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DVD the Shift to Film's New Modernity.

In December 2000, the Centre for Creative and Performing Arts (GCPA), a research and development centre at the University of Wales, Bangor, began a research project in local schools using a set of DVD players. Not personal-computer based DVD players, which directly invoke ideals of CD-ROM interactivity or non-linear web-surfing, but free-standing disc players, the domestic replacement for the video cassette player--in this sense at least, machines which hark back to the film reception strategies of the video cassette era.

The project involved two age groups: 7-9 year-olds and 15-16 year olds (the first group from a primary school; the second, larger group from a high school). The range of socio-economic and cultural influences was determined by the nature of those initial project schools. The primary school, being quite close to the university (with its mix of local and international students and staff), has a wide ethnic mix but a narrow class mix. The high school has a wider socio-economic range (drawing on the local community), but a narrower ethnic mix (being predomiantly white and Welsh-born).

The videotape cassette, introduced into the home market in the late 1970s, revolutionised film production and distribution, not least by bringing audience choice into the domestic space. For example, as Bordwell and Thompson note in a discussion of the historical points of avant-garde genre, home video players "increased viewer demand for compilation films (particularly combat footage) and how-to documentaries (sports training, exercise tapes, language lessons)". [l]

But, of course, the impact of the video cassette went way beyond only genre-based effects. Indeed, it changed practices across the full film production spectrum by opening up the exchange value or what might be called "horizontally integrated" consumer potential engendered in the film-based product itself. The video, that is: not merely a way of viewing films at home but, as history panned out, a textual and cultural force in itself.

Thus the arrival of the video cassette launched the video store, the home-taping market, the fast-paced narratives now well-known in contemporary teen flicks: films designed specifically for mass domestic consumption by the primary film audiences of the post-WWII era, youth audiences brought up on television, familiar with the moving image and, most importantly of all, enthusiastically cine-literate.

So arrived the stop-start viewing practices, the "straight-tovideo" film releases, the "videotape star" (a bargain-basement version of the Hollywood film star). These launches and arrivals have now all been grounded in the historical domain of the video cassette. But what has the arrival of DVD begun to bring about?

DVD, Digital Video Disc or Digital Versatile Disc (both terms are correct), first proposed in 1994, claimed almost immediately to be the replacement not only for the video cassette but also for CD-ROM and the laserdisc. Yet there was, perhaps quite rightly, some scepticism, even as late as 1999. For example, in June of that year Edward Lawrenson wrote in Sight and Sound that:

Admittedly DVD looks like a reliable bet... But before the marketing people convince you that DVD's success is assured...it's instructive to recall that Betamax too was launched along can't fail lines. [2]

Part of this scepticism came about through the poor market penetration of the previous disc distribution medium, the laserdisc, in the Western market. Whereas in Japan the laserdisc did quite well, in the UK, for example, disc sales were remarkably poor. But this was not the only reason for early scepticism about the DVD. The second component of that scepticism seems fundamentally located in the nature of "film story" [3] itself--at least film story as it was understood up to the era of the video cassette--and in audience reactions to the structure and context of that story. Context, of course, slipping into the other side of narrative, not story but discourse, not only what is told but how it is told, how it is presented to its audience.

Back in the late 1970s, the video cassette set itself up as the ultimate "personal choice" medium, an alternative to the broadcast medium of television which, while suggesting choice, has always aimed at mass choice, not a personal one. Thus the "quaint" cultural role of public access television, which endeavours to "personalise" and locally appropriate the medium (an appropriation so well satirised in the 1992 Mike Myers film vehicle Wayne's World ). Thus, also, the failure of television to present itself as a contributory medium. Television production remains strangely remote from its consumers, bound in practices and in a self-promotional system which reflect its origins as primarily an advertising medium, as well as its desire to fight against audience commitment to a less directly consumerist cine-culture. We can summarise this approach as: make it fast, make it appealing to the masses, make it sell.

A "fight against" approach, notably, because television sought to draw consumers into the home, and thus away from cinemas, in order to sell them the products that the medium was launched to promote. Thus the post-WWII suburbanisation of the West was matched with a new distribution medium, perfect for the products on which late Western Capitalism was being built. Thus, also, consumer culture in its speedy turnaround of desire and satisfaction, product, new product, newer product, demanded more and more input from mass producers-those of the creative industries (including the film industry) not least.

The post-war cliche that life was somehow "speeding up" was matched not only by the reality that, with faster communication, faster cars, faster food, it really was; but, also, by the medium of television which followed cultural change and technological advancement with visual narratives of remarkably complementary pace and pitch. TV story and TV discourse were, from its origins, fundamentally linked to general cultural progress and renewal. The textual forms which evolved with it reflected this fundamental link. A "show" became not only an often elaborate production on a stage but a short visual narrative shown on TV; as bare-boned and unadorned as an eager suburbanite TV producer could manage. An "episode" became not simply a story instalment in a weekly radio drama, perhaps shared over tea or by a fireplace, but an encompassing visual spectacular in keeping with the parade-like visual spectacles of post-war progress. Narrative itself could potentially be not "story" but "situation", as most poignantly disp layed in the construction of the TV "situation comedy".

How different is the leisurely paced unfolding of a comic novel or even the pithy pitch of a well-told joke to the narrative construction of the televisual situation comedy? The genre is distinct in its formulation of visually fixed characters in a close domesticated format, performing emblematic visual actions at staccato pace to the laughter of sometimes non-existent "live" audiences. Whatever the origins of this comedy (vaudeville, being the obvious one), television has created its own story, canned its laughter in neat consumerist style, and made its own mark on narrative form and shape. The promotion of "captured situation" over "evolving story time" is one of its primary impacts. This has been the discourse of television, its way of telling, and it has matched perfectly the cultural discourses of a more "episodic" Western world, bound to an increasingly consumerist ethos based on short term desire and fast gratification.

The narrative tool heightened here is notably the canonical narrative tempo, ellipsis, the pace-inducing form of narrative which relies on a "literate" or, in this case, cine-literate audience "filling in the gaps" between narrative points. The narrative tempo summary, which provides background material and narrative connectives, but in a condensed form, is equally-heightened. While the tempos of stretch and pause, which work to focus on major or minor keys in a story, to counterpoint movement, are absent or, at best, downgraded. Not so, initially, in film.

Film retained a link to earlier narrative traditions in a way television could not. Could not because it was directly dependent on "working" its air-time, on selling, on sponsorship and on consumption. So, whereas the traditional form of the novel or the joke might not inform TV narrative, the structural aspects of story that these historical forms (and others) utilised continued to find there way into film. Paradoxically, tied up in the horizontal integration of the new media industries, the two mediums found themselves in a symbiotic relationship. As David Cook notes, discussing immediately post-1965 Hollywood narrative:

The audience was composed of the first generation in history that had grown up with the visually, if not intellectually, sophisticated medium of television. Through hours of watching television as children and teenagers, its members knew the language of film explicitly, and when filmmakers like Frankenheimer, Lumet, Penn, and Peckinpah began to move out of the studios in the mid- to late-sixties and to employ the New Wave techniques of the French and Italian cinemas for the first time on the American screen, this young audience liked what it saw. [4]

Here then an intriguing Chinese box situation, narrative boxes within boxes, literally, it would seem. Within the discourse of television, devoted as it has been to ellipsis and summary, film found its contemporary youth audience. Yet that audience, while initially supporting the kinds of movements Cook identifies, now forms the core of consumers who demand of their films the faster-paced, more episodic structures that television has generated. Either a paradox, or an evolution therefore. However, there is one canonical narrative tempo so far left undiscussed. That is the narrative tempo known as scene.

As Gerald Prince points out, scene occurs when "discourse time is (considered) equal to story time". [5] It is most often presented in direct opposition to the "condensing" nature of summary and it often contains little if any narrative mediation. Scene, in this sense, is least directly related to combining authorial control or manipulation of viewpoint with promotion of movement. That is, in ellipsis and stretch the tempo favours forward movement over mediation. In stretch and pause the tempo favours mediation over forward movement. In scene the equality of the relationship between discourse and story makes audience manipulation via tempo (a component of discourse) less probable. Thus the manipulation has to reside in the story elements not the discourse. An absence of this canonical tempo, scene, therefore suggests an absence of story.

The question is: have new film distribution mediums developed since the arrival of television, and up to and including the video cassette, downgraded scene and thus downgraded story in film narratives? This question can be held back one moment in order to consider the technological influences on narrative which are at play here.

The video cassette, tied up as it has been with stop-start film viewing and with invoking the ethos of personal choice in the use of the TV for the viewing of films, asks that film narrative be controlled by the individual but not directly influenced by them within the boundaries of the text. That is, the method of watching remains linear, the influence of the audience is (within those boundaries) limited to interrupting the linear flow of text, and response of the audience is largely left free and untouched outside the core film text. Beyond the domestication of film (a substantial enough influence in itself, of course) the video cassette would seem, on this level, to be of relatively minor importance in the history of film narrative shape.

And yet, let us remember that ellipsis and summary increase the impact of discourse over story by favouring forward movement over mediation. Thus, if the video cassette, by the very simple and practical action of allowing audiences to impose elliptical jumps and pauses in the film narrative (pauses for getting drinks, rewinding to points of interest etc) then inducing the audience to "rethink" or "summarise" where they are "up to" in the film before proceeding, then the video cassette has further entrenched narrative forms in which the discourse (or the "how" aspects of the viewing) dominate the story (or the "what" elements). To paraphrase that well-known quote: in this way "the medium" has increasingly become the message.

A short case-study, using Wayne's World, adds weight to this observation, and to our understanding of the role of new media technology in configuring our contemporary understanding of film narratives. Of course, Wayne's World is not chosen at random here. It is thematically located at the nexus between television and film, it is a youth film, and it is included in the Top 50 comedies listed by UK popular film magazine Total Film in its November 2000, "The Fifty Greatest Comedies Ever" issue, a magazine whose demographic coverage is precisely that primary youth market for contemporary cinema.

Wayne's World, a film which grew out of a "Saturday Night Live" TV sketch starring Mike Myers and Dana Carvey, is the story of "party dudes" Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar, who have their own cable TV show. 'Discovered' by sleazy video producer, Benjamin Oliver, played by Rob Lowe, the pair are offered the chance to shift their show to mainstream stream TV and thus to approach "real" stardom while confronting the possibilities of losing control of their show to the corporate ethos of Oliver's TV-land. Oliver tries to tie up sponsorship for the new show, hooking in a wealthy video arcade owner by offering him a spot on the show. Meanwhile, Wayne falls in love with Cassandra, a beautiful Asian lead singer in a rock band looking for its big break, and Garth tries to find his own way to love, speculating on a relationship with a "mystery woman" he regularly encounters in a cheap roadside diner.

Quite obviously, Wayne's World fits well with discussions of the bricolage nature of the postmodern text, and its position as "postmodern" is equally supported by its lampooning of "dude" and "TV corporate" characters and by the self-referential nature of the narrative itself, which encourages the audience to feel that it is empowered to participate in the film by the principal characters' "knowing" addresses to camera and the reference to popular cultural icons and advertising slogans. And yet, for the purpose of studying the narrative shape of this film, too great a concentration on the postmodern might well be leading us down the wrong track.

The narrative of Wayne's World is, in its profoundly episodic nature, televisual not classically filmic. This episodic nature is supported by those direct-to-camera addresses which not only break the narrative but enforce the discourse of that narrative beyond the story. Thus, when Garth allows himself to enter a dream state in order to contemplate what might be possible with his "mystery woman" he does so without moving the primary narrative of the film forward and without introducing or embedding a new narrative strand. A fantasy dream sequence such as this could, in a classically narrated film like The Wizard of Oz (1939), for example, create the impetus for the development of character or lead to a denouement poignant with revelation. Not so here. The sequence is purely self-referential, aimed at a cine-literate audience who "get the joke", and is decidedly self-contained within the narrative structure.

The denouement of Wayne's World, offered in several "choices" with Wayne and Garth suggesting alternate endings and then those endings being played out for the audience, confirms that the film relates to the narrative understandings of a TV audience regardless of the fact that Wayne's World is a film whose plot involves TV, not a TV programme whose plot involves film. Importantly, these final scenes are played out in a cable TV studio with the actors surrounded by the technology of TV making and the alternate sequences offered up as much to them (the players remaining static 'on set') as they are to the film's "actual" audience.

Is this, therefore, postmodern? Not in terms of the history of film. Leo Charney, writing on film and the philosophy of modernity, notes this:

... fragmentation marks the heart of film as representation: because it is always fragmentary, always a string of moments, it is never complete and present. Re-presentation, in its very form, played into the evacuation of presence that characterized the modern. There was no present to re-present. ... However, the emerging form of cinema, as such Soviet filmmakers as Vertov and Eisenstein keenly perceived, allowed modernity's potential drawbacks to become aesthetic advantages: Shock, speed, and dislocation became editing, and the evacuation of presence, in the technique of cinema, became the means by which the view could find a place in film's ceaseless forward movement. [6]

While the "forward movement" Charney mentions barely holds a candle to the elliptical, summarised tempo of a film like Wayne's World or other contemporary examples such as Scream (1996), Magnolia (1999) or Memento (2000), the point made here is an extremely relevant one. The act of producing and viewing film refers back to a modern not a postmodern imposition of a technological apparatus into the aesthetic space of audiences. Since the early 20th century, the ways in which both audiences and "creators" have so easily reconfigured ideals of narrative shape in light of film's technological changes are considerable.

To return to the Centre for the Creative and Performing Arts' DVD research project, the children of Cae Top School and Friars School received their freestanding DVD players in the weeks before breaking for Christmas 2000. Their teachers were aware of the existence of DVD but were not themselves DVD users. This was seen as an advantage to the research. The research programme presented to the funding body, the UK National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), had been one in which the nature of storytelling was to form the core, with an investigation and then creation of additional trial DVDs informed by the results of the research. This was the most obvious plan because, it was argued, many early DVDs either used older CD-ROM formats, which did not exploit the full storytelling potential of this new digital distribution medium (for a start, DVD offers several times the storage capacity of CD and thus several times the opportunity for inclusion of text), or which adopted video cassette formats , offering no supplementary material or interactivity and simply using the format for its improved visual and aural quality.

At the moment when the players were delivered and installed at Cae Top, it was obvious the research was going to discover some fundamentals about the way in which DVD technology is influencing, and will influence further, the ways in which audiences consume the narratives of film, and how filmmakers are changing production practices to create DVDs.

The Cae Top children, around thirty 7-9 year olds, were simply offered the player and a copy of the Rob Minkoff film, Stuart Little (1999). This Stuart Little DVD had the advantage of offering "over 1 1/2 hours of extra features" but of not being dependent on a personal computer for access to those features (thus not invoking a "computer" sensibility but a sensibility associated with a video player), while also offering a narrative which was based on a traditional story form: E.B. White's classic children's novel Stuart Little, first published in 1945.

The children entered the classroom, gathered around the DVD player/monitor in a large group and pressed the play button. But not the button that played the film. The button they pressed was the one that played the interactive material, specifically "Stuart's Central Park Adventure Game". In fact, by April, several months after the launch of the research project, and even though they knew there was a film on the disc specifically aimed at and relevant to them, the children of Cae Top had not, in the classical sense, "watched" the film of their own accord. Film watching, for them, was fundamentally informed by the interactive manipulation of the narrative provided by the DVD's supplementary material and perhaps, still today in the eyes of the filmmakers, intended to "supplement" the primary film viewing experience This is dependent on technological advances not until very recently connected with the televisual.

Significantly then, in addition to the impact in the late 1970s of the arrival of video cassette on the rise of discourse over story in film narrative, we might further locate historical changes in the way film stories are told and received back to the technological advances of the early 1980s. It was in 1983 that the compact disc was launched, though it had in fact been around in proto form since Philips and Sony formed an alliance in 1978 to create a uniform disc format for digital disc, and it was in 1984 that the Apple Mac with mouse came into the world, launching the era of the personal computer. Both of these technologies employed high quality, digital non-linear packages at a mass consumer level.

DVD is, at the base point, the bridge between two historical developments, one located in domestic film entertainment (the video cassette) and one which has been located at the epistemological heart of the personal computer--that is, the computer as public and, since 1984, personal "knowledge provider" and "information organiser". It would truistic to point out that the DVD, with its supplementary platforms, provides exactly both these things. Indeed, it is important to go beyond this simple point and consider what effects it additionally produces.

First and foremost, noting the empirical evidence provided by the CCPA's DVD research programme, DVDs promote and develop the idea of film as "game". No longer do audiences simply enter a text expecting to follow its narrative from Point A through to Point Z and to respond to the film text a posteriori in ways which reflect personal, cultural, historical and/or aesthetic bias. The expectation that supplementary materials provides is not, in reality, supplementary at all. In the extreme case, as noted in the empirical work with children, the core film narrative disappears entirely, forming the basis of a new narrative whose story is connected with the core but constructed under far more "personalised" methods.

To play a game with a film text is, after all, to personally appropriate it, to place your own stamp on it. This, likewise, matches the growth of the personal computer as "game site", adding increasingly in recent years to its epistemological context. In addition, to marginalise linear narrative is to offer the constructive opportunities of the non-linear to the cine-literate audience. Think here: "make your own film, here are the components, construct your own connections."

This, intriguingly, is not far from the "do your own thing" ethos of the 1960s, which David Cook approaches in his comments on the post 1965 television generation and its impact on film-making. It also plays extremely well to the mass consumerist nature of that post-1950s Western audience. If a film text can be constantly re-appropriated and reconfigured, if its narrative is never fixed because the viewing medium is not dependent on giving primacy to the core, then the film "product" becomes both constantly renewable and the desire for further and more "developed" ways of reading the text, of more texts which have more and alternate stories and non-stories (eg: "situations", vignettes), offers enormous market potential.

Secondly, therefore, DVD has promoted the fast-paced, episodic "advertising" narratives of television. Even when the core text is a well known or classic film text, the conventions of making and watching DVD turn that text into a component of the experience rather than the complete experience. So, for example, Taxi Driver (1976) in its Region 2 configuration[7], contains a Behind-the-Scenes Documentary, a Video Photo Gallery with Commentary, the Original Screenplay, Storyboards, Advertising Materials, the US Theatrical Trailer, and Filmographies. Jean Luc Godard's Breathless (1959) contains Animated Chapter Selections, a Poster Gallery, the Original Theatrical Trailer, a remade theatrical trailer from 1983 and Charlotte et son Jules, a short film by Jean-Luc Godard. And so it goes: on the Region 1 DVD of Brando's The Wild One (1954), the original theatrical trailers; on Tampopo (1986), often considered the first parodic "noodle Western" and directed by Juzo Itami, direct scene access, subtitles in Japanese or English and Filmographies; on Animal Crackers (1930), the Marx Brothers' classic, captions available in English: never again does the text of those jokes have to disappear in the shotgun style of the brothers' delivery!

Simply put, DVD is offering the melding of entertainment with increased knowledge provision for a film-viewing generation cine-literate enough to cope with the breaking and reconstructing of film narratives and, increasingly, requiring that filmmakers offer that very opportunity. Filmmakers are matching this requirement with additional "behind-the-scenes" materials shot on set, with archival materials, with interviews and documentaries and with filmographic material, all of which invite the audience to interpret and play with the core narrative and make of the film story what they will. This is the case from the most esoteric of art cinema to the most mainstream of Hollywood product. Indeed, a mainstream film such as Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight (1998), starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, substantially uses DVD's supplementary platforms to give flesh to the characters by Clooney and Lopez, showing casting sessions and interviews, and shifting a discussion of Soderbergh's directing toward what migh t traditionally be called the "auteurist", simply by highlighting his aesthetic vision in a series of personal "commentaries". But there is an even more pervasive narrative shift here which shouldn't go unnoticed.

Whereas television and the attendant technology of the video cassette have produced a style of narrative which favours discourse over story and which gives primacy to the tempos of ellipsis and summary over those of stretch and pause, DVD returns the film narrative to its more traditional or "classical" position, albeit within a very much altered set of circumstances. Such simple things as the ability to freeze-frame a sequence or scan slowly through it, which DVD provides, highlights the importance of stretch or pause in the construction and consideration of film narratives. Likewise, while summary has increasingly been employed to move narrative forward in the fast-paced ideals of contemporary Western film, on DVD it also incorporates the other half of its narratological character: that is, to provide background material to points of action. DVD certainly encourages audiences to consider this; providing background, after all, is one of its "selling points".

Finally, while it would be premature to suggest that the impact of DVD is challenging the notion that the "medium" is, in fact, "the message" and, on the evidence here, such an argument might seem strange in itself, it is true to say that the use of DVD is evening up the weighting between discourse and story in the construction of scene.

With Charney's comments on early film texts and the aesthetics of modernity in mind, it can be said that this current situation likewise has much to do with an opening up of a space for the viewer. In DVD's case, this space is concerned with the renewal and appropriation of the film narrative by its interruption and reconstruction and (perhaps only alleged) supplementation. This sort of appropriation is not out of keeping with the technological, cultural and economic shifts that have impacted on film narrative in recent years, particularly considering we have moved a long way from the mass production, Fordist ideals of those early twentieth century film days to the mass consumption ideals of the early twenty-first.

That DVD references a "new modernity", rather than a "post-modernity", is striking in its empowerment of both audience and filmmaker to enliven the core narrative with aesthetic form constantly open to transformation. Indeed, asking that each transformation somehow presents better opportunities for story construction than the one before makes plain that progress and technology, despite evoking postmodern angst, cannot easily be detached from each other. That this story is not necessarily only located in the ideas and work of the producer but also in the ideas and work of the consumer is evidence that film makes plain those ideals of modernity. Ideals, that is, which fed the birth of film, and continue to assist us to produce, and to come to terms with, its future narrative shapes and styles.

This DVD film research was inaugurally funded by the UK National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA). Thanks to them.

Graeme Harper is director of the Centre for the Creative and Performing Arts, University of Wales, Bangor.

(1.) David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film History: An Introduction (New York: McGrawHill, 1994), 691.

(2.) Edward Lawrenson, "The Gizmo Graveyard" Sight and Sound (London: BFI, June 1999), 19.

(3.) Film story (what is told) and discourse (how it is told) together comprise narrative.

(4.) David Cook, A History of Narrative Film, 3rd Ed,( New York: Norton, 1996), 920.

(5.) Gerald Prince, Dictionary of Narratology (Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1988), 84.

(6.) Leo Charney, "In a Moment: Film and the Philosophy of Modernity" in Charney, L and Vanessa R. Schwartz (eds) Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 292.

(7.) DVDs are released on a staggered "regional" release pattern not dissimilar to the patterns for videotape cassette and cinema releases. This obviously maximises market potential for producers/distributors because a film can he "launched" several times. Region 1 covers the USA and Canada. Region 2 covers Europe, the Middle East, the Republic of South Africa and Japan. Region 3 is South East Asia and Taiwan. Region 4 is Central America, South America, Australia, Mexico and New Zealand. Region 5 is the Russian Federation, Africa except Egypt and the Republic of South Africa, India and Pakistan. Region 6 is China. The importance of film distributors' attempts to regionally encode DVDs to increase market potential must be noted here as it reflects on the fact that DVD is seen very much as a market-oriented distribution medium, driven by the domestication of the film text, and associated with the "re-versioning" of core texts to suit particular markets.
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Author:Harper, Graeme
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Date:Jun 22, 2001
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