Reviewer biography

Current Reviews

Review Articles

Book Reviews Archive

Soft Cinema: Navigating the Database

by Lev Manovich and Andreas Kratky
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2005
DVD-video with 40-page color booklet. $30.00
ISBN 0-262-13456-X

Reviewed by Andrea Dahlberg


The Language of New Media (MIT Press 2001) by Lev Manovich identified the formal, visual properties of certain types of new media. Manovich defined the visual culture of the computer age as cinematographic and traced its origins from the avant-garde of the 1920s to the computer games of today. The language of digital visual culture is, he argued, created from five principles that define the rupture between analogue and digital imagery. These are:

  • "Numerical representation"——which allows new media objects to be manipulated by algorithms
  • "Modularity"——which allows new media elements to retain their discrete identity when combined into larger units
  • "Automation"——which results from the characteristics above and allows change and creativity to occur without human agency or intention
  • "Variability"——which holds that new media objects are potentially infinitely capable of new arrangement
  • "Transcoding"——which is the translation of something into another format and, in particular, the translation into computer files. (27-48)

Much of the authority and force of Manovich's argument lay in the fact that he was not only a theorist but an artist speaking with this new language. It will come as no surprise then to learn that Soft Cinema embodies and exemplifies each of the characteristics above. In The Language of New Media Manovich argued that the database is to the computer age what narrative was to the age of film; in Soft Cinema Manovich and Kratky show us what this means. (Manovich's critics will, no doubt, conclude from this that The Language of New Media was less a theoretical analysis of new media and more an extended artist's statement.)

Soft Cinema is a DVD containing three works that were originally shown as installations. Each work comprises visual and acoustic databases that generate a short film. The visual database contains not only video clips but graphics, still images, animation, and text. The auditory database consists of music clips, voices, and various background noises. Software combines (samples) the visual and acoustic elements in ever-changing combinations so each showing of a film is different. The films themselves belong to different genres, such as film noir and science fiction. The DVD captures various versions of the stories that were generated by each of the installations.

Each film is shown on a fragmented screen where different windows present different elements of an unfolding story. In "Mission to Earth" the main window either depicts what the main character perceives or shows the character herself. Other, smaller windows show other aspects of her world. This film contains the strongest narrative and is about an alien sent on an ethnographic mission to Earth to report on its inhabitants. It conjures up states of mind associated with alienation, displacement, and migration.

"Absences" is the most abstract film. Shot in black and white, the logic of this film is one of association, and it unfolds (differently each time) like a poem. It links elements of the natural and urban landscapes through their formal properties: Shape, texture, size, shade, etc.

Although the title of the film "Texas" suggests that it is about a specific place, it is actually about the modern city. Texas is a state of mind and a way of living rather than a specific geographical place.

The idea of place is explored and redefined in each film. The link between identity and place is dissolved. Instead, place becomes a mental construct comprised of links and associations that transcend time and space. Concepts of "home, "unity," and "belonging" are absent, but the films are redolent with their absence. The world is a larger, more disconnected place where subjectivity is the search for connection and meaning resides in its momentary realisation.

The films are fascinating to watch numerous times and engage the spectator on every level: intellectual, emotional, visual, auditory, etc. They raise important questions about life today and the construction of subjectivity, meaning and identity. No doubt much attention will be directed to the nature of their making and their formal properties (amply explained in the additional materials accompanying the DVD), but it is their content that is most valuable and engaging. This DVD will bring Manovich's artistic work to a wider audience.



Updated 1st June 2006

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo: isast@leonardo.info

copyright © 2006 ISAST