“All that was once directly lived has become mere representation.” Theorist Guy Debord, in his collection of theses called The Society of the Spectacle, asserts that we have become a society dominated by images and representations, and all of our social interactions are only perceived through this constructed reality. Debord asserts that “the concrete life of everyone has been degraded into a speculative universe.”
While Debord would press his assertions on to the entirety of our current reality, the premise that life is made from symbols and spectacle is the foundation upon which film art is predicated. Film captures the representation, or the symbol, of contrived or documented narrative. Even a recording of a live performance watched later, is a representation of that performance and not the live performance itself.
Film holds a great value to art by providing a medium for documentation, and by creating a time-based canvas that artists can use to explore new ideas. Just as painters, photographers and other artists create visual representations of perceptions and ideas through their mediums, film artists explore the same perceptions of reality with a seemingly narrower gap between reality and the representation of it. This gap between reality and representation, while actually the same distance as all art, seems narrower due to the way in which film art is experienced. In contrast to painting, for example, a film or a screen can give the illusion of events happening in real time and in real life. While each is manufactured, the narratives continue to change as more relevant aspects are conveyed to the viewer in the time-based form. Narrative stories pull in spectators with characteristics and situations to which the viewer relates.
The scope of my current work has developed from learning and understanding the traditional conventions of narrative structure to the process of breaking those rules. From the beginning of my current work (a process that began over two years ago), I have familiarized myself with the traditional components of film such as: a powerful story, character development, shot lengths, shot structures, use of sound and montage. As I have worked toward understanding these elements of film narrative, I have developed an increasing desire to draw the spectator into the process of a narrative. Through breaking the rules, my work gives agency to the audience, allowing the viewer’s experience and interpretation to inform the narrative on display. In my most recent work, Remember, I involve the audience in the narrative and also the process of creating the narrative.
Remember – The story
Remember tells the story of a man named James who has just lost his wife. James is grieving. He is not answering his phone. The phone messages that are left give clues that James is not talking to anyone, while receiving condolence phone calls and cards. Through the typical and (sometimes) cliché actions and words of others, James continues his grief. James stays in bed for long periods of time and mopes around his house. At one point, a homeless man comes and camps out in James’ front yard. Noticing the homeless man, James goes outside and offers him something to eat. The homeless man never actually speaks to James during the film, but James feeds him, brings him things to keep warm and begins to have coffee with him in the mornings. The homeless man points out children playing, teens going on a date and other situations to James. These circumstances bring to mind James’ memories of his wife and he begins to share them all with the homeless man. Through conversation and silence, James talks about the person his wife was and the person she had helped him to become. After a while, James wakes up to find the homeless man had moved on. James eventually decides to go back to work. His grief is certainly not over, but he has taken a step forward in recovering.
A narrative based on anyone’s truth
Remember is a fictional narrative that is based on real life events of a woman who lost her husband to cancer at a young age. While I interviewed this woman to understand her story, the script of Remember is only a representation of her story, and a partial one at that. The film builds on and adds to her actual experiences to give the narrative more points of relatability, allowing the audience a greater opportunity to sympathize with the experience of grief and loss. In Remember, the homeless man is an addition to the real life story to represent the main character dealing with her own inner dialogue and struggle.
The script and shooting of Remember are intentionally vague with regard to James’ job, house, wife, and even his inner processes. This vagueness allows each viewer to relate to James in ways that are personal to them and that, possibly, only they can understand. This gives an otherwise ambiguous story power as it becomes personally relatable to each viewer’s life in specific ways. My intention is to provide enough information for the viewer to relate the narrative to their own experience and decide for themselves the message and meaning in my work.
Through two focus groups, I was able to gather insight to the interpretations of the film that were created by viewers. Some viewers connected to the story of the main character’s grief and struggle to move forward. Others connected to the homeless man and found meaning in paying attention to how they perceive people. Still others followed the direction and actions of the camera crew and found an appreciation for the process of filmmaking.
Watch the Official Trailer
Providing only building blocks
The idea of rearranging building blocks of film to suit the vision of an individual viewer became central to my current work. However, instead of re-organizing the blocks myself, I wanted to empower the audience to re-organize the blocks to create their own story. To achieve this, Remember uses a 3-channel arrangement, displaying three different films simultaneously side by side. Aspects of montage are built into each screen with sequences that alternate between the screens. Remember’s three screens continually interact with each other through the editing and composition of the shots.
The first film is a traditionally styled narrative of James working through his grief. The second film is the same narrative, but shot from different angles. It breaks the rules of traditional film by giving the viewer access to a slightly different perspective of the same scenes in the first film. This simulates the experience of being in two different places at the same time. In a traditional structure, this second film would serve as cutaways to the first film and could also be used as a part of the montage structure of the overarching story. The third film reveals the making of the first two films in a documentary style. It highlights the director and camera crew as the first two films are captured.
Each of the three films was constructed from the use of five cameras on each shoot. Three cameras faced the actors and made up the shots of the first two films. These cameras utilized traditional shot structures to tell the narrative story. The other two cameras were turned back on the crew. These cameras tried to mimic shot lengths and motions of the “forward facing” cameras. Through this method, five different viewpoints of each scene were created and placed side by side during editing to manufacture each of the three narratives.
Traditional shot structures are used to create the montage, but they are not edited in a single channel. This breaks the rules of traditional editing. Typically, in the editing structure of a cross-shot there is a framed shot of a person speaking (usually close up or medium shot), followed by a framed shot of the other person’s reaction. In Remember, both the shot and cross shot exist, but are (many times) viewed simultaneously in the adjacent channels. The three channel set-up provides differing perspectives on the same scene. Remember allows audiences to create their own montage throughout the entire film by deciding for themselves which screen, which film and which narrative to focus on and for how long before changing that focus. Remember engages the audience to play a critical role in their own experience of the story. By placing the three channels side by side I ask each member of the audience to discover the aspect of the narrative to which they most relate. This is filtered through their own life experiences and interests.
Regardless of the narrative focus, the visual display continually asks the viewer to be present in the moment. It invites the audience to follow the narrative channel that relates closely to them, but they cannot forget that the others are happening. While all the building blocks of the narrative structure are displayed to the viewer through my direction, editing and presentation, it is the audience that gains the final meaning of the film by creating their own personal montage from the details provided.
During the focus groups, people commented about the three screen set-up. Some people paid close attention to a single story line and worked to block out the other stories taking place. In addition, a common thread in the feedback is that it was a sensory overload, and that it was necessary to work hard to stay in the story. However, a lot of people also said that at some point (and they are not sure when) the difficulty fell away and they were engrossed in the story.
Revealing the representation
My work centers on revealing the mechanisms of representation even though my work itself is also a representation. Throughout my exploration of film, I have sought to reveal the process of creation to the audience; that is, I include the film making – crew, cameras, editing – in parallel “the making of” documentary style imagery. My work points to the fact that the films and videos that I make are only representations of something that occurred. The third film in Remember shows narrative in the other channels to be a simulation by highlighting the filming crew as a part of the film itself.
In addition to the narrative story dealing with grief and loss, a meta-narrative is shown simultaneously. This meta-narrative is the revelation of the spectacle. The meta-narrative includes the film crew as we capture the representational narrative. Through most scenes a viewer is able to see both the actors playing the story’s characters and the (typically) behind-the-scenes workers. This reveals James’ grief and loss as a constructed story, presented in order to manipulate the viewer. It also alludes to the fact that the characters in the first two films are just that, characters. It forces the audience to acknowledge that the story is a manufactured representation of real life events. As the cameras are present and the directions of the storyteller are realized, viewers are shaken from the simulated reality of James’ story. As the viewer chooses to situate themselves either into the narrative or with the crew, the assimilation of all the narratives invites them to add their own meaning to the story from their own experiences. The focus groups emphasized that fact as some found the meta-narrative distracting and others found that it enhanced Remember.
The fourth wall
The parallel channel showing the filming crew breaks the fourth wall of the narrative story. However no person, crew or cast, actually looks to or acknowledges the audience throughout the course of the three films. Breaking the fourth wall in this non-traditional way allows the viewer to become a part of the filmmaking experience, gaining knowledge of the process of making the film, while also being aware they are watching a representation of a life experience and not the experience itself. The audience has not created the information and is not involved in the shooting process, but now knows how it is done.
This breaking of the fourth wall is important in Remember. By having depictions of ambiguous life events alongside elements of things that (traditionally) they are not supposed to see, a viewer is constantly pulled into and out of the narrative. This serves to cause them to re-engage themselves at varying intervals and keeps them from being too “swept away” by any aspect of the manufactured story. The viewer, when aware of the process, can choose to ignore the depictions of process or embrace them. The viewer can use his or her own life experiences to enhance the message of the film by focusing on the screens that are the most relevant to them. Breaking this fourth wall gives agency to the viewer to create an experience to which they relate.
By appearing to break the fourth wall, however, the filming crew becomes characters in the film itself. We watch and follow their progression as the story unfolds. This anchors Remember as only a representation, but in itself is an adjacent narrative. The audience may believe they are experiencing the making process because they see it. However, the only way to truly experience it would have been to be present at the time. Without truly breaking the fourth wall, the audience is given information that they must interpret for themselves and, in doing so, create their own experience of watching the film. So while the audience is given authority to create their own experience, each of the three films in Remember is still only a representation. The strength of the narrative (any narrative that the viewer chooses) is built by the relationship between the representation and the viewer’s real life experiences.
The audience is the final arbiter of meaning
The idea that a viewer can bring in personal experiences to any film and find an interpretation that is meaningful to him/her has been talked about through the previous explanations of my work, but it also deserves its own discussion. Remember is designed as a multi-channel narrative containing an overarching meta-narrative; however the meaning is deliberately ambiguous. The film has a meaning to me and that definition was in the mind of cast and crew throughout the filming and editing process. However, these same images and progressions are open to different interpretations by the audience.
Through screenings, critiques and two focus groups, I have received a lot of feedback, with widely varying responses. People have said the characters seem one-sided. Others have said the narrative closely resembles their feelings when dealing with grief. Still others were enthralled with the making and how things were done. Responses have ranged from feelings of confusion while attempting to comprehend the multichannel display, to understanding the invitation to openly interpret the message that I, as an artist, am trying to extend to the audience. The focus groups have supported the theory that the viewer’s interpretation and overall experience can vary from person to person, but will become the perceived meaning of the film for each individual.
Discussing these interpretations with one of my mentors, she remarked that by not pushing my own meaning, I resembled Andy Warhol stating that he doesn’t care if people like or understand what he is doing. However, I do care about the message and how people perceive my film. What I don’t care about is the exact meaning that people interpret. Viewing my project through the filters of their own experience allows a viewer to relate to a story. It allows them to place themselves into the representation and recall their own life experiences. The message itself is not the most important part of a representation. It is the idea, event or experience that is being represented that is most important. And that is different for every person.
Conclusion: Representation and Movie Magic
Guy Debord proposes the idea that the world is only a representation due to symbols and representations replacing all real life experiences. The world, in their opinion, is not a reality. While the theories presented in The Society of the Spectacle are vast in their scope and are intended to apply to all of life, I do believe that there are specific applications to the medium of film. Each is predicated on capturing a digital representation of an actual life event. This is not to say a representation cannot depict truth, but it is not a truth in itself. Truth comes from the experiences of life and the richness we gain from participating in that life. A film can be depictions of real life experiences – truthful or manufactured – but the only experience it holds is that of watching a film or video. This depiction of truth can be even further removed from reality by employing methods of performance art, storytelling and acting.
Revealing this representation to the audience guides my current work. My work has moved in the same direction for my entire life, beginning in commercial work and progressing through ideas of structure, reality and audience. My current work combines aspects of commercial production and artistic ideas, and utilizes the scope of a viewer determined message. It’s a representation that points out that it is a representation. It seeks to show the magic of movies with a look behind the curtain. It works to remind the viewer that they truly have lived.
Written by Bill Gebhart, Director of Remember.
Remember is Top Shorts 2016 Special Screening, and will be available online on May 4th at www.topshorts.net
Company page: www.billgebhartprojects.com
Artist page: www.billgebhart.com