Total Recall: Remaking Films From Memory and Technology Essay

OK this essay is slightly longer than previous entries. It was for my Remake class. Not much to say about this one to be honest. I did pretty well on it, grade-wise and hopefully it makes sense and is vaguely interesting. I was going to write a whole new post about remaking films and how it’s more of an American habit but that’ll keep for when I’m not so preoccupied with Gilmore Girls re-runs.

Total Recall: Remaking Films From Memory and Technology

‘Every re-viewing is a remaking.’ Consider the ways in which different frames of exhibition (the difference between cinema and television e.g.) and technological developments (the shift from VHS to DVD for example) and different conditions of spectatorship can be considered to ‘remake’ films, even if the films are not themselves remakes.

How many times have you been discussing a movie with a friend and you couldn’t remember anything about it? ‘Oh it had whatshisname in it and they were in the future or something. And he had to catch these robot people but then he fell in love with one of them. I can’t remember what happened but it was really good.’ Then the person you’re talking to calmly asks, ‘ Do you mean Blade Runner?’ Bingo. So you sit down to watch Blade Runner again but it isn’t quite how you remembered it. It isn’t quite as cool and exciting as you thought it was and you just don’t enjoy it as much as you did the first time around. One viewing of a film isn’t always enough to remember something well and over time our memories fade and so we re-view it. In between the first and second viewing of the film, your brain has remade the film, filling in the bits you couldn’t quite remember; emphasising certain parts and completely omitting others. This is the problem of memory. Memories are unpredictable and when it comes to recalling a film we are missing certain experiences e.g. smell and touch, that we get to use in real life that help us to build memories. They say our sense of smell is the most evocative sense we have and a single breath of something can instantly recall, with perfect clarity, a place, person or experience. When watching a film we don’t get to employ this ability as you can’t smell a film (although most people would probably argue that the smell of freshly made popcorn is the scent of film). So how do we build memories of film?

In real life we’re unable to perfectly recreate events, dialogue or emotions but we are able to repeat them in other ways. We record things in diaries, we write blogs, we have conversations, we take photographs etc. None of these recordings will ever be exactly the same as the original event, dialogue or feeling but they are steps in building strong, detailed memories. Each time we look at one of these methods of recordings our brains discover something new that could only be found over time. Our brains absorb information and process them over time and so we unconsciously analyze events, dialogue and emotions and come to a conclusion at sometimes unexpected moments. The same thing is true in watching a film, whether it’s for the third or thirteenth time. Every time we repeat the experience by re-viewing a film we add some new detail which will result in a solid memory. It is this mental activity that leads us to discuss how re-viewing a film is in a sense remaking a film. You spot something new each time to watch a film, hear dialogue a little clearer, you connect certain plot points together that you didn’t before. You are remaking the film with exactly the same material as the original. The films that display this mental activity best are ones that have a twist or some kind of big reveal in them as there is mostly likely to be foreshadowing in the parts before the twist. Re-viewing a film like this allows us to watch more closely to try and spot the clues to the reveal. In the audio commentary to Fight Club (1999), in which there is a big twist, Edward Norton speaks about re-viewing the film and how the viewer’s perception changes,

‘It’s fun actually to, once you have watched the movie and you know what the real underlying reality of it is in terms of Jack and Tyler, it’s fun to watch it and think about the whole thing from Marla’s perspective. Most people I know, even the ones who loved it the first time have said that they really liked it the second time, that they got much, much more out of it the second time.’

So we build memories of films by re-viewing them which results in our brains remaking the films. Now the question becomes of how we re-view them. Under what circumstances? By which medium? ‘In addition to theatrical exhibition, home video, and television, we can add in-flight movies, movies in Greyhound buses and SUVs, laptops playing DVDs or streaming videos from websites, and portable “movies” on PDAs and even mobile phones.’ (Roberts, 2005: 249) The atmosphere in which we watch films has a direct result on our perception of the film which will of course affect the memory we have of it.

The differences between cinema and television exhibitions of films are obvious, for starters, the screen size. For the first viewing of a film in a cinema, we are treated to a huge screen that fills our entire view and allows for extraordinary detail. However when we next see the film being broadcast on television (we’ll get to DVD and VHS options later) the picture has a drastically smaller image with an equally small amount of detail. How can we appreciate the image in the same way a second time around when it has been altered so much? The transition between cinema and television also affects the sound quality we hear. The booming of surround sound heard in the cinema can barely be compared to that of television speakers (excluding home theatre systems for the time being). You’re in the cinema; the lights have gone down, everybody is still and the film playing is Alien (1979). The camera pulls back to reveal the spacejockey; huge and unknowable but the cinema screen reveals every detail of its ridged body in the alien chamber. Later, John Hurt’s character lies unconscious in the medical bay while Dallas, Ash and Ripley tentatively search the room for the missing facehugger. The silence deafens the audience who collectively hold their breath. Where will it strike? Who will be attacked? The silence that fills the huge room affects the way the audience feel; the tension is almost physical. Now imagine you were watching Alien again on TV; you’re lying on a sofa with the lights on with your mobile phone next to you. After the extreme sensations of the cinema, how do we feel about the film now we’re seeing a minimized version of it, without the enormous screen, the acoustics of the large room and the collective experience? All of a sudden there’s an ad break and you go off and make a cup of tea. We get drawn out of the experience by the technology we’re using to re-view the film. The tension isn’t as powerful because it’s being split up into chunks of time, it also doesn’t demand our attention like the cinema because we have the choice to change the channel at any moment. The audience for television has so much power over their experience; they can position themselves to the screen in any way they please, answer their phones or talk loudly to whomever they’re watching with. To sit up and face a screen implies concentration and an investment in the story and characters, but when there is the option of lying down, moving around, chatting to friends etc then we pay less attention. By exercising these options we remake the film into something much less serious than the original was, not through mental remaking, but instead through technology and the prescribed rules of spectatorship which it carries. The cinema has dominance over us but we dominate television.

A re-viewing of a film will, for the most part, take place in the home environment, depending on the time between the first and second viewing e.g. if the gap between the viewings is 2 years then it’s difficult to see the film again in a cinema as it will have been taken out of theatrical exhibition. However, there are other options outside of the home for re-viewing films in a group or individual atmosphere. For Halloween 2008, an event called ‘Chills in the Chapel’ was held at Union Chapel, London. A screening was arranged in the gothic chapel to create a spooky Halloween night.

‘With a backdrop just as spooky as the films you will be treated to, the chapel will be home to the screams of the terrified for four nights, including Halloween itself. Screening in the gothic Union Chapel with candles and atmospheric lighting, Chills in the Chapel invites you to get spooked out for Halloween 2008…. Presenting four classic horror movies, Chills in the Chapel invites you back to the early days of scary movies with black and white stars of the screen taking you into a world of horror. Kick starting the film series is the ultimate in vampire films, Nosferatu from 1922. Timeless, sinister and silently creepy, this will be screened in its remastered format, with the original score played alongside it.’ (ViewLondon, 2008; Whatson)

At this event, it isn’t the technology that will affect the audience, it’s the surroundings. Much like the atmosphere of someone’s living room will change their experience so too will a creepy, gothic chapel when viewing horror films. Nosferatu, being from 1922, will be seen by people on DVD or VHS and not on a big screen, so presumably the audience that attended this event will be re-viewing it. So instead of the usual order of cinema to DVD, this event makes it DVD to cinema. The collective experience this time would be heightened due to the appropriate surroundings. A mental remaking would occur just as the transition from cinema to television would. This kind of experience would also apply to drive-in movies and outside exhibitions; the viewers are free from the usual rules of spectatorship that govern traditional cinemas.

A relatively new option is available in order to blend together the group cinematic experience with a private one. ‘Silent Cinema’, a trend similar to the ‘Silent Disco’ uses technology to bring people together to watch a film but enjoy the sensations privately.

‘Silent Cinema is a world first – it’s never been done anywhere else. Ever. It’s beautifully simple: you wear wireless headphones to watch films on a full-size cinema screen. Sit back and relax without the unwelcome soundtrack – no noisy neighbours and no shhhhh! It’s like watching a movie at home- only better because you’re in an amazing room full of like-minded people. And there’s a bar. You’re all enjoying an individual experience. Together.’ (Barr, 2008; homepage)

Apparently offering the best of both worlds, silent cinema also offers another chance to break free of the constraints of traditional spectatorship.

These examples have been about public exhibition, but what about private re-viewing? Home theatre systems e.g. big screen TVs, surround sound, HD etc, are widely available and used by more and more people. The creation of a cinema-like atmosphere is an attempt at recreating the feeling of the first viewing. It seems that the owners of these kinds of systems are conscious of the difference between first and subsequent viewings of film and need to keep the experience going through re-viewings. In the past 2 years the development of high definition TVs and DVDs have lead to the release and re-release of films on Blue-Ray discs. These allow for a crystal clear quality picture which has made it possible for classic films to be restored, re-mastered and released. Re-mastering; surely altering a film e.g. enhancing the colour and cleaning up the sound quality, is remaking a film? It’s the same plotline with the same actors, same crew and director but it has been altered and technically isn’t the same film. However this is just another way to re-view the film in a new way, so is it a remake or a re-viewing? Why do we bother to re-master at all; the original was good enough, wasn’t it? What about the director’s cut; why did they choose to change certain features and how does it affect the film overall? These questions apply to a lot of films now, particularly since DVDs became the preferred technology because now we have special editions, anniversary box sets and director’s cuts. A DVD allows the buyer the option of being able to remake the film in whichever way they choose through the choices presented to them by the director. Audio commentaries, featurettes, deleted or alternative scenes etc. These choices are likely to give new perspectives to the film; the information they provide can make the viewer think differently about something in the film every time they view it.

In an audio commentary a director or actor may point out flaws in the scene e.g. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), writer and actor Richard O’Brien points out mistakes such as boom shadows and unmatched shots during the ‘Dammit Janet’ scene. On a personal note, I enjoy audio commentaries and after I heard O’Brien say these things, in every subsequent viewing of the film I could not take my eyes off of the boom shadows. It drew me out of the film and affected the way I watched the film thereafter. Of course it is up to each individual viewer to decide whether this is for good or for ill. ‘Making Of’ featurettes appear on the majority of DVDs now, but what is their appeal? Contemporary audiences are often referred to as ‘media saturated’ as we are exposed to so much, but we must enjoy it some degree or there would be no demand for it. We want to know everything about actors and their lives; we read film magazines, visit online blogs and forum communities. We also feel a need to know about the production of the film with IMDB.com being a popular source of this information or fun trivia as well as the extras on a DVD. On Blade Runner – The Final Cut (2007) one of the many documentaries about the film, reveals the strained relationship between Harrison Ford and Sean Young. Their characters fall in love in the movie but there were many tension filled moments on set. When we re-view the film, because of this information, we pay particular attention to their scenes together. The information provided by the DVD helps us to remake the scenes; it adds a new perspective of the film.

In terms of building memories, these actions are important to us as contemporary viewers; we have a need to extend our experience of the film outside of the screen. It’s why we buy collectibles, posters, costumes etc as we need to make the film personal. This is the reason behind buying a film; that the buyer is going to watch this film again at home and not just once but many times. This behaviour helps towards mental remaking of films because we can surround ourselves with the environment of the film.

VHS tapes now have a nostalgic feeling to them, they’re almost antiques to us and now to go back and watch an old tape of our favourite film feels comforting. No hassle of modern technology, no need to choose which version of the film to watch and no burden of control over the picture or sound quality. It’s a similar experience to listening to a vinyl record rather than a CD, a certain generation with appreciate the simplicity of it whereas others will be frustrated at its lack of contemporary options and quality. Movie piracy has become an increasing problem due to the ever expanding uses of the internet. Streaming, watching a film online without downloading it, has become incredibly popular, with thousands of films available for free i.e. illegally, across the web. Much like the VHS tapes, it allows for limited viewing options. These streaming files are usually just the film; none of the usual DVD extras are included in the file and rarely an option for an audio commentary, the quality can be poor and the sound can be out of synch. The internet also allows for downloading films onto personal devices. This strips away all rules of spectatorship and allows the viewer complete control; the viewer can watch a film absolutely anywhere in the world, anytime of the day in any kind of setting with the device hooked up to speakers or listened to through headphones. Aside from streaming or downloading videos, the internet provides another means of experiencing a film, albeit a slightly unusual one. Listentoamovie.com is a site that has a collection of movie audio tracks; no visuals, just the sound of a movie. It’s aimed at people who want to watch a film at their workplace without getting into to trouble, so this websites removes the temptation of the image which would serve as a distraction. It makes it easier to multi-task and enjoy a film if the visuals are not involved. This throws the usual spectator experience right out of the window and forces the mind to conjure the images only from the film from memory. Again, this remakes the film, drawing more from memory in this instance; rather than actually re-viewing the movie, the viewer is re-experiencing it.

Laptop computers have the ability to play DVDs and can offer different viewing options to that of watching them on televisions. Each DVD software package will have different options available to them but common examples of choices presented to the viewer are more advanced controls over the screen ratio, colour, sound, subtitles etc. The particular software that I used in order to research this essay even offered the ability to play the film as if it were my background, with my desktop icons layered over the top of it. Watching DVDs on laptops also is influenced by the environment in which you re-view; listentoamovie.com is also subject to the environment in which it is experienced.

Re-viewing films does remake them for the audience and the surroundings and technology effect us each time we watch a film, but still, the question of why remains. Why do we actually re-view films? Do we do it to remind ourselves, to make a stronger memory? Do we do it because we just enjoy the film? There are so many reasons why we would deliberately choose to watch a film that we know we’ve already seen. One theory is love, specifically the love of a scene or even one small moment that holds importance for us. ‘The first thing we love is a scene.’ (Barthes 1990: 192) In the audio commentary for You’ve Got Mail (1998), Nora Ephron discusses the attachment that one develops when viewing a moment over and over again during the editing process: ‘…such a tiny little thing but when you’re cutting a movie and you see it 100, 200, 500 times you get very pathologically attached to tiny little things…’ A strange kind of infatuation occurs to the tiniest moments of film; the bat of an eyelash, how light pours through a window, the way a cigarette is smoked. When we experience these moments we are compelled to try and recreate the feeling but we are blocked by the screen.

‘A useful focus for questions of response is pleasure. Lacan’s psychoanalysis encouraged film theorists to see desire as central to an understanding of spectatorship. Desire is an expression of ‘lack’…Our pleasure derives from the film’s ‘staging’ of our desire, a desire for the ideal, that which will answer the lack with a sense of completeness. The emphasis is very much on staging, because, of course, a film is only a film and can never really satisfy our desire – which anyway is unfulfillable. (That’s why we go back for more!)’ (Nelmes, 2003; p114)

Because we are unable to satisfy a physical need, we need to repeat viewings; this can sometimes lead to altering the experience of the film as a whole even though we are attracted only to certain moments. This can lead to habits such as fast forwarding certain parts of the film in order to quickly get to others – this is also a form of remaking by cutting parts of the film away. The inability to recreate a physical or emotional reaction to something plays into our psychological need to recreate pleasurable and comfortable situations. This is something that psychoanalysts explore in patients that are unable to adapt to new or difficult situations; they regress into past scenarios in which they were happier and/or safer, usually a childlike state.

As film viewers we do this too, we allow our moods to dictate which film from our collection we will watch. A woman breaks up with her partner and is devastated so she seeks solace in one of her favourite films, most likely a romantic movie. Past experience tells her that this film will make her feel better and that she can relate to its story. The most recent film this notion applies to is Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001). The film creates the feeling of comfort; the idea of women curled up on sofas with a tub of ice cream watching a ‘feel good’ movie – while not applicable to every woman, is a popular image. The broken hearted woman will use this film to comfort herself, and even though the first time she saw it she may have been in a happy healthy relationship, now that she is heartbroken she will experience the story in a different way. She will relate to the characters differently and her real life experience will help her to analyze and understand the themes of the film. This confirms the points I made earlier about our brains being able to interpret a film differently over time. Except in this case, real life experiences are able to affect our minds and our moods; not only does a simple passage of time allow us to remake the film but the life of the individual will shape how it can be remade. World events also filter through our minds interpretation of a film; 9/11 is a perfect example of this. Many films that were made around the time featured shots of the twin towers and had to be removed at a later stage as they drew audible gasps from the audience e.g. this was revealed on the audio commentary for Kissing Jessica Stein (2001). So significant personal and global events affect how we remake movies for ourselves when we re-view them.

Eventually a film can lose its appeal when we become saturated by it; this is often why there is such a great gap between one viewing and the next. We need to give ourselves a break, a chance to absorb and interpret what we enjoyed; as mentioned earlier, our brains need time to analyze what we’ve experienced and thus will influence the next viewing of the film. In order to remake a film for oneself we use a blend of our moods, memories and technology.

Bibliography

Barthes, R. (1990) A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. Trans. Howard, R. London,
Penguin

Freud. S (1914) ‘Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through’, Standard Edition
XII p145-56

Nelmes. J (2003) An Introduction to film Studies, UK: Routledge

Roberts. M (2005) ‘Film Culture’ in Concepts of Culture: Art, Politics, And Society
by Muller. A, Canada: University of Calgary Press

Schwartz. V (1995) ‘Cinematic Spectatorship Before The Apparatus: The Public
Taste For Reality in Fin-de-Siecle’, in Charney, L., and Schwartz, V.R. (1995), pp297-319

Turbett. D (2001) ‘”So Where Are You? On Memento, Memory, and the Sincerity of
Self-Deception’, Cineaction, no 56, p2-10

Verevis. C (2005) Film Remakes, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press

Filmography

Alien, 1979, DVD, Scott. R, UK/USA, Twentieth Century-Fox Productions

Blade Runner – Final Cut, 2007, DVD, Scott. R, USA/Hong Kong, The Ladd
Company

Bridget Jones’ Diary, 2001, DVD, Maguire. S, UK/France, Studio Canal

Fight Club, 1999, DVD, Fincher. D, USA/Germany, Fox 2000 Pictures

Kissing Jessica Stein, 2001, DVD, Herman-Wurmfeld. C, USA, Fox Searchlight
Pictures

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, 1922, VHS, Murnau. F.W, Germany, Jofa-
Atelier Berlin-Johannisthal

The Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975, DVD, Sharman. J, UK/USA, Twentieth
Century-Fox Film Corporation

You’ve Got Mail, 1998, DVD, Ephron. N, USA, Warner Bros. Pictures

Websites

Barr. D, (2008), Silent Cinema, http://www.silent-cinema.co.uk/
(Accessed 20/04/09)

Internet Movie Database (1990-2009), Homepage, http://www.imdb.com
(Accessed 20/04/09)

Listen To A Movie (unknown date), Homepage, http://www.listentoamovie.com
(Accessed 19/04/09)

ViewLondon (2008), What’s On – Chills in the Chapel,
http://www.viewlondon.co.uk/whatson/chills-in-the-chapel-article-7356.html
(Accessed 25/04/09)

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