Analysis Beyond Analytics: Exploring the Transformative Crossover Between Cinema & Media Studies and the Digital Humanities
By Marina Hassapopoulou
Cinema Studies has always been attuned to technological developments and their impact on machine-made art. Even before the first cinematic experiments in interactive storytelling and database narratives in the 1990s (including USC’s The Labyrinth Project, led by Marsha Kinder, and UCLA experiments in cinema forensics, led by Stephen Mamber), the pre-digital work of visionary filmmakers such as Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein and Luis Buñuel prefigures the database logic that is exemplary of the ways in which digital culture now organizes and interacts with data (Manovich 2001; Kinder). The idea of “making the invisible visible” that drives today’s data visualization design is, then, nothing new if we relate this impetus back to early filmmakers like Vertov, who reinvented the language of cinema to reveal recombinatory patterns in the editing of audiovisual “data” (Manovich 2013, 47). This anachronistically algorithmic approach to film suggests that approaches to film-as-data in Cinema Studies predate current data mining and digital visualization tools, yet overlap with humanistic inquiry at the core of the Digital Humanities to propose new ways of understanding and generating knowledge.
[Vertov’s diagram of editing sequences for Man with a Movie Camera (1929), the Hair salon sequence. The blue boxes annotate shot contents, while the red line between them visualizes the intervals in the editing. Image taken from Cinemetrics, http://www.cinemetrics.lv ]
[A flowchart tracing the various possibilities of nonlinear scene navigation in the interactive digital film, Late Fragment (Anita Doron, Daryl Cloran, Mateo Guez, 2007). Image taken from Late Fragment, http://latefragment.com/trailer/ ]
Although the argument, that the treatment of film as a database with computational and mineable data has existed before digital technology, has already been made in relation to filmmaking, little attention has been paid so far to the fact that Digital Humanities (DH) approaches to the study of film are also evident as far back as early film theory. In fact, certain influential theorists such as Eisenstein and Lev Kuleshov – now “critical makers” in DH terms – used metric approaches to cinema in their film theories, in addition to their critical practice. Kuleshov, in particular, was keen on investigating the differences in the cultural perception of films produced in different countries by comparing the number of shots and the impact of montage in certain national cinemas. Kuleshov and his team then proceeded to analyze the potential psychological reasons and ideologies behind the cross-cultural discrepancies in the assemblage of nationally specific films, linking them to causes such as the impact of capitalism in various sociopolitical contexts. Kuleshov’s methodology sets a productive precedent for metric-driven inquiry, where the emphasis is not on the methods for data collection and retrieval (in this case, the number and frequency of shots), but on the humanistic research questions that actually drive the need for gathering data in the first place.
[A Kuleshov diagram visualizing the intra-shot montage and the splices of montage segments (marked by lines A, B, C, D, E, F). Reprinted in Critical Visions for Film Theory, p. 143 (see Works Cited).]
The use of metrics – or, as now called, cinemetrics – in film history and theory gained more popularity in the recent interdisciplinary work of contemporary scholars such as David Bordwell, Barry Salt, James Cutting, and Kristin Thompson. Yuri Tsivian’s Cinemetrics software offers digital tools for recording data for movie analysis, and publishes the data on the Cinemetrics website to create a collaborative, open-ended database for all users to access and contribute to. These tools, along with the reusable databases they create, make entire periods in film history easier to study and compare.
[A user-submitted cinemetric breakdown of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959)]
Just like Kuleshov’s pre-digital data-gathering methods, digital tools must be strategically employed to address compelling research questions in order to justify their use in the analysis of cinema. As Yuri Tsivian argues, “in science as in scholarship, progress is measured not by new answers given to old questions, but by new questions put to old answers” (Cinemetrics). It is imperative that certain established methodologies in Cinema Studies, such as close reading, cultural studies, philosophical inquiry, and ideological investigation must not be forgotten for the sake of privileging distant reading, data analytics, and other software driven methods. It is my concern that, as the analytical tools for the study of cinema are shifting towards computational methods, so is some of the scholarship being produced; this can get to the point where the analytical depth and inquiry are in danger of being reduced to a show and tell of the functions of automated systems and to a diminished regard for important “so what?” questions. This shift in focus can lead to significant omissions in the study of film if only digitally driven methodologies are emphasized (especially in light of institutional funding and the reorientation of priorities within the field). As Tara McPherson suggests, a multimodal humanist is not only one who “brings together databases, scholarly tools, networked writing, and peer-to-peer commentary” but also one who can leverage “the potential of visual and aural media.” (McPherson 120). In the study of film, as in other areas that overlap with Digital Humanities inquiry, the moments of dissonance between the computational and the humanistic ways of knowing can be just as productive, as Miriam Posner has argued (Posner). Moments of dissonance and inconclusiveness in clusters of data can shed light on, for instance, the diversity in film audience reception practices precisely in their resistance to being neatly classified into patterns.
Even before the rise of DH and the proliferation of digital media in our daily lives, film historians, theorists, and cinephiles began to draw attention to “a people’s history of cinema” that recognizes the importance of local and community production/ consumption practices as fundamental aspects of movie history (Klenotic). While computational methods, text mining, GIS mapping, and data analytics have made certain aspects of these micro-histories more accessible – such as the collaborative “new cinema history” project AusCinemas, an interactive map visualization of Australian cinemas – there is room for even more innovation on how to approach “topics not previously thought to possess a history” by fusing traditional methodologies and research questions with digital tools (Maltby 32).
Therefore, it is important for Cinema and Media Studies to propose broader definitions of Digital Humanities approaches in order to maintain certain productive modes of inquiry that stem from older methods of analyzing the moving image; this serves the dual purpose of also broadening DH methodologies and textual/media analysis beyond analytics. In addition, as scholars such as Katherine Groo and Geoffrey Cubitt have advocated, the methodological boundaries of our fields need to become more open in order to fill in epistemological gaps in the production of historical consciousness and in the study of cinema in all its permutations (Groo; Cubitt 234). The critical repurposing of existing media platforms and the use of film remixing practices, for instance, should be considered part of DH inquiry when they meet the objective of generating new modes of media literacy. While DH projects focusing primarily on the digitization of analog resources highlight the need for greater democratization of access to the collections of cultural institutions, the potential of these digital archives to have a life of their own should also be emphasized. Initiatives that invite the public to critically and interactively engage with archival material – such as the 2009 remix challenge posed by the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam for the public to remix twenty-one digitally restored fragments from its early, underutilized Dutch films collection – can result in innovatively productive ways of rethinking both historical archives and the ways in which audience participation can produce new modes of inquiry and historiography. The breakdown of hierarchies and institutional gate keeping in the areas of knowledge production and consumption is therefore essential if we want to cover new epistemological ground and explore the unprecedented opportunities offered by digital tools and user-oriented platforms.
The transformative potential of the amalgamation of Digital Humanities methods and Cinema and Media Studies research is the inspiration behind the upcoming conference co-organized by NYU’s Cinema Studies department and Columbia University’s Film Studies graduate program, and supported by NYU’s Center for the Humanities. ‘Transformations I: Cinema and Media Studies Research Meets Digital Humanities Tools’ is the first installment of this groundbreaking endeavor, taking place at NYU on April 15-16, 2016. The objective of the conference is to expand both the Digital Humanities and the field of Cinema and Media Studies by means of interrelation, and explore the diversity of new modes of inquiry that emerge from the convergence of these fields. The conference aims to provide a cross-disciplinary conversation between Humanities scholars, computer programmers and software engineers, and to further investigate the nuances of the term “Digital Humanities.” The conference will feature influential critical makers in the field of Digital Humanities with a special emphasis on Cinema and Media Studies work. We will consider, both practically and philosophically, the academic preparation of DH-ers and how it differs from – and the ways it can enhance – teaching and research in motion pictures and digital media.
For more information about the conference, including an annotated list of projects that use DH tools for Cinema and Media Studies research, and a selected list of Cinema Studies/Digital Humanities scholarship, visit the Transformations conference website: http://transformationsconference.net
Kinder, Marsha. “Designing a Database Cinema.” Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary after Film. Ed. Jeffrey Shaw and Peter Weibel. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003. 346-353. Print.
Klenotic, Jeffrey. “Four Hours of Hootin’ and Hollerin’: Moviegoing and Everyday Life Outside the Movie Palace.” Going to the Movies: Hollywood and the Social Experience of Cinema. Eds. Richard Maltby and Melvyn Stokes. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2007. 130-154. Print.
Kuleshov, Lev. “The Principles of Montage.” Critical Visions for Film Theory. Eds. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White and Meta Mazaj. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 137-144. Print.
Maltby, Richard. “New Cinema Histories.” Explorations in New Cinema History: Approaches and Case Studies. Ed. Richard Maltby, Daniel Biltereyst, and Philippe Meers. Malden: MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. 3-40. Print.
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001. Print.