Bordwell on Shklovsky

David Bordwell looks at how Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky turns the notion of the “Swiss watch” narrative on its head:

Shklovsky asks us to think of storytelling less holistically, or at least to think of a different sort of whole. He takes us through the looking glass.

*Instead of treating a narrative as a linear chain of events—say, the adventures of an egoist like Jordan—let’s think of it as a point of intersection of various materials. Not a linear flow, but a collage of items brought in, trimmed, or discarded as needed.

*And instead of taking a narrative as determining the time it takes to unfold, let’s think of the time as determining the narrative. Think of the narrative as built to scale, with a predetermined size into which material has to be fitted.

Algorithmic storytelling

In 2011, Netscape founder and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen wrote that “software is eating the world” — Amazon ate Borders, Netflix ate Blockbuster, cell phone cameras ate Kodak. Old businesses that stuck around were the ones that integrated software into what they did: Disney bought Pixar for computer animation, automakers turned to building computers on wheels that do everything except steer, and that’s coming.

I’m sensing a similar shift in the art world.

To be clear, software art isn’t going to put older methods of art-making and presentation “out of business.” But the march of software has breached the borders of art. There’s already a gallery, run by Google, called DevArt. And a School for Poetic Computation in New York. And a conference called Leaders in Software and Art. Visual art has embraced code.

So where is the narrative art created and experienced with software?

There are games, which often give you the ability to experience the aspects of a story world in the order and pace you choose. But the goal and major plot turns are the same every time you play. Ditto character development, when there is any. (I vaguely remember hearing of one game that presented a forked path at the end, allowing you to choose whether the character became a good guy or a bad guy. Sort of a visual choose-your-own-adventure book.)

Likewise, with hypertext fiction, all possible paths are mapped out for the reader before she begins.

What I’m thinking of is what is closer to this dispatch by Sean Flynn from the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier program:

Doug Aitken’s “The Source (Evolving),” a six-channel video installation featuring 23 evocative, fast-paced conversations about creativity between Aitken and an eclectic cast of artistic pioneers from various disciplines and generations. The installation creates an immersive experience that begins with the viewer standing in the center of a 2,000 square-foot circular pavilion, surrounded on all sides by six looping projections and a cacophony of overlapping sound emanating from each. As the viewer moves toward one of the projections, short walls separating each screen bring the sound of that conversation into focus.

The intention, according to Aitken, is to “allow the viewer to create their own narrative, to splice together a series of ideas” by moving through the space. One could imagine the same material being woven together into a feature-length documentary, but instead the artist chose to present these conversations in a way that is “unmediated and unfiltered,” so that each visitor experiences them in a slightly different order and duration. In this sense, “The Source (Evolving)” might be labeled a “database documentary,” an emerging interactive genre that was on display in a variety of forms at New Frontier.

Notice that, just like a game, people control the order and duration of what they see. But unlike a game, in which there is a most efficient way to proceed through a preordained plot or set of tasks, in this case playing with the order and duration of the parts changes the meaning. There is no fastest way to play this documentary—it’s a different documentary every time you watch it.

The articles continues about another, similar project:

Perhaps most striking about this algorithmic approach to storytelling is that there is no director commentary, no central narrative that ties the women’s lives together, no big documentary lessons to be learned. Harris characterizes it as an “experiment with story DNA,” a tool to unearth “sub-stories” within a larger narrative. In this sense, the experience of navigating “I Love Your Work” places the user in a role akin to the documentary editor sifting through raw footage, looking for a story to emerge. Yet even in the absence of a traditional storyline, we can find voyeuristic pleasure (and meaning) in the opportunity to gaze momentarily into the daily lives of others.

I love that phrase, “algorithmic approach to storytelling.”

I haven’t had a chance to watch any of these yet. I wonder how satisfying they are to watch once the thrill of the experiment wears off. A large part of successful writing, one hears over and over, is assuring the reader you are in control of your story, that you aren’t wasting their time, that your hand is there to guide them, carry them. With algorithmic storytelling, that is no longer true. It might be too extreme to say that the creator hands over her part of the meaning-making project, but improvised narratives with machine collaborators definitely open the door to the reader/viewer reacting with “So what?”

Despite the specter of “So what?”, experiments continue. The Tribeca Film Institute and CERN are hosting a storytelling hackathon to explore storytelling using “visuals and data.” As with the Tribeca documentary examples, the experiments begin with material reflecting the real world. What I want to know is, Where is the fiction? Is it possible to apply algorithmic storytelling to fiction? Or is it that without either the constant guiding hand of the creator or the anchor of historical reality, “So what?” becomes too likely?

UPDATE: Turns out I’m behind the times. In 2008 a novel written by a computer was published. Humans took eight months to write the software, and the software took three days to write the book.

UPDATE 2: Now we are as far back as the 1960s.

Convergence and screen aesthetics

A. O. Scott recently articulated a trend that a lot of people sense: the distance between movies, TV shows, web series, and video games is growing smaller and smaller:

Equally hard to refute is the idea that we are approaching a horizon of video convergence, in which all those screens will be equal and interchangeable and the distinctions between the stuff that’s shown on each one won’t seem as consequential as it does now. We still tend to take for granted that a cable drama, a network sitcom, a feature film, a web video and a first-person combat game are fundamentally different creatures, but they might really be diverse species within a single genus, their variations ultimately less important than what they have in common. They are all moving pictures, after all, and as our means of access to them proliferate and recombine, those old categories are likely to feel increasingly arbitrary and obsolete. The infrastructure of a multiplatform future is before us, and resistance to it can look like an especially tiresome kind of sentimentality.

Spoiler alert: Scott doesn’t think cinema is going away. But convergence doesn’t have to mean a complete dissolution of boundaries between media, and it is a useful context to think of the connections between these forms.

The common element linking films, TV, video games, etc., is often thought to be story. And that’s a useful vector to approach the question of convergence, but perhaps not the most fundamental: films can be non-narrative, and I’ve heard of non-narrative video games also.

A candidate for a true shared foundation comes from a recent essay by designer Frank Chimero. In “What Screens Want,” he starts with what is often heralded as the beginning of cinema and instead posits it as being, more generally, the beginning of an aesthetic of screens:

Muybridge’s crazy horse experiment eventually led us to the familiar glow of the screen. If you’re like me, and consider Muybridge’s work as one of the main inroads to the creation of screens, it becomes apparent that web and interaction design are just as much children of filmmaking as they are of graphic design. Maybe even more so. After all, we both work on screens, and manage time, movement, and most importantly, change.

Rather than pixels or celluloid, Chimero sees this capacity for movement as the most salient material quality of screens, one that binds together the art forms presented on them:

Just like any material, screens have affordances. Much like wood, I believe screens have grain: a certain way they’ve grown and matured that describes how they want to be treated. The grain is what gives the material its identity and tells you the best way to use it. […] the grain of screens is something I call flux […] Flux is the capacity for change.

Cinema and graphical software are blood relatives. And Chimero paints film as the father, mentioning that software developers would do well to adopt some of the language we use to understand the cinema.

This isn’t a new idea: there are experiments at the intersection of software and traditional arts both old and recent but with the film and video game industries on a collision course and high definition interactive screens in a majority of pockets, this is not going to remain solely an avant garde concern very long.

Theme as DNA

But I want to get to this topic of theme […] That sense of, Rian’s movies certainly, and I think the movies that I’m proudest of that I’ve worked on, there’s this kind of fractal quality to it. They’re thematically whole enough that you could take any one scene from them and cut it out and like put it in nice fertile soil and it would grow into a shape of that movie.

Like genetically it’s all part of one consistent thing. And that’s a thing I definitely find in your films is that they’re all of one piece and there’s a central idea, a central thematic idea that is whole. And I find it very hard to start writing until I kind of know what that is. If I don’t have some touchstone to go back to, like this is what the movie feels like, this is what the movie is, it’s very hard to do that.

— John August, transcribed from Scriptnotes podcast 115

An aesthetic crisis in writing

There is an aesthetic crisis in writing, which is this: how do we write emotionally of scenes involving computers? How do we make concrete, or at least reconstructable in the minds of our readers, the terrible, true passions that cross telephony lines? Right now my field must tackle describing a world where falling in love, going to war and filling out tax forms looks the same; it looks like typing.

It’s the same problem filmmakers have with hackers – during the height of their drama, they sit there, inert, typing. This is why fiction keeps inventing high drama metaphors of traditional physical life for the shared internal life of the net, ala The Matrix and Snow Crash.

Quinn Norton

Terry Rossio shares some screenwriting wisdom

In a dispatch from the Vancouver International Film Festival, film scholar Kristin Thompson relates craft tips from screenwriter Terry Rossio (Aladdin, Pirates of the Caribbean):

Rossio is a big advocate of succinctly creating a strong visual sense in each scene. Even on Rossio’s desktop he comes up with a distinctive icon for each folder (see top): a Rubik’s cube for “Screenwriting,” a little gramophone for “Music,” and so on.

For Rossio, each scene should consist of:

  • Opening image
  • Key moment (character revelations, reversals, etc.)
  • Throw (i.e., the setup for the next scene)

I love the mention of a desktop. What a good metaphor: each scene should have its icon.

Also, he takes the old question of whether writing can be taught, and the implication that if not you must be born with the it, and turns it on its head:

He feels that it is probably impossible to teach screenwriting: “No, the better question is, can writing be learned?” Yes, but people must teach themselves.