Regardless of whether cinema used to be truth 24 times per second or lies at the same rate, it is now becoming something else entirely. It is tempting to make some grand declaration—it is always tempting to make grand declarations. But perhaps the greatest novelty to be observed at the Reykjavík International Film Festival (RIFF) is the inversion of silent cinema, the invention of imageless cinema.
In between short films, in the two short film programs offered, the festival ‘screens’ radiophonic narrations, as they are labelled in English—the Icelandic term used in the catalogue is hljóðmyndir which would translate simply as “audio-images.” These are short pieces of edited audio recordings—stories told in an interview setup, that is monologues from within dialogues, mixed with environmental sounds, documentary recordings and ambient music. While they run in the sound system, they are accompanied with subtitles in English. Apart from the modest sans-serif typeface which, in case you do not understand the original language, can be taken as a minimal but fundamental piece of montage giving meaning to the otherwise ambiguous soundscapes—the screen is blank.
Two billion times per second
Some of these pieces are captivating. Perhaps the most memorable one from the first program is ‘Nunaqarfimmiut’ or ‘The Settlers’ by Else Olsvig, where a man from Greenland relates the first time he shot a whale. The power of this piece is not least due to the tension created between the subtitles and the mixed audio, for a non-Greenlandic speaking audience. The pieces in Icelandic, however, also worked well, and the audience found “I don’t want to talk today,” Þorgerður E. Sigurðardóttir’s piece about Pre-Menstrual Syndrome, at first perplexing, then highly entertaining.
Now, an audio-channel without images is not a new medium—it’s called radio and it has been around for a while. Bringing these pieces to the cinema, however, reveals some fundamental changes happening to cinema, deep down under, or looming by the gates: cinema is no longer anything at 24 frames per second, it is a lot of different things happening at the rate of around 2 billion times per second—that is the current ticking rate of the microprocessor in a normal PC.
Whereas all other spheres of art, media and representation have in a relatively short period of time added cinema to their bag of joys—from edited video footage in internet-based newspapers, to video-blogs and YouTube, not to mention the prevalence of video-art in all places intended for elevated coolness, in bars as well as galleries—this has not been a mutual appreciation. The cinematic tradition, the group of people professionally and/or passionately involved in filmmaking, has been reluctant to get mixed up with these other fields of practice.
Visual art remains a prop or deco within narrative films: sculptures used as background for a Woody Allen date, paintings used to show off the riches of the owner of a house. Radio has a curiously rare presence in films, but ‘radiophonic narrations’ would perhaps fit in as something listened to by characters who remain as visual and dramatic as ever. Whereas the democratization of cinema has changed the way other media function, other media have not altered cinema to the same extent at all. The one-way relationship between cinema and other expressive media is not to be lamented, nor is it an occasion for artistic guilt. It is still a highly curious fact.
Something can be learned from the history of music in the 20th century. While Russian Schönberg decomposed the classical tradition and revolutionized music from within that tradition with the invention of atonal music, thus setting the scene for modern, academic music, another revolution took place on the side. Or rather, an invasion: namely, the radio.
Radio, and subsequently the recording industry, gave grounds to the explosion that we now know as pop. In terms of scales and melodies, pop music is highly traditional, and even, one could say, born stagnant. Its creative evolution takes place first and foremost in a different dimension—what is vaguely referred to by ‘sound’—the details of orchestration and developments of attitudes. In many places there is now, decades later, a great flux between academic musicians and pop musicians, but the two worlds of music have also managed well, each on their own terms, while ignoring each other completely. The world of music has settled for something akin to a two-state solution.
The premises for those fundamental changes in music as art, and as a social thing, were technological changes. When a mic and an amp can pick up a whisper and deliver it to thousands, the sophisticated technique of opera singers just seems silly.
Amateur pornographers, your mother
There is a parallel to be drawn here. A revolution is taking place, not from within cinema, but from the outside, like an invading army. For better or worse the Americans are coming into cinema’s Iraq. Youtubers, video-bloggers, amateur pornographers, visual artists, and your mother are making material that starts running at the push of a play button. As of yet, no Schönberg is in sight, though perhaps David Lynch may be on the way to somewhere along with his Inland Empire.
Cinema is no longer 24 frames per second of anything, but whatever happens after you press a play button. Among classical filmmakers whatever happens after you press the play button is very likely to sport a central character, a beginning, a middle and an end. In pop-film—the three minute jingles on YouTube being exemplary—the variation is wider and more chaotic.
This is not to hail the lack of tradition or the death of tradition, but a new lineage unfolding. At this embryonic state, popfilm probably has its own Woody Guthrie standing in a line somewhere, but no Bob Dylan is there yet to point him out to the rest of us.
The image-less cinema on the black screen, which nonetheless kept an audience watching and listening for around three minutes per piece, revealed the fact that what we were watching had never come near celluloid. We were watching a QuickTime file, composed of any digital elements that can fit a timeline, visual or not. The invasion of the radiophonic narration is a symptom of the changes taking place, a crack in the ground, or the paramilitaries at the gates. Those of us in the mood for drama can already hear them rattling their cameras.