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)

Filmish #2: more film theory meets comics

Filmish #2: Sets and Architecture

Edward Ross

Self published

Earlier this year I picked up the first of Edward Ross’ Filmish comics (reviewed here) when I spotted it in my home from home, The Filmhouse (long an institution for film and art lovers in Edinburgh not just for showing wonderful world cinema but for linking into other events, exhibitions and festivals in the city to combine the moving image with the rest of the arts world around it). Filmish #1 took three subjects – Monsters, Food on Film and Point-of-View – and tackled them in a short but satisfying manner, laying out some basics quite suitable even for those who love film but have never entered the often mystifying realms of cine-academia. Issue #2 continues to be an easily accessible look into film studies through the comics medium, but this time it concentrates instead on one main topic – sets and architecture – and I think it’s emerged as a stronger and more interesting read as a result.

Sets and architecture are, as Edward notes, two very closely related disciplines. Architecture describes the artificial environment we build around ourselves and the spaces between – or sometimes within – them that we move through and live in. Set designers attempt to create similar effects for an audience, a believable space (even when describing fantastical realms) that the audience can move through with the actors. Architects borrow from artists and film designers to create their desired effects, welding their tricks of perspective and illusion to create a reality to real world engineering, while film set designers employ tricks from stage illusions and magic, combined with engineering and architecture and art. There’s something arguably satisfying about reading about this inter-meshing of two art/science forms via the comics medium: like the best architecture comics often start as rough doodles and outlines sketched on paper, like film comics can suspend time and space to move through those imagined realms in a way not possible in the real world (and in architecture you could argue that in the computer design stage architects also play with bending perspectives, time and space as they hone their vision).

(Edward’s black and white art seemed particularly suited to the delightfully skewed monochrome designs of Doctor Caligari; from Filmish #2 by and (c) Edward Ross)

As with the first Filmish the comic is replete with examples from the screen, drawn from across cinematic history, from the great Georges Melies through to The Matrix and the current resurgence of 3D with Avatar, as before using quotes from various film studies essays to justify a particular point. Ross has fun walking his own virtual comics avatar through a variety of scenes from famous films by way of illustration, from the skewed perspectives of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, German Expressionism and Film Noir to the immersive, virtual sets of Avatar, tying these also to movements in other art forms (Surrealism and Expressionism for example), while also touching on changing ways we interact with architectural spaces like cities in the real world and how this has been reflected in film.

Unsurprisingly he picks on Lang’s Metropolis and Scott’s Blade Runner as two prime examples to use, which is fair enough given how hugely influential both have been, but he also touches on work you might not have thought about for this kind of study, notably McTiernan’s original Die Hard and the way McClane moves through the vast skyscraper tower – ducts, lift shafts, external windows – compared to the ordinary characters who move only through the proscribed, normal channels (doors, corridors) and links this to modern developments like Parkour and the way it creates a new relationship to the architecture of the city as the practitioners moves through, around, over and under it in ways never imagined by designers and as extolled in films like District 13 (and I found it amusing to think of such a straight Hollywood blockbuster type of flick as Die Hard containing such transgressional elements – proof if it be needed that the viewer can interpret what they want from a text).

Once again I found I really enjoyed this comics trip into film studies. I’m approaching this from the perspective of someone who is both a lifelong cinephile and someone who has penned more than their fair share of academic film studies essays, but Edward’s created this deliberately so that no formal knowledge of academic film studies is necessary, just a love of cinema and imagery. As with the first book the quotes from various essays used during the comic are all properly referenced so you can follow them up if you want and there is a bibliography and a selected filmography at the end for suggested reading if you want to expand your knowledge and take in some excellent films relevant to this particular theme (again for those new to film studies I highly recommend Pam Cook’s thorough and yet approachable The Cinema Book as a great prime reference text).

(“Painful to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave…”; you can’t discuss set design and architecture in film without referencing Blade Runner. From Filmish #2 by and (c) Edward Ross)

Obviously there are more approaches that could have been included and more relevant films you might think should be in this particular issue (no Dark City?) but there’s only so much space in a mini-comic and I think Edward used it well. On the production side of things the paper stock felt much better than for the first issue and on the art side I like the way Edward uses his cartoon self as a narrator, often altered to fit a particular film he’s describing (notably at one point he’s portrayed as the robot from Metropolis); I strongly suspect he rather enjoys projecting himself into those film scenes (quite rightly). Cinema and comics both largely grew up during the same century and given how much they have fed from one another (think on various film themes borrowed for comics, especially early 2000 AD, or how many films are inspired by comics, or even just on imagery and techniques inspired or borrowed from one medium to the other – Dave Gibbons’ cinematic Watchmen frames for instance) I think it is highly appropriate to be using one of those mediums to study the other. I’ve really enjoyed the first two issues of Filmish and I think concentrating on a particular topic here (as compared to three in the first issue) was a better route to go, offering a more satisfying read. I look forward to more and seeing what areas Edward tackles next – genre theory, maybe (go on, Edward, it will give you an excuse to draw yourself in Mac and Fedora as well as cowboy hat!)? Filmish is available from Edward’s website or if you are in Edinburgh you can pick it up from the Filmhouse box office on Lothian Road.