Digital Cinema Theory: The Pause Button, David Lynch, Memento & Fight Club

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A still from Steven Soderbergh’s mash-up Psychos. The superimposition of the original shot by Hitchcock and the remake by Gus Van Sant is symbolic of the multiplicity of images, remakes, and meanings in the digital media age.

Digital cinema theory is not concerned with digitally-created cinema only, but rather with the philosophy of film in the digital age, a unique technological time of DVD chapters, torrents, and Netflix, which radically change the experience and meaning of watching a movie through multiple screens, pausing, rewinding, and skipping.

The act of pausing a movie by itself, as trivial and mundane as it seems, has important digital cinema theory implications. As movies such as La Jetee or Dromosphere showed, cinema is essentially the illusion of movement, created by successive still images. Michel Gondry said, “The human brain forgets the cuts,” which in a sense creates the illusion of coherence. And the human vision, although the dominant sense, is not skilled enough to see the stillness of cinema. But pausing a movie, an occurrence unique to the digital age of technology and personal viewing devices, disrupts the illusion of the cinema world and strips films of their “filmness.” The DVD, torrent, and streaming culture gave rise to new phenomena—such as pausing, skipping, rewinding, loop viewing, chapter selecting—all of which take control away from the filmmakers and into the hands of the audience.

Digital Cinema Theory: Pausing A Movie & The Death of The Author

Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author essay proclaimed the ineptitude of classical literary theory which centered around the author. Barthes and other structuralist and post-structuralist philosophers focused instead on the text as an independent and fluid unit, susceptible to many transformations. A literary work thus holds a multiplicity of meanings, which different readers can “read” into the work.

This essay seems very relevant for the digital age of cinema, which strips the film authors of artistic control over their own work, and gives it instead to the audience with features such as being able to view different “chapters” of the DVD film. In classical cinema, the viewers had no control over the film’s projection in time—thus the film had a preserved whole, from beginning to end.

But pausing a movie on your DVD is metaphorically the death of the film—because the essence of film is the perceived movement of images.

The preserved whole of movies in the digital age is also distorted by the ubiquity and accessibility of material. The digitization of cinema gives the audience the ability to easily modify the film work digitally, and then upload a video parody, an alternative ending, or an otherwise altered film product.

Who Is The Author of Psychos by Steven Soderbergh?

One of the more famous examples of film mash-ups is Steven Soderbergh’s Psychos experiment, which uses film editing to mix Hitchcock’s original Psycho with Gus Van Sant’s remake. You can watch the movie here. In the very beginning, the movie opens with the credits “by Hitchcock.” Then, at the end of the credits opening sequence, it says “directed by Gus Van Sant.” Notably, Soberbergh’s name remains unmentioned in the movie.

Soderbergh’s film raises questions about the nature of cinematic authorship in the digital age. As Drew Christie’s “Allergy to Originality” movie showed, nothing is original in our modern culture. As experimental filmmaker Thorsten Fleisch said, “I think generally speaking authorship comes from an era that is no longer valid and thus there is a great need of re-thinking and adjusting it concerning the legal implications.” Culture a few centuries ago was not more original and less based on previously existing ideas, whether it was art, literature or science. But in the digital age of wide availability of information spreading at great speed, this phenomenon is further exaggerated and blatantly obvious.

The famous shower scene in Soderbergh’s version is an example of the ability of editing to create meaning, even if from pre-existing material. The concept of remix and recycling is taken even further here, as the scene mixes the original Psycho film with the remake in order to create a meta-remake that further blurs the boundaries between the original and the non-original version of the film. Unlike most of the other scenes in Soderbergh’s remake, which alternate between the two versions of the movie, the shower scene instead consists mostly of a superimposition of the two movies, similar to Yayoi Kusama’s use of superimpositions and dissolves in Self-Obliteration.

Combined with the fast editing of the scene, the superimpositions enhance the effects of terror, fear, and confusion. Thus, Soderbergh’s mash-up adds new meaning to the pre-existing films. In a way this is an exaggerated example of the post-production aspect of cinema, a kind of “production” after the main production is created. And because of the availability of digital content and image manipulation software, the role of post-production is growing in capabilities and importance, not just for cinema, but also for still images, gifs, and other cultural memes. Another example of the far-reaching effects of post-production is Only God Forgives.

David Lynch, Creative Control & DVD Menus

As DVD menus, allowing the viewing of different chapters, rewinding, pausing, and skipping, take away control from the filmmakers and give more control to the audience, some directors try to oppose this, consciously or not. David Lynch is one such example, particularly for DVD releases of some of his movies such as Mulholland Drive or the Straight Story. The director specifically asked not to include the option for DVD chapters, as without it, he thought, people would be more inclined to view the film from start to finish. A questionable presumption, given that viewers have already mapped out their own chapters of the film.

It is a situation specific to the digital age, and it also illustrates a filmmaker stripped of control over his movie due to new technology. In the beginning of cinema, the experience of watching a movie was linear, chronological, and uniform—on the big movie screen in the theater, where personal pausing, rewinding, etc. was not possible.

The modern multiplicity of screens and devices of different sizes fragments the wholeness of movies. The particular experience of watching a movie, whether it is at home, in the cinema, or on the bus, greatly influences the end product of the film. The availability of movies such as Gaspar Noe’s Love in both 3D or 2D also enhances the multiplicity of the film work to the extend that the different “versions” can have a uniquely different experience for the audience. The next frontier will likely be virtual reality, as 2016 will make virtual reality accessible to the general audience with products such as Oculus Rift and Google Glass.

Aware of the possible effects of the screen type and the specific way the film is projected, David Lynch also wanted to give directions to the projectionists for Mulholland Drive in order to ensure the movie was projected as intended. Lynch wanted to “allow more overhead” on top of the frame in order to make sure the image was not cut out. This was necessary because the movie was originally intended for TV, which has different aspect ratio than cinema. In other words, the multiplicity of screens inevitably influenced the end product of the film, and Lynch wanted to remain in control as much as possible. You can read more in IMDb’s Mulholland Drive trivia page.

Memento, Fight Club & Hidden Frames

The ability to easily pause, rewind and view specific film scenes also gives the audience new tools for the careful analysis and deconstruction (even in the sense Jacques Derrida used the term) of cinematic meaning. As Nicholas Rombs wrote in his book “Cinema in the Digital Age” (public library):

Today, viewers have unprecedented access not only to movies, but to their still frames as well, as the ‘pause’ button allows for the complete disruption of the time-flow that has traditionally constituted movies. The ability for everyday spectators to freeze films at will suggests that the primary stories that movies tell are no longer within the films themselves. Rather, the dominant stories are now the stories that surround the films, stories that can be stopped and started or even skipped over. Pausing and freezing images makes possible the destruction of the very myths upon which cinema was built, and makes theorists out of an entire generation.

Rombes recognizes the interpretation power the pause button and similar digital technologies have for the viewers. Every scene and every frame can now be a subject to meticulous scrutiny by the audience, giving new interpretations.

The concept of the generation of theorists is probably best exemplified by Memento & Fight Club, two movies examined thoroughly by the film audience with the special help of the pause button.

In Memento, there is a scene in which Leonard talks about Sammy Jenkins’ story. For a split second at the end of one of the shots, Leonard is seen in Sammy’s position. It is a subtle moment in the movie, which enhances the idea that Sammy and Leonard are in fact the same person, or rather that Leonard has come up with the fictional Sammy in order to better deal with the turmoil from his past. It is easy to overlook this detail during linear viewing of the movie, but the accessibility of video manipulation technology makes such subtleties more prominent. This scene from Memento is an example of Rombes’ “…the primary stories that movies tell are no longer within the films themselves. Rather,the dominant stories are now the stories that surround the films.” The gif below captures the short scene from the movie, and it gives it a new meaning by enhancing the otherwise hard-to-notice details. The result is a by-product of the original film, much like Psychos, but also one that has added new meaning mainly by the nature of its format. It is “story that surrounds” the film, although still within its context. It also summarizes and highlights in a haiku-like form some of the main themes of the movie such as the elusive nature of reality, unreliability of memory (a main theme in The Hunt) and identity:

memento hidden frame digital cinema theory

The GIF format, a prime obsession of the digital age, transforms the original material and it gives it new meaning by enhancing and drawing attention to an otherwise subtle detail

It is not the only split-second shot in the movie. In another famous example, Leonard is seen lying in bed with his wife with the tattoo “I’ve done it” on his chest, which in the context most likely means he has found and killed his wife’s murderer. The shot is controversial because it likely presents another fake memory, possibly an idealized version of reality for Leonard. The shot raises questions about the movie’s plot, such as what is Leonard’s wife doing with him if we know she’s been killed, and what does “I’ve done it” refer to if she’s not been killed.


The flash frame from Memento with Leonard’s “I’ve done it” tattoo provides new plot interpretations

Similarly, in Fight Club, where elusive identity is also a recurring theme, Tyler Durden appears on screen for a split second several times before he appears as a character.

digital cinema theory fight club flash frame

One of the flash frames in Fight Club, in which Tyler Durden appears

You can read about other hidden frames and trivia about Fight Club here. In one of the more notable examples of “stories that surround the films,” the same phone number is used in both Fight Club and Memento (among other films). It is a trivial fact, but at the same time one with important digital film theory implications. The ability to notice such details is mainly possible through the act of pausing and frame-by-frame viewing. It also creates new meaning for both of the movies, outside of the context of the individual movies themselves. It yet another example of how digital media transforms and transcends the traditional cinematic meaning, creating a new multiplicity of by-products and interpretations.