This article was written on 17 Sep 2013, and is filled under Film & TV.

Looping out of Cinema

Lynch, Hofstadter, and Cybercinematics as Recursive Representation.

The digitization of film has taken over cinema: while Avatar was considered a revolution in 2009, digitized worlds in optional 3D by now are a standard of mainstream entertainment, recently luring crowds with an animated Monsters University and a digitized re-narration of the tale of superman in Man of Steel. Although certainly impacting visual culture, these productions finally keep up the old cultural technique of storytelling, bringing people to come together to follow a hero and his adventure. A different digital revolution in cinema, however, meanwhile quietly started rebuilding what we experience when we “go to the movies.” Cutting-edge directors have digitized their cinema not only by shifting to different recording devices and post-production techniques, but also by transgressing narrative storytelling and cinematic space. Peter Greenaway intertwined his project The Tulse Luper Suitcases as network of online video games and exhibitions of installations with three of his later feature films. David Lynch faced the digitization of filmmaking by publishing a short film series called Rabbits online that finally bleeds into his latest feature Inland Empire.

The case of Lynch demonstrates how the new setting of a multimedia network can be translated into a mindset that replaces narrative in cinema by a net-like structure. It contemplates media innovation by challenging the very concept of cinema. Audiences and film critics felt stranded, stating that Inland Empire was ‘hermetically sealed’ (Michael Atkinson) or so ‘wildly challenging’ that it makes Mulholland Drive seem ‘downright classical’ (Kristin Jones). Whereas Lynch’s previous films were notorious for oscillating between narrative sequences and leaps between narrative levels, Inland Empire performs a much more radical turning away from storytelling. The three-hour-realm shot on digital material maxes out the accepted length of feature films as far as it goes, neglects temporal, spatial, and causal orders, shatters its protagonist into fragments of disparate identities, and barely contains any clearly motivated, even identifiable events. The viewer is deprived of both of the key elements of narration: neither does Lynch’s latest empire have a story, nor does it have a hero. What is taking place in Inland Empire is not cinema anymore. Cinema is cited in this audiovisual material only as abandoned media, while a new type of texture emerges that is out of place in a movie-theater. I will call this peculiar texture cybercinematic.


From Nesting to Netting

The course of events starts off with what seems like a nested narrative, of a film-within-a-film, raising the expectation of a Lynchian, narrative play of level leaps: Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart star Laura Dern is introduced as actress Nikki Grace, who takes up the role of Sue Blue in the new film High on Blue Tomorrows. She soon begins confusing these identities: “Damn! This sounds like dialogue from our script!” she interrupts herself in a conversation with her co-star, only to be reprimanded by the director, leaving her surprised that she actually finds herself shooting a film scene.

Who are we to tell her that she is wrong? Actress Laura Dern, as we see later, is playing a role, namely an actress playing a role, in a film adaptation of a film adaptation of a folk tale, produced as film-within-an-(assumed)-film, labeled Inland Empire and presented in a movie theater. Her performance is pointing in- and outwards a spiral set-up, destabilizing boundaries and hierarchies between narrative levels. Rather than displaying her inability to have a proper character and convey narrative, Dern’s performance undoes the very category of character and promotes the collapse of the nested set-up.

Reconsidered as a project that reaches beyond cinema in the age of digitization, the cybercinematic texture of Inland Empire samples new ways of linking episodes. The doors Dern is passing through eventually start connecting disparate rooms, creating a network of situations that differ according to her identity, performance style, language, time, and place; other scenes do not include Dern at all, such as events that seem to take place in Poland in the 1920s, and enigmatic sitcom scenes that parenthetically appear and involve actors with large rabbit heads. Dern’s motion appears almost merely spatial, suggesting that it displays one out of many possible sampling processes the texture allows for. Doors work like hyperlinks in this cybercinematic realm, establishing connections beyond narration. Some of them are enigmatically marked, drawing attention to the option to transit while concealing the back end design that will determine the next move.

A Loopy Empire

Narrative turning points as impetus of stories are replaced in the cybercinematic realm by instances of reflexivity. The most dramatic sequence does not result from any arc of suspense, but from a self-encounter of the protagonist in a movie theater. Her confrontation with her own image on the screen is followed by a nightmarish chase. Recursive instances like this point to the abandoned medium of cinema, function as driving force, and structure the new texture by loop-like figurations. Comparable recursive patterns have been the focus of physicist and cognitive scientist Douglas R. Hofstadter. In Gödel, Escher, Bach, he introduces his concept of the strange loop: a level-crossing feedback loop, whose circuit performs a shift from one level of a system to another. Despite a successive upwards shift and the sense of departing, “one winds up exactly where one had started out” (102). In Inland Empire, strange loops draw connections between recurring situations, while different perspectives on them paradoxically all derive from the same protagonist.

One of those recurring instances is the first time actress Nikki plays her role “Sue.” The actors meet with the filmmakers in the studio and read a dialog from the script. “I am so sorry,” Dern says according to the script, “look into the other room.” At that moment they hear a noise coming from behind reversed scenery. Her partner goes to run after whoever was hiding there, mingling levels by following her scripted request to look into “the other room.” The reversed scenery provides an image of twisted self-referentiality, not only pointing to the medium of film but also defining the invisible space behind it as part of an “other,” different level of processing. Later, we see Dern walking down a street, while requisites and actions mark the situation as one she earlier referred to as a scene from the script. We could read this as performance of Sue, if it were not for the twisted structure of the rest of the scene. She finds herself at another door, on which a series of letters and signs form a cipher. Her facial expressions do not reveal any encoding of that key. What attracts her to follow the hyperlink is the mere fact that it is marked.

The entry to the space behind the door is a leap into a different spatial order. The screen of Inland Empire gets dark and silent for a couple of seconds, leaving the spectator disoriented. Spatial and temporal orders of cinema collapse, and a cybercinematic space opens up. The staging of Laura Dern’s reappearance then consequently breaks every rule of narrative space in cinema, while editing works as tactical chopping of cinematic space: after a few flashing lights she faces the camera and moves towards the spectator. Dern’s point-of-view shot then performs the strange loop to the rehearsal scene. She is slowly walking towards the filmmakers and the actors Devon and Nikki, causing the noise from the “other room.” Approaching herself from two different levels of processing, as actress and role, she reveals the strange loopiness of the texture she is sampling. In terms of Hofstadter, we wind up where we had started out, in a feedback loop that in the case of Inland Empire paradoxically crosses the levels of creator and creation. Hofstadter illustrates this move with the lithography Drawing Hands by M.C. Escher: it depicts a sheet of paper, on which two hands form a circle by drawing each other into existence. While Hofstadter does not discuss film and regards the lithography only as illustration for level-crossing circuits in general, one can consider Drawing Hands as strange loop par excellence when dealing with representation: it involves representation as much as its constitutive agents, and thereby provides a model for meaningful patterns in non-narrative recursive textures. Inland Empire allows its protagonist to switch off between the different levels of her cinematic representation and her fragmentation in different narrative episodes. Drawn and drawer approach each other from two levels, the film set and the “other room” within the reversed setting. The location where Dern is looping is the film set as production site of the texture she is moving through. The very act of representation is pointed to in the form of a strange loop, while a new meaningful pattern is introduced that transcends the medium it quotes. Narrative cinema is overcome by what I would call a cybercinematic mode of performance of audiovisual material within strange loopiness.


A Burn Hole

The loopiness of the texture also connects material seemingly unrelated to the levels within which Dern moves. We see her burning a small cigarette hole into a garment that appears as a huge burn hole on the walls of the rabbit sitcom. This moment interweaves structures of different dimensions, introducing the idea of a micro-level of her actions. The burn hole subtly invites us to contemplate the texture’s lowest micro-structure: the digital video material Inland Empire was shot on. Its low costs liberated Lynch from producers who could demand narrative and a proper script, and from restrictions regarding the amount of material produced. While analog film constitutes a continuum of chemical material, digitization introduces discreteness: if we would zoom into digital video, we would come to see the unimaginable amount of pixels on the low-level, as Hofstadter would call it. They determine the images on the high-level that we are used to focus on when watching a film. Inland Empire foregrounds its low-level processing through indistinct lighting, blurred focus, and digital special effects that underscore its differences from chemical film. The performance of a cybercinematic texture on the high-level of actions thereby both mirrors and points to the digitalized deep structure of the material.


A Woman?

 The vanishing point of Hofstadter’s work on strange loops is his interest in what makes human consciousness. He understands the “I” as symbol that human beings construct by filtering the world into macroscopic categories, whereas microscopic physical processes of the brain remain out of scope. “We are convinced that our ‘I’ causes our own actions,” he states. “The Grand Pusher in and of our bodies is our ‘I.’” The latter is built as strange loop throughout linear time, involving an episodic memory of the past, a projection of what is yet to come and subjunctive replays of episodes that could have come. Thus, human selfhood requires a time built by narrative. In the texture of Inland Empire, however, the “Grand Pusher” of Dern’s body is not the “I,” but the cybercinematic environment. Selfhood is not achieved, but fragmented in the sampling activity of a female body presence as main continuity throughout the process. The cybercinematic mode of representation also affects gender positions established by narrative. As Theresa De Lauretis has argued in her essay “Desire and Narrative,” mythical mechanisms have installed male subject-heroes as mover, while woman functions either as obstacle or as narrative closure in the form of the love interest at the happy end of the adventure. From that perspective, the kaleidoscopic instances of violence against women in Inland Empire appear to be linked to its creation of a non-narrative texture: Inland Empire’s cybercinematics do not only cite cinema as abandoned medium, but also cinematic-narrative-codes of subjectivity. Consequently, they perform their undoing of narrative with a female mover. What I have called cybercinematics also provides a new position in the discourse of female subjectivity in cinema. Inland Empire is a chick flick for the posthuman.

– Christina Mandt

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