The following is the first of a two-part series.
When Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016) won six Oscars and seven Golden Globes, I wondered how a film that was not really innovative could be such a success. Indeed, this transposition of classical jazz musical only renews the old genres of romance, ‘feel-good’ and ‘coming-of-age’ movies.
Released in a difficult context (Trump’s election), it allows the spectators to escape reality through nostalgia and twists a basic storyline by questioning the compatibility of romantic love and relentless artistic pursuit. However, the asserted artificiality and dreamlike atmosphere in the settings create an ambiguous duality between passion and money issues, love and personal achievement, optimism and failure. Though it is a romance, the very first song announces the future separation. Accessible by any kind of audience, La La Land incorporates and adapts classical references and stereotypes, becoming thus the perfect example of a cinematographic “remediation”.
Originally developed by Marshall McLuhan and applied by Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin, the concept of remediation implies that all new media in their frame time “remediates” older media by integrating or repurposing it. Thus early cinema was based on previous theatrical conventions, blockbuster remediates early cinema of attractions, video game remediates special effects cinema, etc.
This cinematic experience makes us think about the complexity of everyday life, which becomes reflexive, and blurs the boundaries between high and low culture. The impact of Hollywood industry on our vision of reality appears thus through the accommodating ambiguity beyond established hierarchies such as difficulty/accessibility, mediacy/immediacy, intellect/emotion, exclusiveness/availability. The conjunction with post-war consumerism lies with the new modalities of cultural experience, the massive increase of the stream media and the rise of the culture industry. As we are been told to watch movies, a new visual literacy is developing.
My essay intends to study the modalities of remediation in Hollywood’s recent production. Blockbusters such as La La Land, Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) or David Cameron’s Avatar (2009) will be used as primary sources to identify narrative and technological strategies. Refashioning itself through digital technologies, we will see how the blockbuster industry seems to go back to the form of “cinema of attractions” and animation (as opposed to “narrative cinema”), as Tom Gunning calls them, in order to engage the spectator.(61)
Does “Hollywood’s productive paradox” (in the words of Catherine Bernard) keep control of our interpretation or does it contribute to our globalized culture of affect? (230)
To address its diverse audiences, Hollywood’s production has to set visual and narrative idioms of identification and self-recognition. As a mass medium, it needs to develop structures that are much more complex to manage than literature’s audience. The complexity of such films does not lie in the fact it is accessible to lower segments of society but in its complexification of language, the fact it is accessible to everyone. It implies a preempting interpretation: every clue has been planted into the film to trigger some reaction or comprehension, as Thomas Elsaesser points out.
For example, ‘westerns’ gave us a visual heritage: the desert topography has become a North-American landmark – even though most of them were shot in Spain. The great national narrative is encapsulated in the confrontation between civilisation and wilderness. In the first sequence of Ford’s film, The Searchers (1956), the house and the character are framing the landscape, as it has been domesticated. Westerns created a vocabulary that can be reused in other genres: the romantic figure of the lonely hunter/sheriff and the myth of the self-help and self-made man, who works hard, remains alone and even sacrifices himself, stays the same.
David Brooks’ denunciation of the “White Messiah Complex” in Avatar is an example. The journalist blames the remediation of racial prejudices and the collective redemption narrative taken by one single man: Jake Sully, the protagonist, a white heterosexual former Marine, meets the peaceful almost-naked natives, who maintain a deep relationship to nature and art, and becomes their leader and spokesman.
Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (2017) is another typical remediation of the vigilantly lonesome cowboy into a digital world. As Mark Taylor and Esa Saarinen said, “entering cyberspace is the closest we can come to returning to the Wild West”.(10) Whether one has reservations or not about that kind of film, it appears one is always part of that discursive community because those preempting models are now classical references.
The Blockbuster Strategies
In 1916, David Wark Griffith shot one of the very first blockbusters, Intolerance, emphasising the monumentalism of decorum. Thus, he ushers the expanding realm of visual experience. According to Elsaesser, blockbusters are working on the same line, exercising control over the audience through codified interpretation and “multiple entry-points”. An intellectual and emotional access is developed for every viewer, no matter the genre, race, background or age. La La Land is accessible for anyone through jazz, a dream aspect, the Golden Age of Hollywood, a fantasy Los Angeles or the famous duo of co-stars. Comprehension becomes a major rule to aim a coherent type of ambiguity and to extend “interpretation while retaining control over codes that make interpretation possible”. (248)
The “super-production” Inception is a heist movie like Ocean Eleven (to target the average viewer), but also a doomed love story with a great casting effect (to target feminine audience), a science fiction, a redemption narrative and a psychological thriller referencing Freud, Deleuze or David Bacon (to target literary audiences), according to Bernard (233).
Now a part of our cultural background, the film remediates the traditional double narratives of romance and action from The Matrix, Minority Report or the X Men franchise. In its trailer, there is a double drive between the narrative drive (love interest) and the visual drive (action, tracking shot of movement) to combine interests. The love interest acts as a counter-balance to the action plot and gives a psychological complexity to the main character. The actors themselves embody a certain kind of plot: they are bankable and already characterized.
The uncanny effect coming from Marion Cotillard is both familiar and exotic to a North-American audience. In the film, her face is often split by her hair like between life and death, reality and dream. The spectator is disoriented and destabilized by this swig from romance to action, from reality to fiction, from surface to depth.
The expansion of the Internet era to cinema gave birth to a pluralism of signs and a new way to encode those ideology and affective registers. According to Elsaesser, a new level of “cognitive dissonance” has been added to the “textually coherent ambiguity of classical Hollywood”.(252) Inception adopts a hybrid form between the high and low culture, between the cinéma d’auteur and the merchandised product. In the tradition of Michael Mann or the Wachowskis,
Nolan gives his film a “powerful signature effect” and a “globalised visual idiom”, writes Bernard.(231) The blockbuster strategy can be summed up in two contradictory points: as they have taken the turn to digitally through spectacular visual effects, they also seem to cultivate a “hyperawareness” of the spectator with multiple references.
Hollywood’s Imaginary Ambiguity
“Hollywood has never ceased revisiting its own visual language”, Bernard writes.(231) In her article on Inception, she argues that Hollywood imaginary is more widely criticizable than postformalism assumes. It goes further than the traditional binary opposition between the emancipatory rhetoric of modernism and “an alienating mass culture”. The changing status of the image in “the era of reflexive mediatisation’ must be understood through the fusion of those two modalities”.(229)
Inherited from the Frankfurt School, the apprehension of high culture’s disappearance and the fear of audience’s manipulation are no longer relevant. The Frankfurt School criticized mass culture as disempowering, homogenizing and impositional.
The concept of remediation has a double logic that promises to refashion media and endows them with more power. It is both a power of representation and the ability to exert fascination. Doing so, media make themselves pass off as reality thanks to the emotional/cultural influence they convey. La La Land plays on the ambiguity of the “truth effect” by staging in real movie decors.
Thanks to digitalization and special effects, blockbusters have acquired the capacity to simulate reality and to produce fantasy. As Michael Allen has observed, “the intention of all technical systems developed since the beginning of the 1950s has been towards reducing the spectators’ sense of their ‘real’ world, and replacing it with a fully believable artificial one”.(127)
At first, the viewers experience a visual environment that engages also their hearing and virtual touch. Senses and consciousness seem to be in one virtual place while the material body is in another, the physical world. Vision and image are becoming increasingly autonomous and machinic, acquiring their own life. As Martin Lister says, “a new aesthetic is emerging in which depth, narrative, and meaning are being replaced with the pleasures of sensuous experience and spectacular effects”(97). This new aesthetic engages a blurred relationship between technology and our conception of space, detaching identity from embodiment.
Immediacy and Hypermediacy
The detachment from the body that occurs in a cinema room meets “our culture’s contradictory imperatives for immediacy and hypermediacy”, as Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin point out.(5) We watch the multiplication of media but we still want to erase them, to get free from the material – as shown by the switch from VHS and DVDs to streaming practice.
However, Bolter and Grusin demonstrate that they are dependent on each other. Taking the example of flight simulation, they prove that the immediacy of the experience cannot do without the hypermediacy of the simulation in a cockpit. Remediation started before the birth of digital media – painting, photograph or computing virtual reality all try to achieve immediacy “by denying the presence of the medium and the act of mediation”.(11) They attempt to put the viewer in the same space as the object through linear perspective or lighting, through photorealistic computer graphics and patterns. Hypermediacy also has the power to captivate through media for a long time. The illumination of a manuscript has the same attraction than the icon of an application, and both are still part of the text itself.
What does it imply that the audience plays a passive role or that cinema tricks the naiveness of the spectator? I believe the viewer is much more aware than the critics supposed. Indeed, his pleasure deals necessary with the knowledge and appreciation of special effects as artificial. According to Lister, this “amazement or wonder requires an awareness of the medium. If the medium really disappeared, as is the apparent goal of the logic of transparency, the viewer would not be amazed because she would not know of the medium’s presence”.(154) In the postmodern model of embodied and extended cognition, the spectator is able to think through and by the medium.
As we saw in La La Land, multiple cinematographic and literary references are one of the main characteristics of the blockbuster and, I would say, the key to its legitimacy. Those “high level of intertextuality” are present even into profitable sequels, such as Iron Man or James Bond, in order to guaranty the intellectual value of the film.
The Deleuzian visual “assemblage” of dispersed images works as the mise en abîme of the mechanical experience of cinema and what Deleuze terms its “machinic imaginary”. It embodies the concept of remediation itself as the new media does not break with the past but reactivates it. Clément Chéroux calls it the “inter-iconicity” of images, that is the co-presence of two or more images within one image. It is not only a reference but two images which exist along one another.
The intertextual experience, especially the inter-architectural experience, in Inception is extremely vivid. The plot’s three key moments are all about space-bending and filmic imagination – Haussmannian buildings, Penrose steps and the fight in the corridor mark (in Bernard’s words) “the triumph of referential pluralism”, but also an experimentation that pushes back the frontiers. They are actually displaced references so the plot can act as an excuse to build “metaphoric worlds”.
The film follows the self-reflexive logic of the concept of Inception. Finally, we observe a phenomenon of culture persistence: even if the viewer cannot quote the reference, he is aware of it. The remediation of the ‘Rosebud’ in Orson Well’s Citizen Kane’s (1941) into a Proustian object that embodies a memory (the child’s windmill) might not be obvious but it compels the audience to question.
Alice de Bourgoing is a research student in art history at the École de Louvre in Paris. She has recently been a management intern at the Musée national Picasso-Paris.