Adam Steiner reviews a spiky and kaleidoscopic meditation on the shifting worlds created by glass, and its destruction, in the age of CGI cinema.
Shard Cinema charts the brief history of glass as the ultimate liminal material and how the spectacle of the screen has increasingly become the lens through which we view the world. The author, Evan Calder Williams argues that while the vista of the cinema screen brought new worlds of sight and sound to the viewer, it also has increasingly been co-opted to present audiences with more spectacle and less substance. This more-ness is driven largely by scale but also the power of shock and awe to overwhelm the audience into non-thinking submission, with colours and shapes taking the place of plotting and intelligent camera work, at the cost of physical cinematography work which is a large part of what helped to establish moving film as both artform and the medium.
The ‘shard’ of the title works as metaphor for a divisive and increasingly diffuse element; the increasing tendency for film-makers to produce very linear Good vs Evil films that lend most of their commercial weight and production time [labour] on digital special effects and computer-generated images. This in turn becomes a self-justifying process of meeting revenue targets and trying to break even in order to meet these costs. The affordability and sustainability of film produced in this mode begs the question of where cinema is going when budget – at both ends of the spectrum – becomes the key driver of success, seeming to replace the quintessential human elements of screen-writing, acting, and hands-on film-making.
Since the invention of optics, glass has transformed sound and vision through the lens via the looking glass and perhaps most importantly, the transformative spectacle of the moving image. As both edgy metaphor and reflective distruptor, glass diffusing into the shard and its dismemberments figure large in popular imagination, as well as cutting a swathe through history.
Evan Calder Williams has written a far-reaching book that jumps between scenes from popular films where glass-type effects including water droplets, dust motes and the ever grander scale of metal crashing into metal has become a modern language as relevant to the modern blockbuster as acting used to be. Where computer-generated effects have sometimes taken the place of storytelling and shall we even say, emotional depth, as opposed to infinite perspective, Williams is also trying to explore how glass as a medium, and in particular screens on our handheld devices have changed the way we view and experience the [real] world. He gives the example of the Lumiere brothers’ film of a train racing towards the screen as an example of the technology making its presence known through the medium, pointing out that at the original screening no-one actually ran away in fear, as the legend often goes. But what it did achieve was the inference of the image crossing the parallax, the dividing line of the screen relative to the action approaching the lens of the camera
It is a bold subject to try and cram so much into a few hundred pages, but it is to the book’s credit that Williams is able to pull together far-ranging subjects not only through the connective substance of glass, but in how optics and the way in which we receive images drastically alters our perspective in, and on, real life [IRL]. And I really enjoy this kind of book that is not uniform in its scope, nor in its willingness to express connectivity of media and ideas from different fields of thought.
The book is cut through with grey-paged fragments of ideas that stand like mini essays, the first one is an excellent re-exploration of Die Hard, in other countries re-branded as ‘Nakatomi Plaza’ – highlighting that the building is in fact that the star. Like the Shard building in London that seems to disappear into the sky the figure of the glass tower is a mirage of absence and presence, but becomes highly visceral in the “shoot the glass/scheib dem fenster” section [if you don’t know what I am talking about here, please go and watch Die Hard.]
The mobile phone in particular has empowered the audience to control, compile and select access multiple planes of ‘content’, sliding and swapping ‘windows’, this also leads to a schizophrenic experience of interaction, overwhelmed with a car crash of ‘content’, so much of it requiring human input. The frequency with which our experiences occur through pinged updates is perhaps one of the most significant forms of brain-changing behaviours that human beings have encountered in the last 10 years or so, these interjections have become fractures in time-thought, how we motor about our little lives is shot through with the very real yet very ephemeral shards, the day is one-long cut-up.
Williams blurs the divisions between the impact of screen technology to deliver death via drone attack, and the screens in which we see massaged and processed images of death and destruction on film, including an evolving range of tech terms that become common language:
Trench, carpet bombing, drone, gas attack, napalm, heat signature, or counter-insurgency. […] These technologies remake the landscape and turn all maps 3D, all neighbourhoods into theaters of operation. And no matter how atrociously normalized that becomes, it can never approach the sleepy familiarity of a thumb that vaguely flicks a feed.
As you read this, I am typing on a very clunky mechanical-esque Bluetooth keyboard, punching letters into a Notes ‘page’ on my i-pad, mouse-type actions are easier to do by touch-screen, whereas inputting words en masse is far easier through fierce keyboard input. As we try to transcend the very physical through wireless media/mediums, we’re still earthed by the need for power supplies and internet access. So the freedom of independent media and the power of the big screen remain a dividing source of tension, particularly when it comes to watching films ‘properly’.
The author wages war, and rightly so, on the over-reliance of the contemporary studio system of film-making upon computer-generated image technology to create impossible visuals that are meant to somehow appear realistic at the same time, pushing towards the hyper-real. The audience is pushed further away from the mimetic experience of cinema [mimesis – the extent to which the spectator is believing-in and so absorbed by the spectacle before them; the suspension of disbelief] and so becoming alienated by technology.
There is an element of friction to the image, the digital portrayal of splintering having a tactile sensation upon the eye – the random sparks of breaking – at which the whole is shattered into thousands upon thousands of seemingly infinite shards, to become an abstract upon physicality, glass is broken reformed broken again, the impact becomes timeless in, between all of this, the author laments, nuance is sometimes lost where the eye is drawn away in films such as Frozen [snow] and 300: Rise of an Empire [blood]:
What accompanies all that gore is a genuinely ridiculous quantity of what the crew calls ‘ridleys’ [after Ridley Scott whose 1985 film Legend obsessively fills the air with little particles and motes] dust and wee sparkles with no reason to be there, filling every space to such a degree that fans organised drinking games triggered by the sight. […] Occasionally they are given some semblance of connection to what else is happening in the scene, but even then, they’re so prevalent as to ruin that connection.
The work of producing these images is deeply considered and often pored over at great expense – but, the author argues, usually for little more dramatic gain than wowing audiences [ beating them into submission] through shock and awe, as well as engaging geeks in a conscious promotion of the technology being employed.
Another prime example, the beautiful, beautiful incidental water droplets in films like Pacific Rim – slowed down, paused and panned about; time is subverted and the audience yields to seeming infinity. In this, the pixel has become a stand-in for the atom. Contrast this with Williams’s neatly impressionistic thoughts on how the fractals of ice and broken windows reminds him of the fragility of glass, the artificial grounded in the real – and vice versa.
The author reflects upon the use and abuse of time – not a bad way to pad-out a flimsy plot – and so a rather straightforward battle to save the earth can easily stretch towards into three hour-long film – when everyone knows all classic films are neatly concluded around the 1 hour 45 minute mark, one page of script per one minute of screen time [approx.]
There is a political undercurrent to the commercial drive of the FX-heavy mega-feature which the author applauds [within reason] but is also indicts an over-reliance upon it. Case in point the mega-hyperbole of the Transformers franchise; sequel begets sequel, bigger must come to mean better, millions are invested as venture towards a return of capital – otherwise the film is a failure because it failed to recoup. This is nothing new in the world of movies, but the money that used to be spent upon stars [acting talent] and, often quite foolishly, large scale sets, is now sucked into a visual spectacle arms race [towards the bottom] which moves cinema ever further away from the realm of art, and closer towards the pornography of visual excess.
What saves us, the audience is perhaps the screen itself, the empowerment of micro technologies to create the next generation of hi-res, lo-fi budget filmmaker shooting on their smartphone [actually in hi-res], editing on free software using the free wi-fi in their local library [ok, I am getting a little OTT here]. But for every BIG picture that relies too much upon technology, there are a dozen quality short or indie films made by new directors just getting to grips with their talent, with help from their friends and little or no money behind them, just the powerful cliche of a burning desire to tell a good story, and other such things that used to matter [I jest]. See Sean S. Baker’s movie, Tangerine, shot entirely on an i-phone.
There is much to recommend about Shard Cinema, it is a smart and unique book that wants to show you the wider philosophical and cultural implications of screen technology well beyond the cinema screen and glass as base material for civilization. I would recommend the book to anyone passionate about cinema and film history, and to anyone looking for a book of ideas that breaks well out of any static genre because it is often written so poetically moving in and out of personal reflection and static fact; presenting myriad perspectives on how see and view our world, through a prism at once bright and dark.
Adam Steiner‘s poetry and fiction appear in Proletarian Poetry, The Next Review, Fractured Nuance zine, BoscRev: 4 – and other publications. Adam was selected for the 2014 Ó Bhéal Coventry-Cork Twin Cities Poetry Exchange and was part of the Coventry SHOOT Festival. He is former Co-Editor of Here Comes Everyone magazine and his current project is www.disappear-here.org. His novel about the NHS, Politics of the Asylum, is forthcoming.