rather than paying for the product. And a large number of downloads does not necessarily mean the film has been liked by its audience. Downloading a movie requires minimal investment from the viewer so they will be more willing to take a risk on watching a badly reviewed or badly marketed film, where as they would be far less likely to part with their money for a product that everyone is telling them isn’t worth watching.
Downloading is devaluing art
When paying to view a work of art, audiences are more likely to invest their time in experiencing what they have purchased in full. A downloaded movie or album can be switched off and discarded within minutes if the viewer / listener is not immediately engaged. There’s no sense of financial loss. But back when there was no downloading, if an album was purchased the listener would be much more likely to play the disc a few times in the hope that the music might grow on them and reveal their investment in the product to have been worthwhile.
Downloading audiences know that they have an immense library of artistic works to experience at their finger tips and so, understandably, they are less inclined to devote their time to experiencing a particular piece of art that does not immediately hook them in with some form of instant stimulation (aesthetically or intellectually). This is evident in the many millions of Youtube videos available online. Some of my most highly viewed videos, such as 11 interesting details in The Matrix, are not only short, but are designed to have some sort of attention grabbing impact within the first 30 seconds, but even that isn’t quick enough for some viewers. My longer videos, which are usually much better overall, tend to get less views because of the short attention spans of Youtubers who are itching to click another video that will make them giggle within 10 seconds.
A purchased piece of art that cannot be downloaded, yet has initially disappointed the buyer, is also more likely to be stored away for potential future access. Downloaders on the other hand can safely delete a movie or song, knowing they can always download it again.
In addition to all this is the sheer volume of art that downloaders experience. Before the internet one might have within arms’ reach a handful of art books to flick through or perhaps a couple of local galleries to visit, but in the space of an hour, an online art enthusiast can now look at several thousand digitized pieces of art – giving just a few seconds of consideration to the content of each one. Abundance breeds indifference.
Downloading as political and market warfare
I’ve been very surprised at the scale of illegal file sharing operations carried out online by anonymous sources. Sometimes even obscure movies that hardly anyone wishes to download are made available on torrent sites for download. Somebody, somewhere took the time of ripping the film from an original DVD, converted it into a space efficient file format and then added that file onto the torrent networks complete with a full description of the file’s technical details and a description of the film’s plot. And this has been done for virtually the entire back catalogue of movies owned by many large distributors. My suspicion is that the big movie distributors might be deliberately trying to neutralize their market competitors or that different governments are behind the mass file uploads in an attempt to harm the movie industries of their opponent nations. A row about movie releases has already broken out between the US and North Korea regarding the movie The Interview released by Sony. The film presented North Korea in a negative light. The FBI blamed North Korean’s for hacking Sony’s computers and releasing embarrassing information about the company to discourage the release of the film.
Computer-generated imagery (CGI)
Is devaluing visual imagination
Film history has been full of increasingly impressive feats in capturing the visual imagination of artists from the glorious set designs of The Wizard of Oz to the stunning physical transformation from man to beast in An American Werewolf In London. But with today’s CGI technology, which is basically an advanced form of animation akin to children’s cartoons (as in the content mostly did not exist in an actual physical form in front of the camera) it has become far too easy to put on screen just about anything a film maker can imagine. All that is required is a well paid team of CGI artists and sufficient time for them to do their work.
Initially much of this CGI work was very impressive. When first watching movies like Terminator 2 and The Matrix I and others often gasped at the special effects on display. It was something new – a leap forward. But after more than two decades and thousands of CGI-effects movies the “wow” factor has faded. Movies like Prometheus and Gravity are very well done visually, but they lack the “How did they do that?” feeling that was induced by say the organically visceral effects in John Carpenter’s The Thing.
Nowadays, no conceived movie monster is too big or complex to show, no battle scene is too epic, stunts can be performed by CGI versions of characters, and even minor aesthetic details are touched up without us even realizing that a CGI effect has been applied. It’s gotten to the point where big budget films are now so overly polished with CGI that they feel like cartoons. And unfortunately, even low budget film makers are prioritizing the polished look instead of embracing the gritty, hands dirty feel of movies like Clerks, Eraserhead, Mad Max, Tetsuo and Hellraiser – probably because they know it’s what distributors expect of them. Pre-CGI low budget films often felt more expressive, more engaging and more like genuine achievements by the film makers who really had to work hard and use their resourcefulness instead of falling back on CGI and a huge money supply.
Online published reviews are distracting audiences
from more reliable word of mouth reviews
Back in the early days of VHS video, when one had to physically go to a video rental store and pick a movie to rent and take home to watch, people hardly read film reviews. Some hardcore movie enthusiasts may have bought the odd issue of a movie magazine to find out what the latest releases were, but on the whole we chose movies to watch based on the sales pitch given on the box cover, which occasionally would include a couple of positive quotes from reviewers or even the mention of an award nomination, but mostly we relied on the opinions of other people we met in daily life who would tell us which movies they’d seen and whether they were any good.
All of the marketing prowess in the world could not overcome the power of word of mouth in affecting our choice of video rentals. The film critic reviews published in newspapers and magazines may have had some effect on initial cinema ticket sales, but those reviews would quickly be forgotten being that they had no internet permanence because there was no internet. So if a movie was better than the critics gave it credit or had been under-marketed in its cinema run then its VHS release would gradually catch on through word of mouth and generate a long rental shelf life.
Word of mouth recommendation of movies is still a strong force today, but to a large extent it has been replaced by the permanence of internet published magazine reviews. There’s a two-sided aspect to this. We have the standard “professional” film critic assessment of a movie, which differs little to the reviews published in newspapers and magazines prior to the existence of the internet, but we also have a large number of “amateur” reviews posted by every day people. The latter range enormously in quality and so the mainstream published reviews are still dominant, but the permanence on the internet of both “professional” and “amateur” muddies the more reliable word of mouth market feedback mechanism that ensured a more consistent string of entertaining movies prior to the internet. Read up about a movie on Wikipedia and the “Critical Response” section will typically only cite “reliable sources” (well funded publishers) in assessing the film, even though there are often many far more insightful reviews available from smaller online publishers and bloggers. And given people’s nature for letting the mainstream media mold their thoughts on many an issue, they often don’t afford themselves an opportunity to form their own opinion of a movie for themselves. Wbsites like IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes try to offer a balanced overall review taking into account many thousands of reviews, but the result is still distorting because often the only people who are bothering to review a particular film are those are dedicated fans. And so such movies end up being overrated in the supposedly balanced result. In other cases movies that have been over-marketed draw in more reviewers who were disappointed or even angry, thus generating a negatively biased result.
The film industry itself is aware of all this and now markets its movies in a manner to ensure that initial positive mainstream media reviews will take place – whether warranted or not – with the knowledge that the online permanence of those reviews will have a long-lasting reputational effect, even if the public’s view of the film is less favorable. Though difficult to prove in most instances, creators of movies and other works of art will also sometimes resort to flooding the internet with fake positive reviews of their product (and perhaps negative reviews of their competitors’ products). And so, the word of mouth from a friend or relative factor hasn’t completely died. It’s still the most reliable way of finding out which new movies are good. I personally won’t be watching Interstellar because all of my most trusted film fan friends have slated it.
Online analysis’ are demystifying the arts
I have to hold my hand up as a guilty contributing party to this one. Fan based analytical studies of movies, music, video games, and other art forms have exploded online in the past ten years. I now have over thirty thousand subscribers on my Youtube channel and my film analysis’ have received coverage from dozens of mainstream media publishers and are shown in colleges and universities by film lecturers who have become fans, but there are other online reviewers whose audience bases (at least on Youtube) are ten times the size of mine.
So if a new movie baffles the hell out of you then a few minutes of online searching will usually bring forth a variety of interpretations presented in text or video form by mutual film fans who believe they’ve managed to crack the conceptual code of the movie. As Robocop director Paul Verhoeven stated in one interview, it’s hard to hide any subtle themes in movies today because within a few months of release online fans have figured it out and told everybody what the film makers were actually communicating.
This abundance of online analysis’ for new movies has certainly played a role in demotivating me from publishing studies of modern films, in spite of many email requests from fans. Fight Club is a great film, but it has generated so much online discussion already that I’m not convinced my interpretation would be contributing anything new (actually I’m not sure because I’ve deliberately avoided reading the many online studies to keep my own take on the film a personal one should I happen to review it soon). As much as possible, I like to publish interpretations that will not be repeating existing online opinion. But one area in which I have carved a niche is in identifying older movies that have largely been overlooked by both mainstream film critics and online fans, and encouraging broad reassessment of those movies.
Internet free speech has devalued hidden messages in art
Prior to the internet it was much easier for public opinion on social and political issues to be guided, for better or worse, by a small number of rich and influential people who happened to have a lot of journalists and editors eating out of their hands. Particular opinions or pieces of information could easily be kept out of the public limelight. And in that climate the arts were a powerful means through which challenging and largely censored ideas could be communicated to a wide audience. Sometimes this would occur in ways that were uncompromisingly obvious and controversial – Apocalypse Now and the Vietnam War for example. And at other times only some of the audience would be affected and even then only subconsciously.
Today the consensus opinion domination of the mainstream media is nowhere near as strong as it was prior the internet. A wide range of opinions can be found online in relation to most subjects, given the public’s willingness to seek out those opinions. Anybody who wants to communicate their opinion of a topical issue is largely unrestricted. They can start a blog, post on a forum, record a video presentation – the sky’s the limit with the exception of a small number of issues that the law clamps down on such as child pornography or “hate crimes”.
Challenging perceptions and information can still be subtly infused in art – many film makers are still doing that today with varying degrees of success – but often the artist is better off simply communicating their ideas directly online in the form of documentary videos, radio shows and published articles. In other words art thrives in opposition to limits on free speech. Direct online communication makes the message more clear and can potentially reach more people through word of mouth. I’ve personally had a fair amount of success in several online educational campaigns without having to shoot a fiction movie to get my message out there.
This opening up of free speech via the internet has rendered much artistic communication somewhat redundant and I believe it is a major contributing factor as to why so few fiction films have a significant impact on public opinion today and why there are so few new film makers who can be considered anywhere near as visionary as David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick or Alfred Hitchcock. Kubrick, the master of the cinematic hidden message, if he was starting his career today, may have chosen an entirely different means of communication. And I’ve no doubt he would have capitalized on the power of the internet for individual expression. So it may well be that we will never get a cinematic equivalent of Kubrick again.
The potential for a new artistic revolution
Non-digital art revival
Many musical acts are now concentrating on their live acts as a means of expressing their ideas and funding themselves, theatre is still a strong art form comparatively unaffected by internet downloading, and there are still plenty of art exhibitions that one must physically go to rather than merely accessing on a website. The key word here is “non-digital”; art that you have to leave your computer to experience.
I’m expecting that in the near future the overload of increasingly familiar and unoriginal digital content will drive many people to seek out new forms of artistic experience. Ironically, IT technology is already facilitating this in that musicians will use screens hooked up to laptops to provide background imagery for their live performances. I’ve also been to art exhibitions in which digital displays are combined with physical sculptures. These are semi-digital art forms that are not available online.
Cheaper film production
So far this has been somewhat of a disappointment in cinematic terms and I personally blame amateur film makers, more than studios, for the problem. Using cheap cameras and digital editing equipment virtually anybody can now make a movie and make it available online if they are inspired to do so. This was not possible before the internet. The constraints on the film maker are now purely budgetary. The film maker can shoot whatever they want and has final cut, something that is dreamed of by virtually everybody within the film industry itself. Yet, what I see happening time and time again is independent film makers trying to imitate Hollywood movies both in style and narrative content, hoping to become, for example, the next Tarantino. I’ve met very few film makers who express a desire to communicate something personal that they have experienced in life itself as opposed to having seen in other movies. But the potential for a movie making revolution remains.
Cross medium art projects
While a song or movie can be downloaded and experienced as a self-contained piece of artwork, an art project that incorporates film or music as part of a larger whole has the potential to engage audiences both on and offline, of course with the offline content being something the audience has to purchase. Imagine if Ridley Scott teamed up with artists to design a touring exhibition of new concept art pieces designed to tie in with his movie Blade Runner. If the new material expanded the conceptual universe of the movie then such a tour would likely be very successful. The popularity of the Stanley Kubrick Archives tour is a good example of this kind of approach having already worked. I’ve also dropped many symbolic hints in my online articles and videos about the hidden meanings in my feature film Turn In Your Grave, hints which if noticed make understanding the movie itself much easier.
The master of this has to be the artist Banksy, who has spent years anonymously engaging in social and political statements in the form of graffiti across the UK. However, it can be done online also. If such anonymous art is interesting, stimulating or controversial enough to catch on via online word of mouth then it carries an advantage in that the artist’s message will not be misjudged by assumptions made about the artist himself. An anonymous piece of art cannot be easily branded according to the social class, religious beliefs, gender or even physical appearance of its creator. The viewer must engage with the art and its message. There is enormous communication potential for this, however, such anonymity prevents the artist from being able to sell their work and thus their funds must come through some alternative source.
This may seem a strange concept, but it does have a certain power. In the same way that hypnosis is much easier to do on a subject who does not realize that a hypnotic induction is taking place, art can also bypass conscious barriers if it is not announced as art. I’ve done this many times in my online videos, playing about with often very subtle non-verbal metaphors while my audience is engaged in listening to and thinking about the narrative content of the video. I’ve even encoded a lot of jokes in my videos, sometimes disguised as editing mistakes, for the amusement of those who pick up on it.
In many ways we are all artists without realizing it. Our choices in clothing and our body language habits are generally infused with metaphors that we are using to communicate to others out feelings about who we are and our role in the world. We are all, to some extent, performing actors in a real time movie.
This is one realm where there arguably has been an artistic revolution as far as movies are concerned, even though it is common in mediums such as novels and comics. Quality cinematic films have been somewhat replaced with high quality TV shows like The Wire and Six Feet Under, in which audience attention is only required for an hour per episode, yet complex themes are communicated over a period of time that would be very difficult to condense into a movie. Perhaps this could be applied to short films as well, which generally do not generate much audience interest because of their conceptual simplicity. Rather than making a feature film, why not make six short films all linked to each other to form a larger narrative? Or how about even a series of two minute films linked together – or a movie that has half a dozen significantly different edits, each changing the overall conceptual nature of the story?
The niche market artist
Fortunately internet downloading does spare some artists the hassle of not being able to charge for their work. My offline videos and articles are targeted at a very specific small audience, so small that my material doesn’t get shared on the Torrent sites – there simply aren’t enough downloaders to keep the torrent shares going. Of course I wouldn’t object to my audience base expanding times one hundred, but for now I’m able to sell my offline work because my audience have no other way of accessing it and I have hardly any competitors for my unusual content. In turn there are also bands such Acumen Nation and the Secret Chiefs 3 who I’m still willing to spend money on because they meet some of my niche musical tastes and their material isn’t always available for download because of the small audience base. In fact my advice to most aspiring artists who ask is that they need to develop an original niche market of their own rather than trying to compete in markets that are already dominated by competitors who have millions in their coffers to spend on advertising. It may take a while to cultivate such a niche market, but once you have it, it’s yours as long as you don’t give all your creative secrets away.
The audience as contributing debater and artist
I’m personally of the opinion that most good art involves some sort of conceptual reference to the audience. The old classic is Stanley Kubrick using the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey as a symbolic cinema screen (rotated ninety degrees) and thus referencing the audience as evolutionary apes whom the film is itself is attempting to advance intellectually. Kubrick wasn’t the first though. Rene Magritte’s artwork, clearly referenced in the concept artwork by Christian Kubrick for 2001, often featured canvas paintings within canvas paintings in a way that visually fused the inner canvas content with some surrounding setting such as a beach or a window frame.
The referencing of the audience within a piece of art can be very powerful because it nudges the viewer into considering not just the artwork, but their own role and identity in the world. And I believe there is a great deal more scope for this kind of communication to be advanced in all of the arts, especially if the viewer is able to interact with the art in some way that affects the content. To a limited extent that already happens perceptually, but a piece of art (or a flow of outwork from an artist) that alters in response to audience feedback allows for new forms of engagement.
Thanks for your time. More of my articles and videos on film making and other topics can be read / viewed here.