Film vs Virtual Reality: The Future of Emotional Manipulation
“Of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important.” — Vladimir Lenin
What is the future of film, and does film necessarily need to be on a specific evolutionary trajectory? Some might argue that film’s evolution is about creating an ever more realistic and immersive experience, until the boundaries between the viewer and the screen are practically invisible, similar to the holodeck made famous by Star Trek: The Next Generation...
...but just as biological evolution does not always lead to bigger, better, and more efficient organisms, I would suggest that the technological progress of cinema should not necessarily lead to a more realistic and immersive experience.
This conflict played itself out recently on the French Riviera. Like a G8 Summit for filmmaking, the Cannes Film Festival is a great meeting of the minds on where the world of cinema is going.
This year was no exception; in fact, it was explosive, perhaps on a Cambrian level. Unlike previous years, which tackled cinematic subject matter or rising stars, two developments this year addressed the very nature of film and called into question our fundamental understanding of the art and industry. First, there was the screening of Bong Joon-ho’s Netflix-produced Okja, which will forgo the traditional theatrical release for the streaming experience.
According to Christopher Hawthorne for the Los Angeles Times, the audience expressed their displeasure with the theater-defying film by booing it, saying that “they were arguing that in bypassing typical distribution channels the streaming company was shrinking not just the size of screens on which the film would be watched but the communal experience that has always been central to moviegoing” (Hawthorne, June 3, 2017). Even the term “cinema” itself is derived from the location where that communal experience transpires.
A second event by Academy Award winning director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu was looked on more favorably: Cannes first virtual reality experience.
The piece, called Carne y Arena, puts the viewer, wearing an Oculus Rift headset, in the middle of the Arizona desert as Latin American immigrants try to enter the United States. Steven Zeitchik for The Los Angeles Times writes, “what Iñárritu has done differently is offer a sense of scope and scale — much like a studio director who adapts the techniques of an independent filmmaker to a bigger canvas” (Zeitchik May 21, 2017).
But is that all Virtual Reality is? Is it merely an adaptation? Or is it the future of film? Iñárritu’s collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, who goes by Chivo, believes that virtual reality is indeed the future of film, saying, “I think it could be less than 10 years when kids look at a movie on a [traditional] screen and say, ‘You used to watch things on that?’” (Zeitchik May 21, 2017). Chivo continues that idea by saying, “If VR takes off as a storytelling medium, the idea of people gathering in plush theaters named after French artistic greats to watch two-hour slices of edited film could seem as quaint as the masses gathering for the latest Bizet debut” (Zeitchik May 21, 2017).
It would seem that many are already preparing the obituary for the one hundred year old medium; however, it should be pointed out that this pessimistic stance has been taken before, with lots of other technological innovations, most notably television, which in its 70+ years has failed to fully dethrone cinema as the apex of entertainment.
While virtual reality is far more than a gimmick, I would argue that it is not the future of film; in fact, Cannes organizers rather pointedly called Carne y Arena “an art installation” (Zeitchik May 21, 2017), not a film.
I will attempt to prove that virtual reality is not the future of film by attempting to define film by investigating the ideas presented by film theorists and scholars such as Sergei Eisenstein, Lev Kuleshov, and by Malcolm Turvey, by looking at the historical cinematic off-shoots, immersion-attempted dead-ends and fads, and by investigating the defining nature of what is commonly referred to as virtual reality.
Béla Balázs in Early Film Theory: Visible Man and The Spirit of Film suggests that “if film is to be an independent art with its own aesthetics, then it will have to distinguish itself from all other art forms” (17 Balázs). I believe film does this quite succinctly. It is neither theater nor painting nor sculpture; however, Balázs does go on to compare film to poetry (33 Balázs). If the future of cinema has to do with it becoming more immersive and more realistic, I would argue that symbolism, metaphor, and the poetic qualities Balázs suggests are inherent in the medium would be diminished.
Sergei Eisenstein and Lev Kuleshov both emphasize the importance of montage in film and Jörg Schweinitz in The Aesthetic Idealist as Efficiency Engineer: Hugo Münsterberg’s Theories of Perception, Psychotencics, and Cinema discusses how cinema works on a psychological level in tandem with an audience’s mental processes. It is my assertion that these factors separate cinema from the off-shoots that might adapt the audio-visual technologies involved but not the essence of what film is.
What is film? Volumes of books and papers have attempted to answer this question. It is unlikely that my definition could satisfy everyone’s assumptions and ideas, but that doesn’t stop me from forming an image in my head
In my mind, I see a darkened room and rows of seats, a large rectangular silver screen thrust up front, and the smell of popcorn wafting through the air. All around me are friends and strangers, with their own lives and histories, hopes and worries, taking momentary refuge from the real world for a few possibly entertaining hours.
...On the screen, we see images, cut together with forethought and purpose, projected onto the big rectangular silver screen, and the booming soundtrack filling our ears with sounds and dialogue and music. The end result of all of this is emotion, sometimes collective emotion, but always manipulated emotion. I believe this to be the intangible aspect of film that makes it so difficult to define.
Film, and the cinema in particular, makes human beings feel something. The filmmakers, by virtue of their skill and craft, are able to conjure emotions from the audience members.
In The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram, Sergie Eisenstein concludes that “while the conventional film directs the emotions, this suggests an opportunity to encourage and direct the whole thought process, as well” (Leyda 62). Motion pictures are capable of systematically eliciting emotions and, in a way, controlling people’s intellectual faculties.
Very recently, I was sitting in a theater with a sea of women all out en mass to see the first big screen adaptation of arguably the most famous female superhero comic book character ever: Wonder Woman.
It was an enjoyable film with ups and downs, tension and release, but there was one particular moment that encapsulated that intangible ability to produce emotion that cinema possesses. In the scene, after an hour of being told “no” by the men in the movie, Wonder Woman triumphantly rises from the trenches, sword and shield in tow, her Hans Zimmer composed theme song seemingly cheering her on as she single-handedly takes on a WWI-era German regiment.
I was undoubtably immersed in the experience, but I took the moment to quickly survey the room. I felt like an evil genius wringing my hands together and nefariously murmuring, “good, good,” because I felt vindicated in my assumptions about the manipulative power of film. Nearly every person in the room had tears streaming down their face. They were all experiencing a shared cathartic experience that is unique to film.
Of course, plays can illicit similar shared responses, music and art as well, but not so precisely or controlled. With film, there is a deliberate manipulation of emotions, and unlike music or art or stage plays in particular, the key is that the viewer’s gaze is controlled. Like Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange, cinema practically pries open people’s eyes and forces them to look at very specific images in very specific orders. Whereas, while watching a stage play, one can look all over the stage or even around the room, but film leads our eyes and therefore our emotions. It’s something reality cannot do, and most definitely something virtual reality cannot do, without betraying the nature of what it is trying to accomplish, which of course, is replicating reality.
Cinema is a guided art form. In Doubting Vision, Malcolm Turvey talks about variable framing: bracketing, indexing, and scaling, to guide the audiences’ eyes and perceptions. He talks about “revealing what is invisible” (Turvey 116), but not in the sense of microscopic lifeforms or natural phenomenon imperceivable to the naked eye, although film is handy in that area as well, but rather about motivations and underlying situations in a scene. Films do this by using variable framing techniques; by moving close-up on an object or a face or by cutting from a gaze to a coveted object, or by refusing to let the audience see what is just beyond the borders of the screen.
Turvey distinguishes film from painting or music, by saying, “for although other visual arts can also reveal cognitive and affective states, films can do so in ways they cannot because, as Noël Carroll has pointed out, they have at their disposal a property that the other visual arts, at least in their customary forms, lack: variable framing” (Turvey 117).
The audience’s simultaneous emotional outpouring from Wonder Woman’s triumphant emergence from the trenches was a product of the guided aspect of cinema. It took into consideration the target demographic’s history and culture, as well as a hundred years of cinema theory that suggested what shots to use and how to use them. These are conventions, honed over a century, and used to guide an audience to various emotional points. For the most part, these cinematic conventions go unnoticed “until they are pointed out to us, just as we are usually unaware of the grammatical rules we follow when using language until they are pointed out to us by a grammarian” (Turvey 124).
For the most part, everyone understands grammar. As we read a book, we are manipulated by the words and punctuation to understand concepts, imagine scenarios, and occasionally feel some sort of emotion, but we typically do not think consciously about the mechanics of it all while we are reading. The same goes for film. Camera shots, slow-motion, the music, and the blocking; none of these things are random or arbitrary. They are deliberate attempts to emotionally guide an audience, albeit not always successfully.
If one were to break down film to its most rudimentary component, like matter down to atoms or atoms down to protons, neutrons, and electrons, one might consider the shot to be the most basic element. A shot can convey a great deal of information, but by combining shots through montage, the levels of information and emotional stimulation can multiply practically indefinitely, not unlike cellular reproduction.
Sergei Eisenstein compares cinematic montage to Japanese hieroglyphs by demonstrating how two combined shots are not merely the sum of their parts, but instead create new meaning through their united state. Eisenstein says, “it is exactly what we do in the cinema, combining shots that are depictive, single in meaning, neutral in content —into intellectual contexts and series” (Leyda 30).
Lev Kuleshov compared shots to bricks. A single brick, while being a singular thing, has very little purpose by itself, but when added with other bricks, an entire house can be built. He writes, “if you have an idea-phrase, a particle of the store, a link in the whole dramatic chain, then that idea is to be expressed and accumulated from shot-ciphers, just like bricks” (Leyda 36).
Kuleshov’s experiments with montage demonstrated the neutrality of a single shot and how combinations of other shots cut with those neutral shots could derive different meanings and different emotional responses.
If virtual reality’s purpose is to imitate actual reality, it would be logical to assume that it would be free of montage and variable framing. To see the details of an object, reality does not cut to a close-up. Instead, the viewer must move closer to the object. Reality is not cut into bits and pieces like a motion picture. On the contrary, it consists of one continuous subjective shot, and therefore has no montage or juxtaposition of shots from which to derive meaning. Scott deLahunta in Virtual Reality and Performance says, “Everything about these technologies of virtual reality emphasize audience interaction, immersion, or participation over watching from a single vantage point” (deLahunta 106). In this respect, virtual reality is more akin to video games than motion pictures.
While film has experienced a great many technological innovations throughout the years, the main goal of all those innovations was an increase in quality. Better lenses, better widescreen techniques, better sound recording, and sharper images are at the heart of most cinematic technological improvements. If those improvements corresponded with a heightened realism, that was merely serendipitous, particularly for marketing.
Hazard Reeves wrote about one such innovation in This is Cinerama saying, “Cinerama was so ‘alive’ that you didn’t just watch it. You lived it, and felt part of every scene” (Reeves 85). While this seems like a bit of an exaggeration, since Cinerama was merely an early large-format widescreen technology that utilized the audience members’ peripheral vision in much the same way that IMAX does, it does demonstrates how the idea that immersion has been a descriptive and marketing tool for film, while the underlying motivations have been improved quality and market competition.
Over the years, many immersive techniques have been employed, such as the aforementioned Cinerama as well as fads and gimmicks such as Smell-O-Vision, which allowed viewers to scratch and sniff fragrant cards corresponding to specific scenes, and Percepto, which gave audience members the sensation of insects crawling around their ankles, but in most cases, the ultimate goal was not necessarily to create a more realistic experience, but to compete with other entertainment mediums, such as television or video games, and to secure relevancy and economic stability for the film industry. Notably, while many of those immersive techniques did not become permanent fixtures in movie theaters, some were adapted by theme parks to add realism to their rides and attractions.
Ultimately, the question of whether virtual reality is the future of film depends on one’s definition of film. In a classical sense, film is an audio-visual entertainment medium, dependent on various techniques such as montage and variable framing and various sensory accessories such as music, sound effects, and color, that combines photography, literature, and theater to manipulate an audience’s emotions, often in a communal setting. While virtual reality might borrow some cinematic techniques, and while film might occasionally borrow some virtual reality techniques, they exist as two distinct mediums. Film, as Balázs noted, has a poetic quality, and deals with symbolism and metaphor. Virtual reality deals with simulated realities, allowing the viewer to subjectively experience a different lifestyle or location. Film is the dream to virtual reality’s make-shift waking life.
Balázs, B., & Carter, E. (2010). Béla Balázs early film theory. New York, NY: Berghahn.
DeLahunta, Scott. “Virtual Reality and Performance.” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, vol. 24, no. 1, 2002, pp. 105–114. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3246463.
Eisenstein, Sergei, and Jay Leyda. “A Dialectic Approach to Film Form.” Film form: essays in film theory. New York, Harcourt Brace:1977. Print.
Hawthorne, Christopher. "The Architecture of Moviegoing: Can the Multiplex Stay in the Picture?" Los Angeles Times. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 June 2017.
Reeves, Hazard. “This Is Cinerama.” Film History, vol. 11, no. 1, 1999, pp. 85–97. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3815259.
Schweinitz, J (2009). The aesthetic idealist as efficiency engineer: Hugo Münsterberg’s theories of perception, psychotechnics and cinema. In: Ligensa, A; Kreimeier, K. Film 1900: Technology, Perception, Culture. New Barnet, Herts, UK, 77-86
Turvey, Malcolm. Doubting vision: film and the revelationist tradition. Oxford: Oxford U Press, 2008. Print.
Zeitchik, Steven. “Cannes 2017: Alejandro Iñárritu’s virtual reality project takes film to new frontiers — and questions” Los Angeles Times. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 May 2017.
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