Soft Cinema and the Soft Cinephiliac

Cover of SOFT CINEMAHow to assess the potential audience for an exciting recent development in cinema? The development is already here and is called Soft Cinema. The audience of interest to me, does not yet exist, or, at least, is not evident. That audience is typified by the Soft Cinephiliac.

Soft Cinema (SC) is a collection of three films created by Lev Manovich and Andreas Kratky, shown as loop installations and later released on DVD in 2005 for viewing on personal computers. The films exemplify concepts for cinema in the new media that Manovich had presented in his 2001 book The Language of New Media and in a variety of papers he’s written since. Each film constructs a fictional narrative out of modules (e.g. graphic images, animation, video streams, and scrolling text) collected from a database termed the Global User Interface (GUI). The modules are presented inside (and between) smaller frames that partition the screen in a way similar to Mondrian’s partitioning of the canvas. The selection and juxtaposition of those modules on the screen can be random, though Manovich and Kratky tend to synchronize sequences of randomly assembled montage in a nonrandom way, linking subsets of the GUI to synch points in a generally fixed narrative (voiceover or scrolling text).

What can we say about the audience for SC? Certainly, the kind of vertical/spatial (or within-frame) montage implemented in SC acknowledges the pervasive shifts in visual habits and norms as well as the changes in perceptual filtering and remixing of information that have occurred in recent decades. The visual norm for computer screens and the world news is decidedly compartmental and modular. Though we often think of technical innovation as reshaping our visual norms, excellent arguments have been made that the process may work the other way around—that changes in technology reflect prior changes in visual norms.

Cinema scholars and critics have been slow to weigh in on the merits of SC. Even the more enthusiastic reviewers are cautious, tending to treat SC as a curiosum and tempering their response with skepticism about the viability of SC’s relatively fixed narrative structure. In particular, Carlota Larrea, concludes her review: “There are some exciting and even impressive elements in this project…However, one wonders how many times one would want to watch the shorts … before getting bored, in view of the repeated storyline.”

What an interesting criterion for metering audience response to cinema—a film’s effects on repeat viewings. While I disagree with Dr. Larrea’s particular assessment of SC (I watched the films a number of times and, in each case, my urge to see the film again was undiminished by repeat viewing), I want to outline a segment of the potential audience for SC in particular, and, more generally, new media cinema that acknowledges changing visual norms.


How do we get to the Soft Cinephiliac? If we extrapolate the activity of repeat viewing to a kind of “fetishization” of cinema—repeat viewings, harvesting perceptions from repeated viewings, collecting and classifiying those subjective “moments”, and curating and exhibiting those “moments” to others in blogs, websites, and journals–we are nearing the province of the Soft Cinephiliac.


For the soft cinema, this province is uncharted territory. But the cinephiliac is already well documented in standard cinema histories, and contrasting soft cinema with traditional film may help identify overlaps between the traditional (hard) cinephiliac and the future soft cinephiliac. To the extent we can implicate shifts in visuality and mass culture with the historical appearance (and gradual disappearance) of the hard cinephiliac, we might extrapolate from those relations and imagine a soft cinephiliac associated with our new multi-channel and simultaneous visuality and our new remix urges and social norms.


I’ll close with a conceptual exercise built around a single widely-held distinction between traditional film and soft cinema and its possible implications for cinephilia. Traditional film is indexical (an imprint of physical presence) while the digital “live action” elements of soft cinema are not. Indexicality is central to an understanding of the hard cinephiliac: he/she collects apparently aleatory elements from the periphery of the frame, and identifies subjectively with the indexical traits of those elements. Those “collectibles” are extremely important to the cinephiliac because he/she has “seen something” that, as Paul Willemen put it, was not intended to be seen.


The distinctively indexical nature of traditional film underlies the criticism by traditional cinema theorists of “new” media like TV, the videocassette, the DVD, and certainly now soft cinema. Taken literally, for hard cinephiliacs and their theorists, the emergence of new media has meant the death of cinephilia.

The death of the hard cinephiliac may yet facilitate the birth of the soft cinephiliac. The vertical montage of the soft cinema, the multi-media face of TV news, websites and blogs as well as the arrangement of our personal tasks across the screens of our personal computers has implications for indexicality. It is not the imprint of presence of something past (photography) but perhaps the presence of something that is very much here and now. Repeat viewing of SC, for example, refreshes memories of previous viewings. There are no peripheral or unintended details to collect in the traditional sense. However, the aleatory perceptual effects of the randomly reassigned modules as well as adherence to (that is, respect for) the visual norm of vertical montage and all the “here and now”-ness is no less a discovery (and perhaps no less collectible) for the soft cinephiliac than her 20th century predecessor.


~ by matt on 14 June 2007.

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Natalie E. Illum...

is a poet, performer and disability activist. Bring her stumbling to your city.

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