Database novella: Bleeding Through Layers of Los Angeles by Norman Klein (2002)
Catching a Glimpse into the Ever-Evolving New Media Landscape Through Norman Klein’s Bleeding Through: Layers of Los Angeles, 1920-1986
There are inherent issues that arise from complex, narratively driven interactive works, particularly when they are reliant on a specific operating system (OS) medium. Operating systems are inherently based on an evolutionarily driven progression. What once worked on one OS might never be compatible with another, future or past one. Due to these complications in cross compatibility, the need for emulators, simulations, recreations, remasterings and more become that much more necessary to experience the interactivity that was originally conceived and designed by the artist—one that is not guaranteed to be a of high fidelity to the original experience. This can either be due to compatibility issues or due to the simple fact that the user will be staunchly aware of the technological archaism associated with a 20-year-old interactive cinematic experience like Bleeding Through: Layers of Los Angeles, 1920-1986.
Furthermore, mainstream consumer behaviors have changed. While Microsoft PCs might have dominated the ordinary consumer market for generations, Apple Macintoshes have come to supersede what PCs once were. While Windows continues to be the world’s most popular computer operating system, institutions like New York University and others similar to it have adopted Macs as their go-to campus computers. That is not to say that the Windows OS is poorly designed. Quite the contrary, the Windows OS was the first OS of its kind to combine professional and recreational activities into personalized computers, making them the mainstay of computer consumerism for nearly twenty years. But alas, Apple’s Macintosh has slowly but surely begun replacing Windows’ ubiquity on college campuses, artistic installations, exhibitions, and particularly the socioeconomic sphere that Windows originally appealed to—the middle- to upper-middle class. This shift in standardized operating system has made projects like Bleeding Through that much more of a bewildering, unintuitive, and quite frankly, confusing experience. As I experienced Bleeding Through, it was necessitated that I experience it via a Windows 2000 Professional emulator. Not only is this a clunky fit that questions the authenticity of experiencing the project as the artist intended, it is also a nearly two-decade old operating system that requires one to cognitively engage in non-intuitive human-interface interactions (to borrow Lev Manovich’s term). These differences between the artist’s original conception and execution and the product that we see and experience in 2017 are what makes projects like Bleeding Through interesting solely for its noir-inspired narrative tale. The archaic ontology of the project unfortunately makes the experience that much harder to savor and realize in the artist’s original perception.
For us to understand whether or not this clunky experience problematizes the idea of new media, we must first define the parameters of this term. While the idea and ontology of new media is ever evolving, Lev Manovich explains in his seminal work, “New Media and from Borges to HTML,” that new media is a form of cyber culture that relies on computers, databases, software, and algorithmic computations to distribute human-computer interaction while adhering to preexisting notions of media. In this simplistic understanding of the continuously changing definition of new media, I do not believe that the rather outmoded presentation and execution of Bleeding Through imposes on the project’s main narrative goals.
The work presents an individualized story that wraps itself up into a noir, a virtue of Los Angeles’ history and the city’s history with filmmaking. As Thom Andersen explains in his epic documentary LA Plays Itself, Los Angeles relies on films to present itself just as much films set in Los Angeles rely on the city’s culture to present themselves. The imagery and diegesis in Los Angeles-set films impose themselves onto the nonfictional view of Los Angeles and vice versa. In other words, the nonfictional Los Angeles cannot separate itself from the movie version of Los Angeles. The films that portray LA influence the city’s look, style, aura and so forth, while the nonfictional city’s landscape, neighborhoods, and culture influence the films that showcase the Los Angeles that we all know, love—and if we are discussing noir—fear. It’s an endless feedback loop, one in which one version of the city cannot be separated from the other. And no other genre screams Los Angeles more than the noir, a genre that Bleeding Through naturally gravitates towards.
This feedback loop is revisited by Marsha Kinder in her essay, “Designing a Database Cinema,” where she explains that “for Bleeding Through we were exploring the ironic interplay between popular fiction and ethnography, the glamorous thrills of moving pictures and the redemptive power of photography stills” (2). Los Angeles cannot separate the two, coming to rely on both popular fiction and ethnographic photographic stills to represent itself. And while the presentation of this dichotomy is rather outdated by today’s standards, it is but a moment in the history of new media’s ever-evolving definitions, practices and executions. Therefore, it is hard to say that the experience of Bleeding Through problematizes our notions of new media, for the project acts more as a historical bookmark for how experiencing computational cinema—or “database cinema” as Kinder calls it—has changed over the years.
Bleeding through: Layers of Los Angeles, 1920-1986 is a collaborative project produced by film theorist Marsha Kinder and media historian Norman M. Klein. It includes a novella written by Norman Klein and an interactive film in DVD ROM, both centered around the protagonist Molly, a LA resident who witnessed the social changes of the city since the early 20th century. The story of Molly revolved around the question of whether or not she murdered her second husband in the 1960s. Viewers are able to simultaneously navigate the story by watching short video clips with a narrator telling part of the fiction and looking up historical documents which is constituted of old photos, film clips, news clippings and maps. As a production of 2002, some technological issues may happen when viewers nowadays try to interact with the film. The current Mac OS system, for instance, is too new to be compatible with this relatively old format. In order to access it, users need to install the VirtualBox to emulate an obsolete Windows system (and the program crash sometimes).
Of course, the relation between the viewer and the film is much more than just glitches. In Bleeding Through, the relationship is established and maintained in two ways: indirect and direct approach. This combination can be illustrated by the constantly changing POV of the viewers when they are dealing with the narrative and interface of the system.
The film is based on a novella, a traditional form of narrative which means the user, no matter what kind of narrative mode s/he is put into, is essentially a “voyeur”, the approach is indirect. Whereas in the film, the narrative turned into a complex in which the third and first person mode intersect with each other. When the viewer navigates in various vintage photos and old movie clips, they will notice the notes under those pictures which is written in third person mode, helping s/he to find the clues of the story in an indirect approach. But when the narrator (Norman Klein) showed up at the upper side of the window, telling the story of Molly, the viewer is directly approached as if the narrator is talking right straight to s/he, hence the viewer’s presence is acknowledged openly. In this case, the viewer’s POV and identity change and shift during his/her whole experience.
Nevertheless, the direct approach functions as the dominant way in the context of the interactive nature of Bleeding Through, and indirect approach is just a substitute. The concept of “database narrative” is consistent in the film which transforms the viewer into an active participator who “writes” his/her own specific story of Molly based on the selection and combination of different pictures, movie scenes, and impression of people and places in the film. During the dual process, however, even though the viewer played the role of “detective”, s/he is always treated like an outsider of the story due to the third person angle, and may never be the real protagonist. It is easy to get lost in the process of constructing the narrative from the misty other side, the viewer will constantly find him/herself lose track of the story and then question his/her own meaning of presence. “What am I doing here?” s/he may ask. Therefore, the identity of the viewer could be lost in the attempt to organize and construct their own database memories.
The funny thing is, this kind of disoriented feeling of viewer is doubled under the cultural context of the story. Just like database narrative give viewers various choices and chances, modernization offered indefinite range of possibilities for individuals. Characters in the film, such as Molly, Jack and the woman from The Exiles, are all experiencing a “phenomenal world” which is constructed by their own active selection of living experiences. This experience is highlighted by the permeation of consumerism, urbanization and industrialization which gives characters a sense of self-displacement. Molly, for instance, is a typical post-modern character whose professional identity, a garment shop owner, is determined by the market demand. Her interpersonal relationships are transitory, change when satisfaction stops. As a consumer, Molly’s perception of herself and the world are also affected by the larger consumer society which constantly provides commodities beyond the previous living experiences of people. An example of such ruptured experience is a commercial advertisement of polyester with Molly’s comment “You can’t sew plastic”. Ruptured experience lead towards a fragmented self-identity. That is to say, when the viewer tries to approach the story, s/he is likely to be infected by this fragmented modern experience of the character, connecting it with his/her own viewing experience and form a disoriented identity in a deeper sense.
Giddens, Anthony. Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991, pp. 187-201.
Huhtamo, Erkki. Seeking Deeper Contact: Interactive Art as Metacommentary
Kinder, Marsha. “Designing a Database Cinema”
Reconstruction of Identity: Bleeding Through Three Layers of LA
Bleeding Through: Layers of Los Angeles, 1920-1986 is an academic production of Marsha Kinder and Norman M. Klein which narrates a story by the interplay between DVD ROM interface and a supplementary booklet. The story revolves around Molly, a woman who is a suspicion of being a murder as well as a witness of the vicissitudes in LA during that period. Viewers are given two accesses to unfold the story – they can control the scrollbar to navigate voluminous historical archives along with Klein, displayed in a small window on the screen, making oral narration and invitation to write a personal detective fiction. Since this project was made nearly ten years ago, it was inevitable to encounter technical issues on accesses and emulation. The Mac system was too new to broadcast the film in a disk as well as avoid unexpected terminations during screening. However, these issues did not prevent viewers to recognize its creative nonlinear ways of narration when taken its contemporary technological limit into consideration. The three tiers of the film respectively function as a way of navigating viewers to the whole story as well as developing levels of rediscovering identities of the fictitious Molly, the historical LA residents and the real-life viewers, all of whom intend to interpret and experience that particular period under their own historical and social context.
At the first tier, the story is narrated through Klein’s video and navigation of plentiful images which functions to formulate a female character with the assistance of concrete historical archives. In this way, Molly is identified with her family background, business interest and leisure-time entertainment from which viewers are able to detect her financial and mental state. As Marsha Kinder mentions that this project is exploring “the ironic interplay between popular fiction and ethnography, the glamorous thrills of moving pictures and the redemptive power of photographic stills” (346) in her article, the second tier of navigation reduces Klein’s oral introduction but leans to images and video clips which can fill the gap between Molly’s story and a real society. It incorporates a sense of uncanny effect by blurring the boundaries between past and present. For instance, viewers can experience the old and new LA in the same image simply by moving a scrollbar. The back stories provided in this part function to help viewers to establish a connection between Molly and remarkable historical events. Moreover, it allows viewers to transcend the boundary of detecting Molly’s identity to a broader level, at which the identity of historical LA residents has been continuously discovered and reformed in the concept of “exotic” “cult” “industrialization”, etc.
Moving forward to the third tier, the film not merely satisfies with navigating viewers to conceive identities of other characters and people but persuades them to reconsider their own identities through a number of oral archives which constitute an important part of database narrative. In this respect, viewers will encounter people who Molly never meets but can make good characters in her story and therefore be encouraged to write their story with their own understandings of that particular period. As modern viewers, our impression of LA during 1920 to 1980 has been greatly influenced by available mediums like newspapers, Hollywood movies, documentaries, etc. whose centered content on murder, crime, violence, etc. help to create stereotyped impressions. Therefore, database narrative provided at the third level functions significantly to fix viewers’ deviations or bias. It illustrates that same historical period usually differs much between the storytelling of those who have experienced in person and later ones who can only imagine through available mediums. For instance, when an interviewee Julius Schulmen was asked about his impression of The Zoot Suits which was considered a major event of that period in interviewer’s mind, instead, pointed out that The Zoot Suits was only a minor part of that particular society whose influence was actually shadowed by the Mayor Shaw’s scandal.
The three tiers were not separate tiers of interpretation of identities but were actually interrelated. The story unfolded from the first tier to the last resembles a process of LA bleeding through from old to new. This process of “bleeding through” can be regarded more than a process of transition, but a process of sacrifice during which people will experience the state of being lost, marginalized or nostalgic. While database narrative functions to fill the gap between historical and modern understandings of the same historical period, it also arouses a question of the identity of “Molly”. Tier three is named as “people Molly never met but would make good characters in her story” which can probably be changed into a title as “people viewers never met but would make good characters in our stories”. In this condition, Viewers, who share similar concerns on feeling lost, marginalized or nostalgic, are actually taking the role of Molly to reflect what the real LA is and witness its bleeding change. In modern societies, we are also contemporary “Mollys” who have been suffering an anxious sense of lost under the encroaching invasion of capitalist power. Therefore, the identity of viewers is reconstructed in a more ambiguous and blurred way as well.
Bleeding through layers of Los Angeles (2002) is Norman Klein and Marsha Kinder’s interactive database narrative portrayed through several characters, although one especially-Molly, a delusional murder suspect who witnessed LA’s social, cultural and architectural downturns. Klein uses a series of mixed media including maps, sketches, pictures, clips from various films and superimposes them with his voiceover narrating a classic novella.
At first it seems like Klein only concerns himself with the history of cinema showcased by what he calls ‘Zones of Death’ (1) (Bleeding Through companion book). As a viewer, it appears as if Klein first acquired a diverse set of databases of LA’s colorful past and wove the seemingly unconnected sets of evidences into a narrative. This issue forces us to differentiate between a database and a narrative, before we can attempt to blur those definitions.
Elsaesser mentions that interactive cinema is symptomatic of the role of moving image in an increasingly networked and digital world by asserting that the spectator is perpetually revising his own version of the history by investing himself/herself in newer forms of retroactive media that produces a constantly shifting paradigm of the past (2). Timothy Corrigan also mentions the importance of creating new interpretations of existing films by distancing oneself from historical and cultural ontologies (3). Kristen Daly’s Cinema 3.0 further problematizes the issue of historical indexicality in database cinema like Bleeding Through, by pointing out that navigating, intertextual linking and figuring out the rules of the fame provide primary pleasure for the viewer instead of indexical information. Certainly, a film like Bleeding Through relies on databases and narrative principles, and yet the viewer experiences a distance from both the narrative ideas and the history of LA.
The primary distinction between a database and a narrative is the fact that the former refuses to put data in order whereas the latter creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items. Lev Manovich prefers to see them as two competing imaginations to understand medium expression (4), although Kinder prefers to call them two ‘compatible sets of media’ that are crucial for the advancement of new media (5). Peter Greenway tries to reconcile the two by saying that structures of databases ground themselves in narrative principles (6), but Vertov on the other hand, describes Man with a Movie Camera as a summation of narrative techniques and structures of data (7).
Bleeding Through reminded me of Hito Steryl’s work on ‘Apophenia’ (perception of patterns within random data) when she says that the most common examples are of people seeing faces in clouds or on the moon. Apophenia is about ‘drawing connections and conclusions from sources with no direct connection other than their indissoluble perceptual simultaneity’ (8). In Bleeding Through, the process of navigating a complex database overpowers the viewer’s investment in LA’s history. Klein is not just looking at an existing database of archival work related to LA’s history and architecture, but he’s also creating his own database as he goes along by means of sketches, superimpositions of images and even voice-over narration. The data in his film is tiered, chaptered and codified for the audience. In certain ways, the third tier ‘what Molly barely noticed/ forgot to mention’ seems like an alternate version of repressed/ subjected alter-histories, which makes one question the completeness of a database.
- Klein, Norman M. The history of forgetting: Los Angeles and the erasure of memory. London: Verso, 2008.
- Kooijman, Jaap Willem. Mind the screen: media concepts according to Thomas Elsaesser. Amsterdam: Amsterdam Univ. Press, 2008.
- Alter, Nora M., and Timothy Corrigan. Essays on the essay film. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017
- Manovich, Lev, and Andreas Kratky. “Soft Cinema.” MIT Press. May 19, 2005. Accessed October 03, 2017. https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/soft-cinema.
- Kinder, Marsha. “DATABASE NARRATIVE.” Marsha Kinder. Accessed October 03, 2017. http://www.marshakinder.com/concepts/o3.html.
- Coonan, Clifford. “Peter Greenaway says cinema is dead.” October 09, 2007. Accessed October 03, 2017. http://variety.com/2007/film/markets-festivals/peter-greenaway-says-cinema-is-dead-1117973711/.
- Schenk, Sabine. Running and clicking: future narratives in film. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013.
- “A Sea of Data: Apophenia and Pattern (Mis-)Recognition.” A Sea of Data: Apophenia and Pattern (Mis-)Recognition – Journal #72 April 2016 – e-flux. Accessed October 03, 2017. http://www.e-flux.com/journal/72/60480/a-sea-of-data-apophenia-and-pattern-mis-recognition/.