Future Cinema

Course Site for Future Cinema 1 (and sometimes Future Cinema 2: Applied Theory) at York University, Canada

Thoughts on Manovich, Kinder, and Database Cinema…

Posted on | November 21, 2017 | No Comments

Hi folks — since I’ll not be in class today, I thought I’d share a few thoughts in reaction to this week’s readings as a roundabout response to Slav & Shiyam’s discussion questions.

I’ll start by noting that Manovich makes an (all-too-common) omission while discussing the tensions between narrative and database in various art forms: music. To say that music is either more narrative or database raises more questions than it answers. Is it narrative simply because it unfolds diachronically? If not, then can a database be a temporal, rather than material or informatic, construct? Is a music score a database, and if so, why is the score considered “the work” and not the music of which it is merely a transcription?

Further, music is the exception to Manovich’s assertion that, prior to the computer age, “the level of interface did not exist [in art]” (45). Since the advent of recorded audio, music is an art form in which the work and interface are separate, and in which there are different interfaces for a single work which produce a different user experience. Listening to, say, Beethoven’s 9th live in a concert hall, on a 78rpm shellac record, or on Spotify while riding the subway are thoroughly different ways of encountering the work.

The most important elision in Manovich’s piece, though, regards the constructedness of the database itself. He does address this briefly, noting that the database is “a new symbolic form of the computer age” (40) and that data must be collected or created (43). But otherwise, Manovich treats data as quasi-noumenal, transcendental  objects of knowledge that are not themselves the (s)elected product of a discrete series of judgments and criteria and, therefore, articulate a kind of distributed epistemological narrative.

Kinder is much more acute about this. She notes that databases are an assemblage of determined categories (349) and any perusal or interrogation of a database’s contents is:

a narrative quest with motives and consequences. Since such decisions are made in social and historical contexts that inevitably have narrative content, the process of retrieval necessarily involves ideology and desire: where are we permitted to look and what do we hope to find. (349)

This blurring of boundaries between database and narrative allows for a much more flexible notion of narrative than Manovich does. If narrative is, as Kinder contends, a “quest” motivated by desire and curiosity, then narrative does not require the linear causal relationships (nor does database-narrative require the superfluous dimension of grand, meta, or “hyper,” narratives) which Manovich suggests it does. Instead, what Manovich refers to as “data indexing” is actually, according to Kinder, crafting narrative.

Kinder’s conception of database cinema is generous and exploratory, encompassing films which could otherwise be dismissed as non-narrative: Herzog’s Fata Morgana (1971), Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006), and indeed the work of Chris Marker, from La Jetée (1962) and Sans Soleil (1983) to the Immemory CD-ROM (1997).

Finally, a question…

Using terms from the world of computing as metaphors for human activity (Kinder’s memory-as-search-engine, Manovich’s narrative-as-algorithm) can have the effect of limiting the uses, forms, and ends of those human activities. It can also ascribe capacities to those human activities which aren’t actually there (memory is not a predictable or reliable means of retrieval; narrative does not necessarily produce causal relations). But what happens if we flip the metaphor, understanding computation and information in human terms (i.e. search engine as memory; algorithm as narrative)?

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