Filmish 3 – movies, comics and technology

Filmish #3: Technology and Technophobia

Edward Ross, self published

Regular readers will know that I’m a bit of a cinephile and so it is no surprise that when Edward Ross started his Filmish series, combining film studies with comics, I was rather pleased to see two of my favourite things coming together. The brand new third entry in the series, like the second issue, eschews the multiple subject approach of the first issue to concentrate instead on a single theme, which, as I noted with the second issue (reviewed here; first issue reviewed here), made the comic stronger and more focussed, important attributes in a relatively short work. The theme this time is Technology and Technophobia, an extremely apt subject matter for film – as Edward notes himself early on the entire medium of film is built on technology. Technology gave birth to first of all the still camera then the moving image; technology’s increasingly rapid advance throughout the 20th century is mirrored in the movies, not only in the subjects those films dealt with but in the very mechanisms and means of production of film itself, from the introduction of sound and colour to the modern, wide-screen panoramas and at the other end of the scale the almost handmade, independent, micro-budget flicks which are a direct result of the new, low cost but high quality digital tech.

The comic takes a more or less chronological look at technology and the movies, starting with the Lumière Brothers and their very simple shorts where the film itself was the technological marvel of the age, a true scientific wonder of the late Victorian era, amazing audiences who had never seen a moving image before, save for the basic, flickering animations of a zoetrope lantern, perhaps (it’s an era captured beautifully in a scene in Coppola’s Dracula). But it isn’t long before the makers of this nascent, new medium discover it has an almost unique ability to use technology to both tell an engrossing story and to amaze the viewers with visual splendour, from A Trip to the Moon onwards.

(scenes from the introduction to Filmish #3 by and (c) Edward Ross)

It would be very, very easy to pretty much stick to science fiction for this issue and of course Edward does indeed make great use of the genre to illustrate his chosen subject, drawing on well known SF films from Shape of Things to Come to the Terminator. But it is to his credit that he ensures that his net is cast wider than a single genre to cover this subject: Chaplin’s great classic Modern Times (still a film I find both funny and with relevant points to make even 80 years on) might be an obvious non-SF film to include when discussing technology, technophobia and the movies, but Edward also discusses the emergence of film comedy in the silent era and how the actual technology of film-making changed the face of long-established comedy and I appreciated him making these less obvious points (besides which any comic which sneaks in a cameo from the great Buster Keaton has to be good in my book).

(Modern Times prove problematic for Chaplin, from Filmish #3 by and (c) Edward Ross)

Edward also (quite correctly) compares technology projected in the movies with the real world technology of their era, from Wells’ utopian (if somewhat elitist, verging almost on techno-fascist) vision of science and reason in Shape of Things to Come to the more downbeat films which expressed increasing societal disquiet at the rapid expansion of technology and scientific knowledge and the fears that it we were pushing too far and too swiftly into areas we perhaps had no right to investigate in the first place. This is, understandably, most especially noticeable in the post-war years following the dropping of the new atomic weapons; it was hardly surprising that the huge fear such potent symbols of scientific advancements embodied would be mirrored by film-makers.

It isn’t just the raw power of nuclear physics which Edward includes here though, he also brings in other emerging technologies that worried society such as television in the home (a technology that also worried film-makers). David Cronenberg’s powerful and disturbing Videodrome is pretty much the poster child for worry about television’s pervasive influence (and the emergence of less regulated multi-channel viewing and direct access to videos to watch on demand, all of which actually lead to moral panics and even parliamentary legislation in the 80s. Videodrome itself remains a film very much ahead of its time in terms of addressing the multimedia age and our worries about its influence, a much recommended film).

Videodrome isn’t just about the ‘hard’ technology of the media though, like much of Cronenberg’s work it includes a strong element of ‘body horror’, with scenes where the protagonist imagines (or is it real?) his own body mutating in response to new technology, including growing a vaginal like orifice in his torso which a video cassette (amusingly in the context of this subject a now obsolete technology already) can be inserted and extracted from. This, in turn, leads into new ‘soft’ technologies, the advancements in cybernetics and biological and genetic research, and the way film has again mirrored societal concerns about ‘mad scientists’ dabbling with powers they cannot possibly comprehend, the human body and the machine not just working in tandem but actually merging, with Tetsuo’s Iron Man as a prime example or the Terminator’s combination of deadly machine over human flesh as the ultimate in human-machine. Or the cracking of the human genome and unravelling of the myriad of computer like instructions that tell our bodies how to be us, almost as if we were in fact flesh and blood machines, bringing us right up to date with filmic examples like the recent Splice, alongside digital imaging tech that allows us to have ‘synthetic’ characters. It isn’t all techno-fear though, Edward also covers the hugely accessible and affordable nature of digital tech and how this had given birth to a whole new generation of movie makers, from those in the cinema with microbudget works like Blair Witch to people putting together their own shorts (or reworking other people’s works) online.

(the cameras, the ‘film’, the editing and now even life itself, all gone digital… From Filmish #3 by and (c) Edward Ross)

As with the first two issues Edward packs a lot into a short comic but always keeps the tone fairly light rather than lecturing (which would have been an easy trap for some to fall into, he avoids it neatly), informative yet entertaining and above all making the subject of film studies very accessible even to anyone who has never sat through a series of academic lectures by men in beards and corduroy. And for those (like me) who have, it is still an enjoyable read and Edward still flagged up some notions I hadn’t considered before. Again he backs this up by giving a short bibliography at the end (tied to properly referencing his quotes in the actual comic) and a filmography too, meaning anyone who enjoys this and wants to read and watch more has a good list at their fingertips already (and again, as in previous reviews, for anyone interested in film studies I still recommend Pam Cook’s BFI publication The Cinema Book as a fine, all-purpose introduction title). Filmish #3 marks another strong entry into Edward’s marriage of film theory and comics (in a scene where it seems we are constantly seeing comics being adapted for cinema it is also amusing to me to see a comic dissecting and commenting on the medium of film) and it remains a nice example of how adaptable the comics medium is to tackling so many different subjects effectively.

And it might just be me, but with three issues of Filmish now I couldn’t help but think as I read this one that the idea could also translate rather nicely into a nice and relatively simple animated style – a few short animations based on Filmish would make for a lovely (and again very accessible to all) wee series on films for some enterprising TV channel (paging BBC4?). But until some television programmer thinks likewise then at least we have the comics; Filmish 3 is just back from the publishers (in fact Edward should have had the first batch at the weekend’s small press bash in London and I hope some of you picked it up) and is available from his website and should also be available at the Edinburgh Filmhouse as usual. Oh and since the theme for this issue was technology I should probably tell you that I actually read it as a PDF on a tablet; I still prefer the physical print version of books and comics, but must confess the wee tablet is proving quite handy for reading PDF versions of upcoming comics form indy creators and presses. There’s that technology again… And on another related technology story Edward has decided to make issue one of Filmish available as a pay-what-you-think download from his site. You can also read Edward’s guest Best of the Year choices here on the blog. (this review was originally written for the Forbidden Planet blog)

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