In the iconic remote control scene in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, antagonist Paul uses a TV remote to rewind and redo the scene. Throughout the film, Paul repeatedly expresses his regret at breaking the standards of movie plot development by ruining suspense and failing to extend the movie to feature-length. Funny Games is a classic example of how a director can manipulate the temporal flow of a film’s narrative. These days, we as audiences have been offered the autonomy to mess with our own temporal interplay with cinema.
Increasingly, all forms of media are accelerating their adaptation to the same three screens –– laptop, tablet and phone. The emergence of these personal devices has lifted the prior temporal and spatial constraints of old media. We sit at the same desk switching between Zoom meetings, pre-recorded lectures, Netflix shows and virtual concerts on the same screen –– and at our own pace.
New technologies continue to valorize new possibilities of media consumption. As old mediums are rendered into the digital, our viewing experience continues to be reinvented by the newly afforded possibilities of reconfiguration. Such transformation will never be a neat mapping of our pre-digital experience onto our interactions with our screens. Our laptops, tablets and phones will never be the same as concert venues or movie theaters; they are not even comparable to FM radios or cable TVs. New media will always be new, as their novelty will remain unparalleled in juxtaposition with the old.
Out of all the old media, I tend to think that films have undergone the most intriguing changes in the digital age. The majority of us now watch movies on our personal devices; few people still go to the theaters, and more films — especially this year — are released exclusively on digital platforms.
Not only have digital technologies brought film reels out of the screening rooms – they have emancipated the audience from the movie theaters. The viewing experience is no longer one of collectiveness and synchronization but is instead characterized by self-autonomy and mobility.
As a form of recorded media, films in a digital context directly afford the reconfiguration of time and speed. We are now in control of the temporality of the films we watch. This goes beyond the control over when to consume, but we can now pause, fast-forward, backtrack, skip and rewind as we watch. We now have buttons and cursors on our screen, and we use keyboards, touchpads – even just fingers – to command how the story unfolds.
We are no longer in an era of pure spectatorship. A new spectatorial mode of close examination has been afforded by the buttons at our fingertips. The surging interest in previously neglected subtexts in old films is not a random epiphany; it was technologically enabled and invited. When movies were only played in the theater, great scrutiny of minute details wasn’t humanly possible. By contrast, audiences in the digital age can now scroll through the timeline and freely linger on any particular moment as they wish.
The rediscovery of the queer subtext in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 is not a coincidence, either. Rather, it was a participatory process. In the past few years, the contemporary audiences began drawing connections between protagonist Jessie’s nightmares and his inner struggle with his sexuality. The circulation of screenshots helped establish this perspective as the new reality. While the subtext may seem apparent by contemporary standards, it is crucial to note that the film’s release in 1985 coincided with the height of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. Such longitudinal revisiting of old films would not be possible without the digital functions of pause, screenshot and rewind.
One can argue that such control over the viewing experience is not entirely novel. Indeed, such functions have long been supported since the era of cassette and DVD players, yet the operation was choppy at best, leaving the audience in a constant limbo of watching and un-watching. It is the digital rendition of such functionality that realizes a nearly seamless experience of control over time and speed.
And we didn’t just recently learn to exert our control over time and speed when catching up on missed lectures; we have long been leveraging this newfound power to speed-watch and to jump right into the dramatic events. As contemporary audiences that relish the emancipatory power of digital technologies, we have the predilection for exerting our control whenever we can. I have to admit that the use of arrow keys to slightly jump back and forth has always been particularly tempting. I often mess with the keys when watching movies on Netflix just because I can.
Yet I’m acutely aware that such rearrangements may hinder the ways in which directors fiddle with the temporal flow of the narrative. Against the backdrop of the introduction to the digital age, directors in the 21st century often playfully manipulate the temporal relationship between the audience and the films. Take David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education for instance; both directors extensively employ dream sequences to resemble the distorted temporality of life. In particular, the parallel yet illusory nature of film-within-a-film confronts the audience’s presumption of a linear narrative progression. With the meticulous design of the temporal details, if one fails to keep their hands off of their laptops, the intended cinematic experience may very likely be disrupted by the act of technical reconfiguration.
Our cinematic experience is undergoing a radical renegotiation of the power dynamics between the audience and the works themselves. It becomes increasingly challenging in the digital age to replicate the experience of getting into a zone at a movie theater. As the act of viewing becomes temporally and spatially unrestrained, the temporal-spatial context of the zone also becomes malleable.
We now have a greater responsibility in crafting our own cinematic experience. Perhaps keeping our hands off the screen, the touchpad and the keyboard could help bring back the zone experience we all miss. After all, we have never had a problem with not having control in a movie theater, yet we have always had a problem with the TV remote in our living room.
Stephen Yang is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at email@example.com. Rewiring Technoculture runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.