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Lecture Library

The Unconscious Message in Films with Technology
by Survey of Interactive Media

An examination of how films are bringing more self-awareness to McLuhan's concept of "The Medium is the Message". The films The Game, Existenz, Being John Malkovich, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind play with this concept and explore it in various ways as interactive technology plays a more important role in our lives.

Marshall McLuhan famous declared "The medium is the message" in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.  In order to illustrate the "content" of any medium is another medium, he describes the moment before an airplane breaks the sound barrier, as the moment in which sound waves become visible on the wings of an airplane.  The structure of sound becomes visible as "that great pattern of being that reveals new and opposite forms just as the earlier forms reach their peak performance."  
As interactive media and entertainment emerges--whether it is through gaming, 3D virtual realities, or communal storytelling--movies arguably are striving towards achieving their peak performance.  By examining clips from The Game, Existenz, Being John Malkovich, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, we see the structure of movies becoming "visible," revealing not only new and opposite forms by depicting technology within the movie, but also helps elucidate how the medium extends man.  
McLuhan describes how Cubism "dropped the illusion of perspective in favor of the sensory awareness of the whole."  This allowed the medium is the message to be showcased on canvas.  Rather than worry about preserving the illusion of third dimensional space on the canvas, Cubism sought to bring attention to the experience as a whole.  Often, pulling back the veil to reveal the interplay of patterns, textures, lights.  
In the clip from The Game (1997), the audience is constantly asked to ponder the logistics of setting up a immersive interactive game experience.  However, as the film itself is not interactive with the audience, the movie succeeds in pulling back the veil and revealing the structure of the movie-going experience--not the interactive experience.  
Only in a movie would the lead character of Nicolas Van Orten be able to land exactly on the X target as he falls off the building in the climax, through break-away glass, surrounded by paramedics.  In fact, when the character of Christine tells Nicholas it is only a game, she asks him to think about movies.  All the bullets and explosions are squibs like in a movie.  This statement made by Christine is true in that all the explosion are squibs as the audience is watching a movie.  However, in the narrative within the film, the reality is blurred between Nicholas 's real life and a game, not a movie.  
The film cannot allow the audience experience the structure of the game--it can only show us the structure of the game as a movie.  The act literally happens as Nicolas falls to his supposed death and in the edit we are shown a few frames of movie sprocket holes.  Again, pulling back the veil, and literally showing us the edges of the medium.
In the clip from Existenz (1999), the characters Ted and Allegra discuss the rules of gaming, bringing attention to the medium.  But which medium are they discussing? Jude Law's character, Ted, suddenly blurts out as if he is in a detective mystery novel.  This is strange behavior for the established character of Ted in the movie so far.  Ted, then draws attention to this break in character, and Allegra attempts to put him at ease, by saying that scripting is a part of the game.  Scripting is also a part of the movie creating process.  Again, like The Game, when the narrative is attempting to show us the parts of gaming and interactive media, they succeed also in bringing the audience aware of the structure and parts of the movie experience.  
Being John Malkovich, which was created the same year as Existenz, attempts to look into the past at an older media--puppeteering--with a conscious effort to unveil the workings of filmmaking itself.  The movie consciously connects puppeteering with the movie-making process by having a puppeteer enter the mind of a film celebrity.  And once the connection is been made, the narrative explores the connection with no regard for maintaining a sense of physical reality.  In this scene, the audience experience's being John Malkovich in a filmic sense not as John Malkovich the person.  In this clip, John Malkovich enters his own portal, where we see every character as a variation of himself.  In this scene, actors, dialogue, characters, most of the recognizable aspects of filmmaking have been erased, exposing many of the basic workings of the film.  This scene forces the audience to add "message" to the experience of the medium, effectively making the medium the message.
In the final clip of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is from 2004.  At this point in history, the audience is more familiar with movies uncovering the medium itself.  Movies like Adaptation look at the connection between novels, scripts, movies, and the audience.  It is not a coincidence that both movies have been written by Charlie Kauffman.  In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the film explores the relationship of the character with his memories.  This exploration necessitates the need to use special effects and distorts all sense of time and space.  The clip revisits scenes from earlier in the movie with characters and objects changed or distorted or sometimes missing altogether bringing attention to memory as well as the movie experience.  Interestingly, because the movie accurately portrays how dreams and/or how memories can be experience by the audience and changed, the movie is not trying to hide the parts of the movie instead it is add more meaning to the parts of the movie by conflating it with human memory.  This act elevates the meaning of the medium by working with the concept of "the medium is the message".  
As interactive media plays a larger and larger role in our lives, the invisible waves of movies and movie-making are increasingly showing up more and more in the movie-going experience.  The mere fact that in 2010 the movie Inception created a wave of excitement across the world is using the idea of the medium is the message as a servant to the narrative.  By acknowledging the message of the medium and incorporating it into the narrative has McLuhan been remixed?  Does this mean that the medium is no longer JUST the message?  Have filmmakers found a way to hack and incorporate "the medium into the message" into the narrative?  

John Malkovich portal loop by Spike Jonze (1999) This scene from Being John Malkovich shows what happens when a man goes through his own portal
Creepy reality effects in Eternal Sunshine by Michel Gondry (2004) Handheld camera and camera-mounted direct lighting signify the creepy unreality of hallucination/memory
eXistenZ game mechanics by David Cronenberg (1999) A scene from eXistenz highlighting the game mechanics and mise en abyme structure of the narrative.
The Game revelation by David Fincher (1997) The narrative climax of The Game represents the culmination of an elaborate series of events, resulting in an impossibly precise outcome and catharsis