The Aesthetics of Transmedia: In Response to David Bordwell (Part Two)

Today, I continue to share my responses to David Bordwell's recent blog post on transmedia storytelling. It is worth stressing that these are still early days in the evolution of transmedia narrative practices and even earlier in terms of our theoretical understanding of those practices. Exchanges like this one have the potential to help both critics and practitioners think more deeply about these developments. Every time I step in front of my transmedia class at USC, I feel like I am playing without a net and that's what makes the classroom experience so exciting. We are really thinking through a relatively new phenomenon together. And each set of questions which get posed will push all of us to dig a little deeper. Bordwell wrote:

For one thing, most Hollywood and indie films aren't particularly good. Perhaps it's best to let most storyworlds molder away. Does every horror movie need a zigzag trail of web pages? Do you want a diary of Daredevil's down time? Do you want to look at the Flickr page of the family in Little Miss Sunshine? Do you want to receive Tweets from Juno? Pursued to the max, transmedia storytelling could be as alternately dull and maddening as your own life.

There aren't that many films/franchises that generate profoundly devoted fans on a large scale: The Matrix, Twilight, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Star Trek, maybe The Prisoner. These items are a tiny portion of the total number of films and TV series produced. It's hard to imagine an ordinary feature, let alone an independent film, being able to motivate people to track down all these tributary narratives. There could be a lot of expensive flops if people tried to promote such things.

Well, actually, my bet is that Diablo Cody's penchant for snarky one-liners might have been better served if Juno had unfolded via Twitter rather than on the screen, there are many excellent comic book stories which center around the "downtime" of superheroes and thus focus on their alter egos, but I catch David's drift. I don't think that every fictional work should become a transmedia franchise, though I think the approach lends itself to a broader array of genres than simply the fantasy and science fiction franchises that have been its primary home to date.

For me, the core aesthetic impulses behind good transmedia works are world building and seriality. For this reason, the transmedia approach enhances certain kinds of works that have been udged harshly by traditional aesthetic criteria because they are less concentrated on plot or even character than more classically constructed narratives. It's long been a charge directed against science fiction works that they are more interested in mapping complex environments than in telling compelling stories. Many of my favorite SF novels -- Snow Crash for example -- break down into near incoherence by the end, yet they offer us richly realized worlds which I would love to be able to explore in greater detail than any one narrative allows. I might make the same argument about Martin Scorsese's The Gangs of New York: Marty got so invested in the historical background of his film that it sometimes swamps his characters and as a history buff, I kept wanting to stop the film and chase background figures down the street so that I could learn more about who they are and what they are doing. In some scenes, I was more interested in the extras than the protagonists.

I recently read an outstanding dissertation written by a recent UW-Madison graduate, Derick Johnson, who talks about "overdesign" as a principle driving contemporary media franchises: his example is Battlestar Galactica, which he suggests overflows with throwaway details which convince us that the depicted vents are unfolding in a world as rich and complex as our own. Speaking at last year's 5D event, I argued that the art director takes on new importance in transmedia franchises, becoming almost as central as the screenwriter or the director, in terms of adding to our understanding of the fictional world. We could go back to Syd Mead's contributions to Bladerunner for an example where much of our appreciation of the film stems from a complex and well considered rendering of a plausible future society. So, we can see many of the extensions around transmedia narratives as examples of this "overdesign," adding greater "texture" (to use a concept Johnson draws from Ron Moore) to our over-all experience. Such extensions may or may not add something key to the unfolding of the narrative, but they nevertheless impact our overall aesthetic experience.

All of this is to say that not every work should become transmedia, but we may not yet know enough to prejudge which works can be meaningfully enhanced through such an approach.

Bordwell writes:

film viewing is already an active, participatory experience. It requires attention, a degree of concentration, memory, anticipation, and a host of story-understanding skills. Even the simplest story gears up our minds. We may not notice this happening because our skills are so well-practiced; but skills they are. More complicated stories demand that we play a sort of mental game with the film. Trying to guess Hitchcock or Buñuel's next twist can engross you deeply. And the very genre of puzzle films trades on brain strain, demanding that the film be watched many times (buy the DVD) for its narrational stratagems to be exposed.

Here, I can only agree. Indeed, Bordwell's teaching shaped my own investment in the cognitive and social/cultural activities of film consumers, giving me a theoretical vocabulary to make sense of some of the things I'd experienced in and through fandom. I don't buy the "Lean back"/"Sit Forward" distinction offered by many transmedia advocates. That said, I do think that there is an increased awareness of audience activity driving the push towards transmedia storytelling.

Bordwell and others in the formalist tradition make a distinction between story and plot. The plot of the film is the sequence in which we encounter specific bits of information, while the story of the film is our mental construct which rearranges that information into a coherent sequence. So, a mystery may begin with the discovery of the body and work backwards (to show us the events which motivated the death) and forward (to show us how the detective put together the clues.) If we take this distinction between the sequencing and structuring of information, transmedia storytelling simply expands the scope of the process, allowing us to continue to collect and assemble clues once the specific unfolding of the film is completed.

Yet, in a networked culture, this ongoing process of information gathering, hypothesis testing, and interpetation/evaluation takes on a more profoundly social dimension. It is no longer something that occurs in a single mind during the two hours the film is unfolding; it is something which we do together, pooling resources, and comparing notes. Mimi Ito describes this as the "hypersocial" logic underlying Japanese media mix. Clearly this process is most vividly suggested by the Alternate Reality Game, where the information scavenger hunt becomes the driving force of the entertainment experience, but we can understand the dispersion of videos about the world of District 9 as also setting a similar process in motion.

Bordwell writes:

No narrative is absolutely complete; the whole of any tale is never told. At the least, some intervals of time go missing, characters drift in and out of our ken, and things happen offscreen. Henry Jenkins suggests that gaps in the core text can be filled by the ancillary texts generated by fan fiction or the creators. But many films thrive by virtue of their gaps. In Psycho, just when did Marion decide to steal the bank's money? There are the open endings, which leave the story action suspended. There are the uncertainties about motivation.....Many art works exploit that impulse by letting us play with alternative hypotheses about causes and outcomes. We don't need the creators to close those hypotheses down.

Geoff Long, a CMS graduate, has long advocated the use of the concept of "negative capability" to understand how gaps in the fiction incite certain forms of aesthetically pleasing speculations and anticipations. There is of course a complex dance between gaps and excesses where we are talking about narrative information. Johnson's "overdesign" may seem to provide "too much information" about the story world, yet for every new bit of information given, there are new spaces for speculation opened. We become like nagging five year olds who follow every explanation with a new question.

That said, most good transmedia artists know that there are certain gaps which should not be filled if they want to maintain interest in the series as a whole. There are certainly reasons to create ambiguities and uncertanties. We may offer more clues through other media, but we certainly don't want to destroy the mystery which makes such characters and worlds compelling in the first place. Fans resent the addition of information simply to close down avenues for speculation -- take, for example, the closing chapter of the last Harry Potter novel which amounted to J.K. Rowling spraying her territory telling us who married who and what they named their children even though most of that information had limited narrative impact and simply felt like she was trying to foreclose certain strands of fan expansion. In some cases, authors are better off allowing fans to create their own narratives, since the community will generate multiple explanations, much as critics will offer multiple accounts of what motivates Hamlet or Travis Bickle to do what they do.

Bordwell writes:

Storytelling is crucially all about control. It sometimes obliges the viewer to take adventures she could not imagine. Storytelling is artistic tyranny, and not always benevolent.

To me, the key word here is "sometimes." Bordwell is describing a particular kind of storytelling. It's no accident that critics of transmedia and interactivity almost always fall back on Alfred Hitchcock to illustrate their point. Hitchcock's works are certainly about control, shaping not only the sequencing of events and unfolding of information, but also playing around with the hierarchy of knowledge between the characters and the shaping of the point of view shots through which we see each moment of the film. Hitchcock famously slept on the set because he had thought all of this through before the cameras roll. So, yes, let's give Bordwell Hitchcock.

But, then give me Tim Burton, whose films are often sprawling messes, because he is so much more interested in art direction and world building than storytelling. I have limited interest in the plot of his version of Planet of the Apes, say, but I never cease to be amazed at the complex thinking which went into every aspect of the Ape cultures -- a classic example of Johnson's "overdesign" and "textures" in action. The human characters amount to cursers we deploy to navigate the fictional space and in that case, I would be quite happy to be free to explore this world on my own, digging deeper into details that don't happen to be required for the unfolding of a particular story but which deepen my experience of this imaginary culture. We can call Tim Burton a bad filmmaker because he doesn't need to exert this kind of "tryanical control" over the unfolding of information, but then how do you explain the pleasurable anticipation I have for his version of Alice in Wonderland, even though I know he will once again disappoint me as a storyteller.

So maybe Planet of the Apes is not a film I would go to the mat for. But if we shift media, I would argue that works like War and Peace or Moby-Dick or Dante's Inferno are much more invested in world-building than story-telling and that their authors seemed content to stop their novels dead in their tracks for pages on end as we wander through their fictionalized geography, trying to map its contours or understand the connections between scattered events. In both cases, what frustrates high school students who want them to get on with their stories is what has made them of lasting interest to critics who want to better understand the realms they are depicting. (It's no accident, I think, that some enterprising producer out there is trying to adopt the Divine Comedy into a transmedia franchise. Surely, that was Dante's plan all along.)

Clearly the author always exerts a certain degree of control over the unfolding of story information, but there are some authors who seek to create a more open text and others who seek to close down varying interpretations. I would say that so far transmedia storytelling has appealed to storytellers who want to open up greater freedom of interpretation rather than those who want to totally shape the reception of their work.