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Toward a New Digital Aesthetic: Some Rambling Reflections

UCLA Professor Robert Rosen reflects on a new digital aesthetic that is now emerging from a media saturated world.

About five years ago a promising filmmaker in my directing class at UCLA volunteered sheepishly, that “for me and my generation films such as Citizen Kane, 8 ½, Badlands and Weekend are just way, way too slow.” After catching my breath at this casual dismissal of enduring classics, and after expressing as diplomatically as possible my disagreement, it set me to thinking that maybe, just maybe, he was on to something.

Is it possible, I wondered, that a younger generation of filmmakers and film viewers actually experience movie narrative in ways radically different from my own; differences not simply on matters of taste or subject matter, but, more profoundly in the cognitive, intellectual and emotional processing of movie experience?

I wondered half seriously whether differences in how we perceived and enjoyed movies reflected, at least metaphorically, my having grown up living with dial based technologies (a spatial analog for the passage of time on my wrist, and an analog for correct volume expressed by the turn of a knob) whereas theirs was shaped by more digitally resonant on-off experiences with switches and buttons. Do my analog modes of perception predispose me to appreciate stories constructed as coherent relationships of part to part and part to whole, whereas the digital sensibilities of a younger generation prefer stories built as relationships of part to part to part and an intuitive leap to the whole?   Fretting from the perspective of a moving image archivist, I also anguished over whether or not radically transformed audiences in the future will come to reject the legacy of classic Hollywood cinema as hopelessly antiquated and even incomprehensible.

For quite a while I put a systematic reflection on these speculative ramblings on hold, revisiting them only intermittently when encountering a growing number of films by (mostly) young directors whose transgressive approaches to style and story challenged or simply chose to ignore some of the most sacred and pervasive conventions of traditional, mainstream movie making. Looking at the form-breaking ways they depicted temporality, space, causality, and ontology, their highly intentioned deviation from standard practices of editing and camera, and their relentless blurring of the lines between factuality and imagination, I began to believe that these films conveyed a distinctively new aesthetic appropriate to a digital age. Traditional categories for analyzing movies no longer seemed adequate to such films as Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Magnolia, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Memento, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, Requiem for a Dream, and more than twenty other titles. While most of these films were modestly budgeted and modestly successful at the box office, shades of a new aesthetic could also be seen in the mainstream as well: the mashup of genres and the non-continuity editing of District 9, the relentlessly moving camera of the Bourne series, the hybrid causality of The Black Swan and the mind expanding alternative reality of Avatar.  Based on past precedent how do we account for the cult following and box office success of a film like The Matrix ($460 million world wide),  that depicted an alternative reality so challenging that it required multiple viewings and ferocious on-line debate to decipher?

If a definable newly aesthetic has in fact emerged, the spectacular success of Christopher Nolan's Inception represents its coming of age. Whatever your personal critical evaluation of the film may be - - good or bad - -  there is little doubt that it will be viewed in retrospect as an historical milestone. How else to characterize the paradox of a studio-funded production ($160 million) that elects to systematically break the most sacred industry rules for cinematic story-telling but nevertheless goes on to gain ecstatic critical acclaim, Academy and guild recognition, and a whopping $850 million in revenue?  To gain some perspective of what’s new in the new aesthetic, it may be helpful to use Inception as a case study comparing traditional rules with current practices.


Old rule:  The cardinal rule of filmmaking: tell your story using sound, image and performance in ways that are accessible and comfortably familiar to general audiences. Stories that are opaque, unnecessarily complex and excessively abstract breed audience resentment rather than appreciation.
New practices:  Overwhelm audiences with densely convoluted narratives and conceptual complexities that motivate a second or even third viewing to achieve full understanding. Viewers, particularly young viewers, welcome an active personal engagement in the quest for meaning and may even enjoy comparing their thoughts with others on the Internet.
Old rule:  Adhere rigorously to long-established, audience-familiar cinematic conventions such as continuity editing, motivated camera, linear three-act structure and clear indicators for shifts in time, space, causality and ontology.
New practices:  Every film meta-textually proposes its own reading. For each individual work, directors have the power to teach viewers precisely how they should read and experience its idiosyncratic discourse and stylistic strategies. Means of socialization may include extensive explanatory exposition, didactic repetition of exemplary scenes, and the drawing of inter-textual parallels with other media such as games and the Internet.
Old rule:  Character-driven actions, character development, and compelling performances (preferably by recognizable stars) are core requirements for commercially successful movies. Never, never construct your story around purely subjective changes nor abstract issues.
New practices:  Audiences are now willing to take-on difficult conceptual questions in movie narratives including such daunting challenges as intersecting ontologies, the subjectivity of time, the dynamics of consciousness, and the ambiguities of truth and imagination. Character development and character motivations can be relegated to secondary concern, serving primarily as connective threads providing minimal cohesion for an otherwise fragmented, multi-tiered non-linear story. In its tour-de-force display of technological and narrative prowess, the film itself becomes the primary performer, superseding and marginalizing performance by actors, even stars.

Old rule:  Genre films are of enduring interest to audiences and are a mainstay of American film history. Core generic story premises are easily updated to give direction to contemporary narratives.
New practices:  Historic movie genres such as the heist film and family melodrama serve as short-hand ways to contextualize unsettling modes of story telling within a reassuringly familiar framework, but there is no need for them to serve as prime determinants of the film’s sequence of events and overall meaning. Past audience experiences with science fiction films, however, remain significant because they predispose viewers to more easily buy into conceptual issues as narrative premises.
Old rule:  A taken-for-granted objective of studio feature films is to induce audience suspension of disbelief in the autonomous reality of on-screen people, places and events.  To that end one must scrupulously avoid story structures or stylistic practices that distract spectators from a full and unbroken involvement with the story.
New practices:  Rather than depriving viewers of an immediate and immersive
engagement with story, narrative discontinuities and stylistic ruptures can have precisely the opposite effect. Unlike the passive viewing stance of spectators in illusionist cinema, fractured stories invite viewers to reflect interactively on the significance of their experience.  Shifting temporal, spatial and causal relationships engage audiences as co-participants with the filmmaker in the quest for meaning. Explanatory exposition initiates a dialogue with spectators on how to read the idiosyncratic complexities of a given film. Constant shifts among diverse voices and points of view foreground a need for spectator interpretation.


A fruitful narrative strategy for conceiving the narrative as a whole is the creation of an ongoing dialectical tension between two seemingly opposed ways of experiencing a movie: on the one hand a highly demanding participatory engagement with challenging abstractions and on the other, a passive submission to the visceral and emotional power of kinetic, multi-tiered action sequences. Rather than being contradictory both are complementary and mutually supportive forms of immersive cinema.  Anyone who plays video games knows that this is perfectly normal.
Old rule:  For the suspension of disbelief to be maintained and to sustain the illusion of a film’s reality it is imperative that style and structure be fully transparent. i.e. that the editing, camera moves, performances  and other elements of film language all be conventionally coded so that spectators are seduced to forget that everything on the screen is the result of intentioned decision-making.

New practices: Films inspired by a digital aesthetic are intrinsically and inescapably self-reflexive. Many factors motivate viewers to be acutely aware of the intentionally created origins of a film: the inherently self-referential impetus of stories, styles and discourses that overtly subvert long-established movie conventions; elaborately detailed exposition to instruct viewers in precisely how to navigate its unique discourse; interactive strategies that implicitly recognize the film as a product of human intervention; omnipresent inter-textual references drawn from movie history, popular culture and other forms of media; spectacular sequences of computer-generated sounds and images that  call attention to themselves as displays of production prowess; ambiguities in time, space and multiple realities reality that lead viewers to question their own judgment. To be self-reflexive is not a choice for digital cinema, only how to use it most creatively.

In reviewing this abbreviated listing of new practices it is important to underline that they are not uniquely Christopher Nolan’s discovery. A digital aesthetic had been gradually emerging over the course of the past decade in a score of films by nearly a dozen innovative directors.  Nor are all of these new practices entirely new. They were the stock and trade of avant-garde and experimental film and video makers for most of the 20th century.

That said, it is inconceivable that a group of business-savvy Warner executives consciously decided to invest $160 million in a form-breaking experiment intended solely to advance the art of cinema. What could they possibly have been thinking? While it may be true that Christopher Nolan, as they say, “ is exceptionally good in the room,” with that much money at stake nobody is that good. And while I am sure that there was great confidence in his capabilities as a commercially viable director given the through-the-roof box office revenue of The Dark Knight, let’s not forget that Batman was already a successfully established franchise and a far safer bet. The only logical conclusion that I can infer from their decision to green light a mainstream project so far outside the mainstream is that they actually believed that there was a large audience, particularly a young audience, receptive to new ways of telling stories. That they were right is of historic importance.

The expressive narrative strategies exemplified by Inception and its precursors are more than transient anomalies that will quickly recede into the backdrop of creative consciousness or soon be relegated to niche films for specialized audiences. The major reason: these new practices for telling stories are fully resonant with the sensibilities and lifestyles of a generation of young people navigating the complexities of contemporary media culture. What my generation may see as a form-breaking avant-garde aesthetic is for them just business as usual.  A few examples may help to make the case.


Faster paced, fragmented and densely packed narratives are comfortably accommodated by viewers with the anomalous combination of radically shortened attention spans and heightened capacity for multi-tasking. A positive predilection toward simultaneous communication predisposes them to thrive on the challenges of multi-tiered, multi-threaded stories.

Stories that problematize personal and group identities resonate with the daunting challenges of living in an increasingly fragmented pluralistic society - - the confusing and frequently conflicting imperatives of family, work, peer group, ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality, and social class.  Stories that explore the fluidity and ambiguities of identity make intuitive sense to a generation of avid social networkers accustomed to living in an on-line universe of multiple, unreliable, and quasi-fictive personal and group narratives.
The blurring of boundaries separating fact from fiction, material reality from imagination, and waking conscious from dreams is intuitively credible to movie spectators living in a society replete with consumerist fantasies, omnipresent advertising, media contrived celebrity, variously themed public and private spaces, and simulacrums of the real accepted as reality itself.

Fantasy worlds, alternative universes and ontological ambiguities are attractive themes for movie narrative at an historical turning point when digital technologies have robbed photographic images of their traditional status as culturally sanctioned signifiers for the real. Freed from any constraints imposed by empiricist expectations, cinematographers and designers have unfettered latitude to transform the material world at the whim of the story-teller.

The self-reflexive strategies of digital cinema are taken for granted by a generation empowered in their daily lives with the ability to capture, manipulate and disseminate sounds, images and stories. A camera in your pocket and a ubiquity of screens of diverse size and purpose in private and public spaces drive home the message that media technologies are an inescapable presence shaping what we do, who we are and how we present ourselves.

When so many of our waking hours are spent glued to a plurality of screens and when we are empowered to move (almost) seamlessly among diverse media, it is inevitable that cinema should evolve to become a multi-media mashup. From video games come the peaceful co-existence of conceptual and immersive experiences, the normalization of unresolved endings and multiple viewings, and the primacy of action over character. From the Internet there are the pleasures of interactive participation, enhanced skills at navigating an information overload, and a taken-for-granted assumption that sounds, images and stories are there to be freely appropriated.  From cell phones come the expectation of instant full-time interpersonal connectedness . And so forth and so on for a dozen additional devices and media forms ubiquitous in every area of daily life, all of which influence how we conceive and receive film narrative.

This list is only the tip of the iceberg in identifying how a digital aesthetic in cinema resonates with contemporary media culture.  Still to be explored: the commodification and monetization of daily life; social networking as political action; databases as vehicles for creative expression; media archiving and curatorship as inescapably necessary skills; information as power and more. But hopefully the point is made. Contemporary innovative expressive practices in the movies, what I am calling a digital aesthetic, are more than creative conceits. Rather, they contour to the lives, sensibilities and aspirations of a new generation living in a media-saturated world.

All of which brings us to the question of whether or not these changes in creative practices are for the good. Have they advanced movies as an art form, as a forum for social advocacy or as meditations on the human condition?  Is the past history of movies of continuing relevance to the present? These evaluative discussions are worth pursuing, but having already overstepped the word limit on this blog, they will have to take place at a later time.

I welcome your thoughts on my thoughts, pro or con.


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