Angela Ndalianis is Research Professor in Media and Screen Studies at Swinburne University in Melbourne, and a member of the Senses of Cinema committee. Her research focuses on entertainment culture and the history of media technologies, and how they mediate our experience of the world. Her work has notably focused on the transhistorical nature of the baroque, and the existence of neo-baroque forms in the 21st century media landscape. Angela has published the monographs Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment (2004), Science Fiction Experiences (2010) and The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses (2012), as well as the edited collections The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero (2009), Neo-baroques: From Latin America to the Hollywood Blockbuster (2016) and Fans and Videogames: Histories, Fandom, Archives (2017).
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DF: You’ve recently moved to Swinburne University to pursue a new research project that looks not only at contemporary cinema, but also a wide range of other media technologies. Could you tell us about your current research?
AN: There are a number of projects I’m working on at the moment. The thing that attracted me to Swinburne was its focus on technological innovation. In addition to working on traditional film studies, which I love, I also like to move beyond it. For example, I became obsessed with robots through watching science fiction films. I’ve always had a love of robots, and would devour film representations of them from the silent era up till today. One of the projects I’m working on is a museum exhibition that looks at how films are a kind of cultural membrane that explores the possibilities of robotics while also dealing with more outrageous robot speculations in earlier periods, the 1930s and 1940s. I love the idea of a cultural dialogue happening between cinema and what’s around it, and how science fiction changes in relation to technological changes in our society. And now we’ve reached a point where we’re actually in the robot age, and robots have been created that were once only in the realm of fiction. So I’m putting together an exhibition that will realise the fictional aspect of it, as well as real robots, and that will be happening with Museums Victoria.
DF: Is there something that deeply links the cinema with robots: the idea of the mechanical brain, the mechanical eye?
AN: Absolutely. The mechanical eye has been spoken about a lot, but I’m also interested in the cinema’s links to pre-cinematic technologies from the 18th and 19th centuries, optical technologies like the camera obscura, panoramas, magic lanterns. I’m also interested in Méliès, who – records tell us – created one of his cameras by taking mechanical parts from an automaton that he had also created. For me, this speaks to the rich links between technologies of the past, the present and the future, and what these connections tell us about human perception and the illusions we like to conjure. I love exploring these relationships between the past and the present, and trying to understand our contemporary context in the digital era by looking at what happened in the past. Maybe the technologies have changed – it’s no longer celluloid in most cases – but in terms of perception, and how these representational spaces (and sometimes abstract spaces) were trying to address the spectator, there have been other instances of that in the past. So I’m really interested in these transhistorical parallels.
DF: As for your anecdote about Méliès and the automaton, is there something about the uncanny that underscores that link?
AN: I think the cinema has always been about that. We’re so adapted to what it offers now. The whole myth about people freaking out about the train in the Lumière film: in a sense that was a response to an uncanny moment, this idea of movement or animated form – a kind of life – on screen. The name “cinema” means movement (kinema): it’s about movement but also about moving us. It has a dual meaning. I think that’s something that the cinema has had from the beginning. Now it’s expressing itself in so many diverse ways. This fear of the end of film… I think it’s anything but that. Film in the sense of cinema (rather than the celluloid materiality of film) is now present in so many parts of our culture. It’s everywhere. The cinema has now even gone beyond the screen, with virtual reality.
DF: The screen itself is only one device in a broader array of technologies.
AN: Cinema still fits as a name, because it’s still about motion. But it’s motion in so many different formats: handheld devices, Ipads, television screens, Imax theatres in 3D, and normal cinema spaces. There may be a lot of crap on YouTube and Vimeo but these delivery systems have also opened up new markets for producing and disseminating films.
DF: The thing I find interesting about YouTube is that media artefacts that would ordinarily never have been archived, like TV commercials from the 1980s, are now publicly accessible at the click of a button.
AN: That’s a great point. Even early cinema. The access to silent films is phenomenal. The amount of stuff that’s up there… it’s become a huge archive. It’s up to us how we curate it. It’s an era of curating culture. What we put in our YouTube library, and how we order it, is defined by our personal tastes.
DF: It has an interesting relationship with memory: we can now trawl through our own audiovisual memories.
AN: Absolutely, you now have history at your fingertips. But meanwhile, six hours later… There are also shared production costs nowadays, between the film and the video game versions, for example. So it’s a shared aesthetic. Video games do have elements of narrative akin to cinema, but then they also do their own thing. Games theorists would kill me for saying that games are cinema – but they are cinema! It’s just that as participants we have a different role to play: we not only look and hear, we can also move around in space. For me it’s both exciting and terrifying to see what kind of films creators will come up with for virtual reality. Will we still be a spectator immersed in these narrative worlds, or are we going to become more active participants the way we do in a game?
DF: What’s been made so far is usually limited to a few minutes, and is primarily experiential. But will we have feature length virtual reality films, with deeper narratives?
AN: And what form will those narratives take? That’s the exciting thing – the possibilities are still to be explored. A lot of the short VR films have the quality of the early cinema of attractions as described by Tom Gunning. They’re short, presentational, “look at me!” So it’s a return to that mode of cinema experience. A colleague of mine is interested in the phenomenon of watching people watching VR films. That is another replay of the attractions tradition: the physical responses of astonishment, which can be really out of control. It’s a real turning point. Then you have mixed reality or augmented reality, like Pokémon Go. There are other games, like HoloLens’s Fragments, a detective game in augmented reality which projects a virtual crime scene into your space, and virtual clues are scattered around the actual room that you inhabit. So it’s a whodunit that’s actually in our space. This always reminds me of The Jetsons, where they would watch films at home that could bring characters into their living room and interact with them in their own spaces. Maybe that’s our future.
DF: It’s like that scene in Her (Spike Jonze, 2013) where Joaquin Phoenix plays a video game that is projected into his living room.
AN: Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002) had the same sort of idea, but there it’s a case of capturing memories. It takes you back to Hugo Münsterberg. This idea of the mindscape – will we reach a point where our memories can be captured and replayed?
DF: The sinister side of that is the surveillance on us that sites like Facebook and Google can exercise, the insight they have into our own minds that we’re not even aware of.
AN: In a sense we’re citizens who are constantly being monitored. I even have a security camera right outside my office. You don’t know when you’re being filmed, so you are performing for someone else watching you on a screen. This isn’t film in the traditional sense of the word, but the technology has now spread beyond its original intent. We’re a surveillance society, and like characters in the movies we watch, we’re unaware that there are viewers somewhere watching us as we go about performing our daily stories.
DF: A potential downside for VR is that it makes criticism and analysis very difficult: how do we have a dialogue about a work if we experience it in totally different ways?
AN: Games studies is already confronted with this question. The issue centres around altered forms of spectatorship. The spectator’s vision (or the player’s vision in the case of games) changes depending on the way your head turns, or the way you move through space. In film theory terms, we become the cinematic apparatus – or, at least, we perform the role of camera and create the cinematography. What’s going to happen to things like edits? That’s what fascinates me. Will VR adapt to embrace the ultimate long-take? Or will traditional film styles be incorporated into VR? Will we have edits in VR space, or close-ups? Will it be about needing to create new techniques? It will be different. Creators of VR may figure out how to focus our attention on particular narrative elements in the space. Again, this has already been dealt with in game studies, which has had to adapt to the idea of multiple perspectives, multiple narratives, multiple spaces. There may be a programmable narrative, but you can take multiple forks in the path. It also depends on the amount of mobility these VR formats will allow us. Will we be spectators sitting on a couch just watching events unravel, or will we be able to walk around a room and influence the story?
DF: How do you negotiate the discrepancy between the virtual space and the real space of the viewer?
AN: Exactly. There was an early VR work based on My Neighbor Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988), where they recreated the famous cat bus sequence. But it’s not a film. It’s an addition to the film that allows you to enter its diegetic world, in the same way you would with a theme park ride. One avenue, and this may be likely, is that there will be VR versions of pre-existing films, that will allow you more immediate and immersive access to the world of the film. Which is an extension of what you have with theme park rides, like with Spiderman or Pirates of the Caribbean. So that’s one avenue. But I think there will also be new kinds of narratives. And maybe some of them won’t be narrative based. Douglas Trumbull’s idea was that new digital technologies would bring about alternative realities. It was very LSD influenced. In one of his films, Brainstorm (1983), Christopher Walken puts on a headset and he is plunged into a totally abstract space. The idea was that it was akin to an acid trip. But back in the 1960s and 70s audiences were also adding to the experience by taking various substances! At the same time, there’s exciting research happening in the area of neuroscience where they are studying what happens to our brains when we’re in these spaces. There’s some amazing work being done using VR technology for therapeutic purposes: people with spinal damage who haven’t walked in years can have their brains tricked into following alternative neural pathways, so that the movement of their virtual toes eventually results in the movement of their real toes.
DF: There was a Harun Farocki exhibition about video games developed by the US army to help soldiers suffering from PTSD, so they could develop alternative memories of traumatic experiences.
AN: Yes, it’s used for cognitive therapy, phobias and the like. It’s unexplored territory. We’ve always known the emotional, sensory and cognitive impact that cinema has had on us. We are moved by events on the screen that aren’t really happening. But the question is: will VR technology up the ante here, and what will the effect of it be?
DF: Will there be a tipping point, or a backlash?
AN: We always get paranoid about new technologies. It’s the old idea of the simulacrum. But we’re always aware of the technology that mediates us. Even with VR. You put on this headset that weighs a tonne – it’s hard to forget about it.
DF: I find that with 3D cinema too. The glasses serve to distance me from the film rather than immerse me in it.
AN: There’s always that awareness of the technology. I was watching Wonder Woman in 3D last week in an IMAX theatre, and I noticed that your central vision is focused, but if you look sideways it goes out of focus. Which is crazy because the whole point of IMAX is that your eyes can roam around. But if you don’t keep them centred then the illusion starts to blur. I don’t think these emerging immersive forms are going to replace the cinema. It’s just that with the development of additional audiovisual media, we’ll be offered multiple experiences.
DF: So there will always be a place for a more traditional cinematic format.
AN: I think so. The cinema keeps trying to find ways to compete. At the moment the way it competes with its biggest competitor, video games, is the size of the screen and the level of special effects, 3D, and technologies that amplify the spectacular and surround sound experiences. It’s kind of a repeat of the 1950s, except the industry wasn’t prepared for it then. But it’s much more strategic now. Along with that the film industry has been forced to think about different forms of distribution, online access, and so on. You don’t just go see Wonder Woman in a cinema and that’s it. You can access it in diverse ways, to recoup the investment across different media.
DF: The tendency now is for these franchises to form an entire, never-ending universe, like the Marvel universe.
AN: If you think about the last century, serials tend to happen at times of great media competition. In the 1930s and 40s, it was radio and television, and you had the B-serials, which were much like the Marvel film sequels but on a much more controlled budget. Now those films have become the A-film. In a sense, even video games have an inbuilt seriality to them. There’s something about that obsessive serial film.
DF: What you’re saying also makes me think of Feuillade in the 1910s. The thematic obsession of these films was always these scary, exciting new technologies which were creating new narrative possibilities.
AN: It’s probably tied into why science fiction has made a comeback. A lot of our current technologies are being projected into the future, and we’re rehearsing problems that are confronting us today with a future perspective. At the same time, the new technologies are used to generate special effects.
DF: Sci-fi films also create the desire for these new technologies, and then the new technologies fulfill the desire created by the initial fictional moment. A lot of new technologies reference older sci-fi films. So there’s a strange feedback loop.
AN: I agree, there’s a real sense of nostalgia in the way technologies are presented in these films. But filmmakers like Spielberg also hire technological innovators to advise them on their films. With Minority Report, Spielberg brought in a whole team of scientists and technologists to project current technologies 40 or 50 years into the future. So it’s predictive, but also pre-emptive. Star Trek was the same: many fans then became innovators who wanted to create the technologies they saw in the show.
DF: In your research you not only have a future orientation, but also a perspective that looks back at the past. For instance, your notion of the neo-baroque in newer technological forms.
AN: What attracts me to the neo-baroque idea is it is something that has to do with spatial formations. The work of Yuri Lotman has influenced my thinking. I love the way he thinks. The idea that cultures at different points in time produce dominant spatial patterns in their logic makes a lot of sense to me. The work I did on the neo-baroque involved thinking in spatial terms, and how the industry had shifted from a contained production model where the film industry only produced, distributed and exhibited films, to the era of globalisation and conglomeration where one media conglomerate also had companies with multiple media interests. So the industry itself became serialised. It’s a baroque pattern that refuses to be contained. And then we see the aesthetic and formal implications of that in the films, and their game spin-offs, theme park spin-offs, or comic book spin-offs. So the art products come to resemble the open spatial structure of the industry. Even within the films themselves there is a real love for exploding the illusion of the frame. With VR now I have to put my neo-baroque thinking cap on to re-think a lot of these ideas. That book was published in 2004, and since then things have become even more baroque.
DF: The way I think about the baroque is the relationship between the detail and the whole, and the detail metastasising until it takes over. You can see the same thing in VR, where the spectator’s focus can be turned onto minor details.
AN: But the whole is also there as well. And the detail is about your focus. Because of the complexity of baroque structure, you’re always going to be in the centre. You’re the one who makes sense of its universe. When you sit there in front of a huge illusionistic ceiling painting like in the Church of the Gésu in Rome, or, in the case of contemporary entertainment, if you pick up just one comic you can’t make much out of it, but it fits into and makes sense within a bigger universe. So you can focus on the detail, but you’re also rewarded by exploring the much richer universe that is also available to you. The point you made about VR is interesting. Will we be allowed to enter these spaces as we would in a video game? Instead of focusing on the narrative, can we just say, “I want to check out this shelf.” Then it becomes like art cinema. It’s dead time. This is where film theory can bring a lot to the table. It involves rethinking a lot of our models and theories and ways of analysing narrative forms and stylistic techniques, and rethinking them in the context of these new kinds of media realities.
DF: There also seems to be a development of baroque narrative forms in “quality” TV series. If you think of something like Game of Thrones, working out the narrative would give you an intricate lacework that is impossible to untangle.
AN: It’s that kind of world-building phenomenon that has become a crucial part of contemporary television – but also the cinema (think the Marvel Universe). Every character that you meet can potentially branch off into their own series. It’s forever expanding. Game of Thrones will actually have a new prequel spin-off, after this series comes to an end. So there’s that part of it. But it’s also baroque in the negotiation of diverse technologies that we may use to access the show. Do you wait till it screens on television? Do you download the episodes and watch them on a computer? Do you wait till the season has finished and binge-watch it? I find all this really interesting.
DF: There’s also a different relationship with the screen now. The ability to touch the screen gives it a much more interactive phenomenology.
AN: Nanna Verhoeff’s most recent book is called Mobile Screens, and she also wrote an article before the book on haptic vision and touch-screen technologies. She argues that because of the kind of media culture we live in, touch is now immediately associated with vision.
DF: This goes back to the idea that the dominance of vision is a strictly modern phenomenon, and that the senses were less hierarchised in the Middle Ages. Maybe we’re going back to that mode.
AN: I think that’s true. We are engaging more of the senses than we used to, and they’re coming to the fore more than they used to. Cinema has always been audiovisual (even in the silent era). But now it’s becoming far more immediate: there are experiments with body suits, rumbling seats, that kind of thing. The idea of fuller sensory immersion has been around for a while.
DF: Your work is also marked by a demolition of the boundaries between high culture and low culture.
AN: Well, I think it’s still there. It’s possibly dying out, but I think that kind of snobbery is still there. There’s still a binary that dominates between, for example, watching a film or video in the gallery space (which is often categorised as art), as compared to mainstream cinematic viewing. Maybe it’s more productive to think of them as genres rather than taste hierarchies, catering to different markets.
DF: There’s still a certain class determination. It’s the intellectual upper class that will go to a gallery to look at video art.
AN: Maybe where it is breaking down more is in television. I think some of the most interesting, experimental work is happening on TV now, compared to film.
DF: I do wonder if the whole HBO phenomenon is bourgeoisified television. It seems pitched at an educated, elite audience, and not the mass audience of network television.
AN: It’s created a market monster, and it’s started to fill it in with shows that aren’t as edgy as they were in the beginning. I think that the result is that it’s becoming less bourgeoisified.
DF: There’s almost a formula that can be applied. Whereas 15-20 years ago it was groping experimentation.
AN: Yes, and you knew you were watching something new and it was really exciting to see it happening. There’s still stuff out there, like The Leftovers, by Damon Lindelof, who created and was a writer on Lost. The show is a narrative mindfuck. It challenges you every minute: you’re questioning what you’re seeing and hearing. But where do you find the time to watch all this stuff? This being our field, how do we keep on top of it given the rate of new release series?
DF: There is a view in traditional historiographies of art that the baroque is the post-classical moment in art, it’s the point at which an art form loses its balance and harmony and gets overly intricate and convoluted. Do you think that is happening with these long-form television narratives?
AN: Maybe there is a point of saturation. But I don’t think it’s ever a strict evolutionary process. I think they always coexist with each other. In some realms you might still find classical formations. But there is a broader baroque-slash-postmodern form that we’re living in.
DF: So the neo-baroque is closely linked to postmodernism?
AN: It’s the same kind of phenomenon we’re talking about, but the reason I don’t like using the term postmodernism is that it assumes that these patterns are a product of our times, therefore marking a break in history – and I don’t think that’s the case. Also, postmodern theories often adopt a doom and gloom attitude (despite the positive outlook of some writers), which cut off possibilities of exploring the works, and actually looking closely at film texts and TV shows, and getting into their formal structures, their narratives, the materiality of the medium. And I wanted to explore that and why it is happening, and how does the economic, industrial structure have such a dramatic impact on the formal aspect of the medium. Because I had a background in art history, it was something that was interesting for me to explore. But maybe it needs a refresh.
DF: At Swinburne there seems to be a concerted effort to bring theory and practice into dialogue with each other. Can that also be a strategy for renewing the field?
AN: It’s so important to me. You need to understand the medium you’re studying and theorising. The great thing at Swinburne is that there are people working on virtual reality as well as film, animation and game production. I’m also fascinated with vision technologies, and we have one of the best astrophysics labs in the world. So it’s this idea of perception, embodiment, our relationship with the universe that attracts me – and the idea of making the previously invisible visible. My interests move beyond the realm of cinema studies, but for me it’s all related because of the shared technologies. It’s another narrative that impacts on our lives. I’ve met with so many amazing people in this place. Everyone’s fired up about collaborating on interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary projects.
DF: Are you positive about the field, as opposed to the object? Is the academic discipline of cinema studies in a state of good health? To what extent is it still a specific field?
AN: There has to be a place for understanding the development of cinema, and understanding all those amazing films made over the last century or so. Unfortunately, I think the institutions are so obsessed with what dollar sign is attached to it. We’re already seeing cinema studies departments becoming smaller and smaller, or disappearing. That’s a real tragedy. The only way I can think of it continuing is if you have enlightened university administrators who decide to support the growth of cinema studies. That’s happening in some places internationally. But I think Australia is suffering big time. Or maybe cinema studies should become integrated into screen media, and you can have people focusing both on film past and present, but also the new directions its moving into, beyond film/cinema.
DF: Is it partly that cinema is neither the hot new, cutting-edge thing, nor does it have a significant historical or cultural cachet to it?
AN: I think cinema is now more accepted by the old brigade. I remember back at La Trobe University there were all these whispers that “Cinema is going to take over.” Even when I started at Melbourne University, everyone in art history and English were worried about it taking student numbers from them. That fear was there. Whereas now the latest thing to be feared seems to be digital technologies.
DF: Do you think your background in art history and cinema was a good corrective to the traditional cinema studies approach, which predominantly came out of literature departments? Did it help you break away from film as narrative and text, and focus on the image? To train your eye and your visual sensitivity to the film image?
AN: That’s what has given me an attention to detail for the visual language of cinema. And sound, which is something I’m becoming increasingly interested in. The art history training, for sure, gives me a different perspective with which to analyse the cinema. And I’m especially drawn into the idea of framing, but it’s the moving frame of the screenscape. That’s what I find so inspiring about the writings of Giuliana Bruno – who also approaches the film spectator with an art historian’s eye.
DF: Is that something that can provide a viable future for cinema studies? Even if students aren’t going to study film deeply, there’s at least an idea that they can view images in a sophisticated way, as a result of an education in cinema studies.
AN: Absolutely, we’re exposed to the moving image all the time, in video games, in advertising and marketing, online, and in the shop fronts and interiors of our city spaces. It all requires a visual literacy, but it’s more than that. It’s moving images and sounds. It’s an audiocinematic literacy.
Interviewed by Daniel Fairfax