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Appropriating the Film Text in a Digital Age

By Anthony Cristiano  |  17-Apr-2007

In order to speak of appropriation we must first answer the question: What do we mean by film text? As Christian Metz put it since the 1970s in his article "The Imaginary Signifier"1 published on Screen, film implies the entire institution of filmmaking: the creation, the distribution, and the exhibition of the work.

The term 'text' derives from the Latin word textus, tissue, literary style of writing, and in medieval Latin 'gospel,' which in turn is a derivative of the verb texere, which means 'to weave.' Therefore, we could think of the 'text' of a film as comprising its arrangement of formal parts stitched together when presented to the viewer. The peculiar film style is a chief component of the film text. Viewers worldwide have been metaphorically woven into the gospel of film for over a century. The textuality of film is what still brings viewers 'to the movies.' The text is that ethereal-like relationship that keeps the two parts connected together: the work and its reader, the viewer. The 'body' of a film text is a result of its technical style and dialectic discourse, and as such it survives within us. It survives beyond the distribution, exhibition, and viewing experience of a film. The text is what still remains with us when we no longer are sitting in front of the screen; it lives within us when we keep pondering on the significance of the experience we have exposed out intellect to. Rather then forgoing the film style, new technologies attempt to imitate as closely as possible its peculiar qualities with features such as 24-frame rate, anamorphic shot, depth of field, in an attempt to approximate it texture and text. Our textual relationship to the cinema is made up of images, snapshots, segments of dialogues, memories of the social and cultural context, which have stitched us to the moving images, and linger in our minds for a long time, for a life-time in fact, mixing up with our own dreams.

Hence, the appropriation a viewer makes of a film text occurs periodically, at each viewing experience. Traditionally this has been a collective experience and despite the periodic forecast of its decline it still remains a celebrated custom, a ritual in fact, in numerous market chains and specialized venues. In a digital age this experience has created its own extended space, albeit an altered one. The advent of 'film online' has widened the circulation of film and appreciation of the film text rather than curtailing its experience. As dictated by economic conditions the practice of creating a film may become more and more a luxury, an elitist activity. The fear is that the usefulness of celluloid be dictated by economic dynamics, which overrule artistic practice and perspectives. Ye, in such a context, the 'gospel' of film and its text are predicated on new supports and new audiences, which include the postmodern apparatus of the Internet. On a textual level a continuum is found between the proper film medium and the new digital medium. Users and consumers of digital forms coexist with users and consumers of film forms, and in many cases they are the same person. They carry the textual identity of one form into the other, by transposing it and re-creating it in the new medium.

In spite of the early obituary announcements, it has been noted that film has survived the arrival of TV airwaves in the 1950s and lives on in a digital age, and cyber world. On the 17th of May, 2005 at the Cannes Film Festival the European Ministers for Audiovisual Affairs and the Member for the Commission in charge of Information Society and Media attending the 2005 Europe Day at Cannes issued a declaration comprised of seven main points. In part it read:

[...F]ilm online offers immense opportunities for the film industry both with regard to access to new audiences and with regard to wider circulation of European films[...] Audiences are often currently deprived of access to certain films – either for geographical reasons or because more artistic or experimental films have difficulty in being screened widely.
Film online should be seen as a new outlet [...] The collective experience of seeing a film in a cinema will remain a privileged medium.[...]2

The new technologies referred to may be viewed as a positive addition to independent artistic practices such as experimental filmmaking. They contribute to raise awareness of neglected film cultures. In fact one place where the appropriation of the film text is usefully transposed into new artistic forms is the practice of experimental filmmaking, the contemporary forms of avant-garde cinema. As to what constitutes experimental filmmaking, theoretically there could be as many definitions as there are many unique artists and filmmakers engaged in such a venture. There are plenty of contemporary pioneer artists, who explore new territories, who have appropriated the film style and its textual discourse and are furthering their experiments with a bricolage of forms, expression, and media. Historically, critics find it convenient to define this 'other' cinema in opposition to Hollywood mainstream cinema, or in virtue of its practices as defined by a recurring set of economic, institutional, and aesthetic norms, or more simply as highly personal films.3 Today such opposition finds further battle-ground on the Internet. The use of digital media, such as mini-DVs and DVDs, and the extension into cyber space, such as YouTube, by an increasing number of independent film artists, may be considered an extended 'breathing locus' where new audiences nurture their taste for film.

Within the confines of such an ideological context, I likewise would define my recent filmmaking endeavour entitled A Self-conscious Mise-en-scene, as an independent and artisanal work. In line with the characteristically limited resources experimental film affords, A Self-conscious Mise-en-scene was shot on approximately 3300 feet of 16mm black and white Kodak 7222 film: a total of 33 cans of film (100 feet per roll), and later transferred and edited on digital means. The experimental nature of A Self-conscious Mise-en-scene was shaped in positive and less positive ways by such circumstances. Its unpolished texture reveals its choice in matter of tools and aesthetics. Its black and white 'dirty' density look contrasts with the neatly balanced colours of a regular film, and unlike the invisible montage assured by the continuity style, its 'self-conscious modus operandi' exposes its construction process. It makes visible elements of its mise-en-scene procedure such as the setting up of the scene, its composition process, and various actions surrounding the performances, integrating these elements in unusual ways into the atypical narrative. Furthermore, unlike the 'structural-material' films of previous or recent generations, the experiment goes explicitly beyond the properties of film. A Self-conscious Mise-en-scene's radical implications invest the ideology involved in the contemporary forms taken by experimental filmmaking.

A notable theorist of the history and notion of avant-gardism, Renato Poggioli, considered any 'ideology' to be a social phenomenon and wrote that, "in the case of the avant-garde, it is an argument of self-assertion or self-defence used by society in the strict sense against society in the larger sense."4 The trajectory is not that simple and Poggioli realized that the relation between society and the direction taken by the avant-garde is a complex one that required a study of an equally complex phenomenon: "alienation."5 A Self-conscious Mise-en-scene is an artistic manifestation of such a complex rapport with the changing world it tries to depict. The result is an aesthetically uncharacteristic film, which mirrors the development of a new textual entity comprised of a mixture of filmic and digital codes. What defines the film's "self-consciousness" is the choice of sowing unconventional patterned forms into the diegesis of the film. Throughout the film several actors are caught in what is traditionally considered a slip on their part. In one case an actor makes a false start and says, "I screwed up… Start again?" Another one, after realizing he has somewhat taken the story in a different direction by 'forgetting' his lines, slows down, and then resumes his delivery without interrupting the flow of the sequence. In standard narratives scenes similar to the ones described above would be 'trashed' in the edit bin. They interrupt the 'natural flow' of the story and interfere with the continuity, which demands that the 'edits' be invisible to the viewer. A Self-conscious Mise-en-scene purposefully keeps these sequences as integral to its unembellished construct, original 'material,' and ultimately its filmic text. The performers are as much part of the story as the tale they try to appropriate and deliver to the camera. The 'mistakes' they make are no longer 'slips' but enlightening actions embedded in the unusual narrative. In conclusion, A Self-conscious Mise-en-scene is an example and celebration of film forms that colonise the digital media. The textual discourse connecting the viewer to the representation on the screen may be one of adjustment, but also one of development into a fertile cultural perspective. The practice of shooting on film, manipulating and editing in a digital environment, and distributing on cyber space may be viewed as a welcome outlet, an empowerment of the independent artist, rather than a hindering trend.


1. Christian Metz, “The Imaginary Signifier,” Screen 16/2 (Summer 1975): 14-76.

2. Europe Day at the Cannes Film Festival

3.Example of this can be found in David Bordwell, “The Art Cinema as a Form of Film Practice,” Film Criticism 4/1 (Fall 1979): 56-64; and in Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster eds. Experimental Cinema, The Film Reader (New York: Routledge, 2002). Some make a distinction between ‘art cinema’ (i.e. A. Warhol, P. Greenaway) and avant-garde cinema (i.e. S. Brakhage, N. McLaren) adding that in the first case one may also identify a profit-oriented goal.

4. See Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-Garde (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981): 1-5.

5. Ibid.: 102-125.

Works cited:

Bordwell, David. "The Art Cinema as a Form of Film Practice." Film Criticism 4/1 (Fall 1979), pp. 56-64.

Dixon, Wheeler W. and Gwendolyn A. Foster eds. Experimental Cinema, The Film Reader. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Metz, Christian. "The Imaginary Signifier." Screen 16/2 (Summer 1975), pp. 14-76.

Poggioli, Renato. The Theory of the Avant-Garde. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.

A passionate writer/filmmaker Anthony Cristiano earned his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto with a dissertation on contemporary Italian cinema. He conducts lectures at American and Canadian conferences, including coop centres and the National Film Board.

"A Revisitation of the Relationship between Creature and Creator in Nirvana by Salvatores," speaks of the new trends in the Italian cinema (Italica, Summer 2005). Works include: Infinitely Near (1999 Montreal World Film Festival), Sera di settembre (2001 Toronto Italian Film Festival), Intervalli chiaroscuri (2002 Bravo! New Style Arts Channel), The Laugh (2005 Toronto Festival of Italian Cinema; 25th Atlantic film Festival), and A Matter of Style (Fall 2005 VertexList Gallery Brooklyn, New York; 2005 Montreal Italian Film Festival). His latest book, The Graviton, is a collection of essays, narrative works, and scripts.

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