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June 12, 2003

The Frame Around the Picture

Friedrich --

The Wife and I caught a couple of movies the other night, one right after the other. First we saw L'Auberge Espagnole, then we walked over to Finding Nemo.

An interesting contrast. "L'Auberge Espagnole" does a good job of updating and purveying French post-grad charm -- cafes, airports, affairs, heartbreak, and larky absurdity, with a good helping of ideas (about multiculturalism, "Europe," sex and computers) in there spicing the lot of it up. Very French, yet very of-this-moment too. I seem to remember reading that the film was shot in a semi-improv style on digi-cams. The editing has been souped up here and there with computer tricks: with multiple windows, with the screen treated as a desktop, with quicked-up motion, etc. A perfectly fine, novel-like, lightweight-but-touching Euro-art film, if 20 minutes too long.

"Finding Nemo"? Well... Pixar does a good, meticulous job, but as I've got almost no taste for this kind of thing I don't have much to say. Had an OK time, I guess, even if the film didn't click along as confidently as the "Toy Story" movies did. Impressive, sometimes beautiful. I give it three "Whoa"s. But I couldn't have cared less, to tell you the truth, despite the fact that it was a much more complete digital experience than the French movie was: computer animation, of course, plus we went out of our way to see the movie digitally projected -- thrown up on screen by the Texas Instruments DLP system, while a phenomenal sound system was showing off its stuff. An ideal viewing environment for a computer-animated film, in other words: a clear, detailed, hyper-controlled total sensorium. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa.

But what the evening left me thinking about most was "immersiveness." (Prodded and guided by some of our blog's visitors, I've been dabbling -- ineptly, hesitantly -- with a couple of computer games, Nanosaur and Doom, and they've got me thinking about the topic of immersiveness too.) How immersive is a movie or other art experience? How immersive do you want it to be? Is immersiveness always a good thing?

To cut directly to my own preferences: I don't crave immersiveness, at least not in the literal sense -- and the literal sense (as in physically larger, more "realistic," with everything made more impressive and explicit) seems to be what people mean when they talk about immersiveness. I sometimes wonder if I'm a freak and an exception. While I certainly appreciate a well-projected film, once the projection-quality has hit the acceptable level, my brain is on to questions about subject and style instead.

And I confess that I'm surprised by how many people seem to crave immersive experiences. I suppose what most of them are saying is that they love the feeling of being imaginatively transported, and simply want more such. But there seems to be a sizable number of people who want more than that; they seem to want to be made to feel like they're in the action, in the most literal sense.

As for me, I adore feeling emotionally and imaginatively transported and am no distance-at-all-costs intellectual. Yet I've got almost no desire to be placed in the action. I like the fact that with most art and entertainment we're dealing with make-believe -- ie., with the (at least to some extent) nonreal. That doesn't make my experience less real, it opens up the possibility that it might become more real.

I like the frame around the picture, in other words. The frame to my mind is a symbol of the shared understanding between creator and enjoyer that we're playing make-believe together, and are dealing here not with reality but with a made thing. And this barrier-like thing doesn't keep me from feeling or enjoying. Far from it. For me, it isn't a barrier so much as a lens; it makes real (or real-ish) feeling and enjoyment possible. It gives permission; it enables the experience to take place. I'm infinitely more likely to have myself a satisfying imaginative/sensual experience if and when I'm kept semi-aware of the frame.

This is just me, I suppose. As a kid, I disliked most kids' fiction, which I found emotionally bullying; it seemed to want me to believe, and I didn't want to, at least not fully. As a spineless, crowd-following teen, I did my best to have wipe-out times at movies, rock concerts and dances, but I didn't do a very good job of it. During my drug-taking young adulthood, I never liked simply getting plastered. I always preferred being able to keep some balance in the midst of it. I've never responded well to art-and-entertainment experiences whose main goal is to overwhelm. Something in me recoils from it. Exceptions allowed for, the bigger the desired wipe-out, the more my spirits go dead.

Something clicked for me when I started wrestling with Euro movies. Here they were, technologically often so much less impressive than American movies. Yet I was often moved so much more. There was often relatively little up on screen in a literal sense to enter into, yet I was having much greater imaginative, sensual and emotional experiences. How was this possible? Part of it for me, I now realize, was in the way a Euro-art movie often lures you in and then pushes you back. You're in it; you're out of it. You're drawn along and then popped out. This rhythmic thing becomes a big part of the experience.

To use sex as a comparison, I learned how to enjoy the whole process (the banter, the company, the appreciation of each other's many qualities, etc), rather than holding on, holding on, and banking my sense of enjoyment entirely on the intensity of the finale. Something about the push-pull -- perhaps the playfulness -- means that my brain stays clear and stimulated even as my emotions and sensations flow more cleanly and easily. I can appreciate and reflect even as I enjoy the tug and lure of the emotions and the sensuality. The result: head-twirling bliss, at least now and then. My own preferred kind of immersiveness, I suppose.

I really, really like the frame around the picture, in other words. I'm moved by it. I like knowing the rules of the game. Given half a chance, I'll sit near the back of the movie theater -- I want to see what's up before me partly as a rectangle of light a group of people are staring at. The forthright limitedness of the means of expression -- the rule-boundedness of it, the finiteness of it -- moves me deeply.

I was resigned for years to this preference of mine being seen as a problem -- to people telling me that I "have trouble," that I need to stop being so inhibited. These days, I understand that it's simply a preference and a taste -- a function of biochemistry, finally. How else to explain it? It has been one of my life's constants. Does it mean that I'm simply not suited to the arts? Unlikely: am I an arts fiend out of nothing but perversity? Hey, I'm not that determined to ruin my life.

Playing Nanosaur and Doom, I'm amused and dazzled, but I'm also disconcerted. My thought processes and even dreams go a little flooey. The contemplative/reflective frame of understanding is gone -- you really are in the action. And for me, it's like getting lost in a dream that's liable at any second to turn into a nightmare. Something, I can't seem to help feeling, has come unhinged. I guess I understand the thrill and allure of that, but I personally don't find it enjoyable.(I was once given the chance to step into an industrial-scale virtual reality macihine, and I lasted about a minute. It made me want to throw up.) I want more in the way of poise and shaping; I like understanding what the rules of the game are. But I'm an ignoramus where computer games are concerned, so I should shut up here. It's possible that I'm simply stupid about the ways in which they're shaped, and it's more than possible that I'll yet find one I love.

So: "L'Auberge Espangole"? Shaped, full of reasonably perceptive ideas, popping you in and out of the fictional framework, alternating appeals to the mind and appeals to the senses. Watching it, I'm pretty happy. I feel, for one important thing, like I know where I am. "Finding Nemo"? Gorgeous, impressive, effective -- and I sat there feeling lost, and failing to connect with what was going on onscreen.

Armchair-philosophizing the more-immersiveness/less-immersiveness question, I'd say that much of it boils down to the difference between the Romantic (sweep me away!) and the Classical (what's going on here?) temperament. About which much more one of these days.

What's your hunch about this? And how much immersiveness do you crave from art and entertainment?



posted by Michael at June 12, 2003


Quick note before I go out the door--

Frames matter. One way of deciding whether printed material is prose or poetry is looking to see if the right margin is justified. I want more than that--meter is a kinf of framing, too, a distance which forces a different kind of attention.

Posted by: Mike Snider on June 12, 2003 04:37 PM

What about the immersiveness of tasks and sports? I'd rather being immersed in real-life things that will kick my ass, or at least require massive concentration. Prefer arts and entertainment to be amusing or enlightening.

I have a date to take an eager fan to Nemo. Am filled with dread.

Posted by: j.c. on June 12, 2003 05:46 PM

Aha! So that's why you don't like installation art and/or Minimalism! That's the problem you'll have with half of the artists at Dia:Beacon, say: everybody from Serra to Irwin to Ryman to Beuys to Sandback to De Maria to Flavin have dedicated their careers to destroying "the frame around the picture" which you so adore.

Me, I sit at the front of the cinema.

Posted by: Felix on June 12, 2003 06:53 PM


Doom and other games like it are immersive, there's no doubt about it. If you don't immerse yourself in the game, you quickly get killed. Some years ago, when I was playing Doom-like games much more than I do now, I found myself figuring out firing lines as I walked around the house. Whoops! Time to take a break.

I still play this kind of game from time to time; what I like about it is the sense of exploration--immersing myself in the imaginary world and figuring out what its rules are. This is also part of what I like about fantasy and science fiction.

And indeed, I like to get lost in books and movies. I enjoy being transported, not in the sense of feeling as though I'm taking part in the story, but in the sense that I forget myself entirely, becoming totally absorbed in the story.

Here's a question for you: when you see a painting--let's assume it's representational--what do you see first: the subject of the painting, or the way the subject has been committed to canvas? I'm betting it's the latter. I'd almost certainly notice the former first, and might not even think about the latter.

Posted by: Will Duquette on June 12, 2003 09:15 PM

On Finding Nemo: Sure it's a lush experience and the screenplay certainly has its share of sentimental trappings, but what made the movie more than an a pretty picture worthy of "whoas"
are the characterizations brought forth by Brooks and DeGeneres. I thought that each actor neatly conveyed what it's like to be in a complex friendship with somebody who isn't perfect (we all are, aren't we?) these being DeGeneres with her unfortunate short trem memory loss and Brooks with his relentless anxiety. I thought the film was a nice little meditation on that sort of relationship...especially for a digital movie about fish.

Video Games are another ball of wax entirely. I've actually spent most of this evening on my GameCube slashing away at a variety of beasts in Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and Electronic Arts adaptation of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Both hack n slashe fantasy themed games with some minor RPG (role-playing game) elements. The experience I've had tonightis more akin to sex or athletics, I think. I say that mostly because I'm exhausted and sweaty now as opposed to full of thought and diet Coke. Film, painting, television, even theater ~ they're all "sit back entertainments" wheras video games is much more interactive ~"lean forward entertainments". I don't play video and computer games instead of watching movies or looking at paintings I do all of them ~ I also enjoy sex and sports. They're different animals all together. Sure, there are overlapping elements of artistry~ graphic design, narrative thrust and the like...

I've argued often with a friend of mine about video games and whether or not one can be Art. I argue yes (mostly to be subversive) and he argues no. Now, I'm not even sure if it's an argument worth having. I don't play video games because they're art, I play them b/c I enjoy the experience. I also don't watch movies b/c they're art, I watch them b/c I like them. I get something different from each ~ the aesthetics ocassionally overlap (Ok, these days they often overlap) and I think that tricks a lot of people into believing that there's a convergence of form, but I don't really see that happening. Anyhow, I'm just babbling. I've got orcs to slay and reading to do.

Keep blowin'!


The babblin bizness

Posted by: The Bizness on June 13, 2003 12:14 AM


I totally concur. There is a specific distance that an entertainment must keep in order to remain an entertainment for me. Too far away and I'm bored, too close and the cornered animal vibe starts humming. (I hate it in plays or stand-up when they come into the audience and "involve" you.)

I require the frame around the movie, too, but I'm more like a 7th-12th row kind of person, because the sound is balanced for that area of the theatre. I prefer movies that have a true widescreen dimension 2.35:1, as opposed to what we called the "flat" ratio when I was a movie projectionist 1.85:1. Widescreen gives me just the right amount of immersion where flat leaves me, well, flat. I even prefer the widescreen format on a TV. 3-D movies are just distracting. I also hate the current trend of tinting every thing to one hue, like green or blue. Give me color, or give me black and white, and stop the games, man.

Speaking of that, I'm not much of a videogame fan, but when I have played, I prefer to do so on a 17" to 15" monitor. I was at a conference once where they had a demo of the 3-D version of "Descent" where you put on a headset with goggles and little speakers above each ear - supposed total immersion. An interesting thing happens when they attempt to make something constructed of pixels and synthesized sounds a total sensory experience; your senses immediately detect just how false it is. When it's on a little flat screen and pumped through computer speakers, oddly that level of removal allows you to lean in and immerse yourself. When it's 3-D and surround sound, your senses keep alerting you <surfer dude voice>dude, this is sooo fakey<surfer dude voice>

I read an article on the making of the recent Matrix film where they encountered just that problem. Seems one of the things our perceptions are best at is reading another person's face, and as a side effect, you can immediately detect a fake, computer-generated face. Therefore, it'll probably be some years before they make a convincing true "immersion" experience either in the movies or the vid games.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on June 13, 2003 11:18 AM

Browsing through the 2Blowhards site inspired me to start reading Christopher Lasch. Here is what he says in "The Minimal Self": 'Art resembles the most deeply regressive psychosis in its attempt to restore a sense of oneness with the primal mother. What distinguishes art from psychosis or neurosis is that it also acknowledges the reality of separation. Art rejects the easy way of illusions. Like religion, it represents a hard-won restoration of the sense of wholeness, one that simultaneously reminds us of the sense of division and loss.'

Posted by: Matt Leonard on June 13, 2003 07:22 PM

Mike -- Couldn't agree more. Isn't it odd, though, how seldom this point of view gets heard? And how common the bigger/better/more-immersive cheerleading is? Just because it's easier, do you suppose?

J.C. -- How'd you react to "Nemo"? And excellent point about "getting lost" in activities. I suppose my fave, in those terms, is web-browsing. The hours just pass...

Hey Felix, So you're the one in the front row! And checking his cell phone, no doubt. Looking forward to double-dating to DIA/Beacon with the Wife, you and Turbokitty. It'll be fun to be there in the company of three people who are getting all blissed out. I promise not to be too grumpy. Actually, I'll be fascinated.

Will, I guess I'd say that I bounce back and forth, in the subject matter and outside the thing, pretty much all the time. If I just let myself sink into the material, I tend to wind up going to sleep. Too much from the outside and I begin to feel like a car mechanic. Interesting to learn that sci-fi serves some of the same purposes for you that computer games do. Exploring an imaginative world seems to be one of the big draws of the two forms -- is that fair? Probably idiotically basic, but I'm so out of my depth when I try to think about them. Where do you stand on the videogames-can-be-art issue?

Bizness (and why isn't it "Bidness" instead?) -- Well, that is kinda key, isn't it: they're all experiences, who cares how we slot 'em? I'm a sort of taxonomy bug myself, and every now and then I should just let go of it. Trying to remember, though: aren't you a big fan of movies that are kind of like videogames? Or is "the movie that's kind of like a videogame" its own kind of experience too?

Yahmdallah -- I had no idea you'd worked as a projectionist. Did I miss a posting on your blog? I'll bet you've got some interesting tales to tell. Fascinated to learn that you didn't respond well to ultra-virtual reality yourself. I found it quite distressing -- it half-fooled me, but half didn't, and being made to straddle the two realities like that made me nauseous. Which probably means I don't have much of a future in the 21st century. And the pixels and wireframes never do seem to do a good job of mimicking human features and responses. The hair may look pretty good, but the face always seems plastic. Although have you noticed how the extreme-Photoshopped look is becoming established (in some ads and commercials) as its own kind of beauty? First Pam Anderson, now this.

Hey Matt, Thanks for including that passage from Lasch, which is great. Are you a Lasch fan generally? I remember a few of his books fondly, but read them a long time ago. Do they still seem fresh and a propos? Actually, I'd think that a lot of what he was taking note of decades ago is now coming to fruition ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 13, 2003 08:16 PM

Of course video games are art. They require craft and thought and effort, and they have an aesthetic component as well--and they require more of the first two and have more of the third than some of the so-called fine art I've seen.

Posted by: Will Duquette on June 13, 2003 11:40 PM

Jeez, I just spent last night reading about "attachment hunger" and now I wake-up and read Lasch's words:

"Art resembles the most deeply regressive psychosis in its attempt to restore a sense of oneness with the primal mother."

Never in a million years would I have connected attachment hunger to art. What a lovely puzzle to pull apart.

On the immersiveness question, the movie Jurrasic Park comes to mind for some reason....such a fantasy, to be immersed "safely" in prehistoric times. But there'd be no movie if the framework of safety didn't fall apart, causing man and dino to coexist. "'s a Raptor!"

Personally, I love frames. But growth would be impossible if they never broke apart or never needed replacing.

Whaaaaaa...where's the womb? I wanna go home.

Posted by: laurel on June 14, 2003 06:24 AM

Interesting. THis discussion reminds me of the many pointless arguments I would get into about video games. The point of contention was, which is more immersive, 3rd or 1st person view? I was firmly on the 3rd person side, arguing that (like first person fiction) it doesn't give you anywhere to go. There is nothing to indentify with or relate to, no fictional character to project on to. You don't fall into the reality in 1st person because you're always being reminded that its not real (Yam's comment on the MAtrix Game seems to support this). 3rd person creates an acceptable fiction, a frame, that makes it possible to loose yourself. (This isn't real, its not expected to be, so its okay to go wild).

On a completely unrelated point, I also hated the trend away from lavish 2D backgrounds to 3D enviroments. The 3D worlds looked so clunky and computery, while the 2d worlds, however flat they may be, gave the illusion of depth and the giddy feeling of walking around an illustration. (also, 3-D is more taxing on a system, leading to alow-down and techinal irritants.) For an example, take the Baldur's Gate series, one of the most artistically driven series on the market. While Baldur's Gate 2 was made with 2-D screens with some 3-D objects. The Neverwinter Nights game was made with all 3-D. The difference is in the screenshots (copy and paste into browser)

Baldur's Gate 2

javascript:openScreenWin('smallscreen', '/gallery/index.html?galleryID=18&screensize=2&screenimage=2','small');

And Neverwinter

javascript:openScreenWin('largescreen', '/gallery/index.html?galleryID=2&screensize=3&screenimage=10','large');

TO me, the difference is clear. Clunky objects I can turn over painted scenery I can walk through? I'll take the latter.

Posted by: JLeavitt on June 14, 2003 12:52 PM

I had been aware of Lasch's better known titles, "Culture of Narcissism" and "The Revolt of the Elites", but I had never read him before. He tries to connect many separate social trends going back the last two centuries so I think it will take some time for his analysis to seem dated, unless he was totally off. It's a lot to wrap my mind around but it's exciting.

I also like that slant on Pixar animation: "Finding Nemo", innocent family fun or Tool of Mass Psychosis ?

Posted by: Matt Leonard on June 15, 2003 04:59 PM

I find that movie trailers are the exponentiation of everything that's immersive about movies. They're louder, faster, more razzly-dazzly.

They come on so strong, I often feel assaulted. And then, for a few second, I think to myself, "I'd forgotten that I hate movies."

But the thought always passes.

Posted by: alexis on June 16, 2003 06:27 AM

Michael, the distinction I so inarticulately tried to make was better handled by Video Game Theorist JC Herz when I interviewed her in 1999.


In 1999, three movies, Existenz, Run Lola Run, and The Matrix employed the conventions of video games in their narrative structures. What do you think the future holds for the convergence of the gaming and cinema worlds, if any?


I think that gaming and cinema are as distinct as radio and billboards. They're both moving images, which is why we tend to confuse them or think they are going to converge, but beyond the fact that they are moving images, they don't have much in common. Movies are about linear storytelling, and games are about the ruse of interaction and they're really focused around the player. The player takes complete responsibility for the outcome. In a film, the viewer takes no responsibility and that's part of the pleasure of film. In fact, when I went to a screening of Run Lola Run in February before the film was released, the director [Tom Tykwer] was there and he was asked the inevitable question whether this would be great as a CD-ROM product. He said, "Absolutely not" because the film was so carefully constructed. The thing about Run Lola Run is that even though on the surface it seemed like a game, it's such a testament to the craft of cinema. The whole film was storyboarded so tightly; every scene; every shot, the rhythm; the pacing. The director also composed the music. He would go into the editing suite and do a rough cut of the scene and then go into the music studio and mix a song to 140 beats a minutes and then go back into the editing suite and edit the scene to 140 beats a minute. The whole impression that things could go anyway is a complete illusion and in a way Run Lola Run is the least game like film that came out last year because it was so tightly controlled by one person down to the frame-level.

Existenz illustrated a director's complete misunderstanding of what a game is because in Existenz all these people had bit parts in the game. In a game, nobody has a bit part everyone is the hero. While David Cronenberg called that a game it was more an exercise in improvisational theatre in a 3D virtual soundstage than it was a game. It wasn't a game at all.

The Matrix borrowed the aesthetics of video games but again, it really wasn't one; it was a linear story. That action sequence was scripted. You wouldn't get something that good in a game. The hero never lost those fighting sequences. That's why it's not a game. So, I think what you're going to see is a convergence of aesthetics, not a convergence of form.

I think where the real convergence is happening in the area of special effects. They are using a lot of the same equipment and the same software packages which is why they look similar and the people making are them are crossing the lines from gaming to special effects and vice versa. But the way that something looks doesn't necessarily correspond to what it really is. Cars are a perfect example of that. You know, you can put a really great paint job on a car with a motor the size of a lawnmower and it's not gonna be a drag racer.

It's BIZNESS again. Do you see what I'm (or really, she's)sayin?

It's really the quality of the directors and editors applying these aesthetics. We've got good examples of such work and plently of hacks looking to cash in on the latest pop aesthetic.
Most "video game" movies are awful, especially those that are direct ports: Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, Super Mario Bros...the list goes on. So I don't like movies that are like video games and vice versa, I like engaging movies of all sorts and am particularly attracted to good directors who also share,or at least nod) to my vocabulary...


As for As for 3D Gaming. I agree that most 3D computer games are blah-blah but a couple, Metroid Prime on the Gamecube and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, seem to break 3Ds lousy console streak. They remind me (aesthetically) of the Alien franchise and the Hayao Miyazaki uninverse, respectively.

Posted by: The Bizness on June 16, 2003 10:25 PM

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