Advance Screening

When films or TV shows depict the internet, they confront their own limitations

The opening sequence of Black Mirror begins with a rotating spinner icon, indicating that the television screen on the British Channel 4 has become a computer screen on which something is being loaded. The title appears, but then t­­he screen cracks: It is as if the glass has been fractured precisely where the title appeared, broken by the content that it seeks to contain.

Black Mirror belongs to a growing class of cinematic depictions that seek to narrate the story of internet media, the very medium TV and filmic media are simultaneously being displaced by. These portrayals of technology share an aesthetic and narrative fracturing that speaks to the fragmentation of meaning-making in the digital age, as we shift from one medium of storytelling to another — from the authoritative, single-perspective frame of the motion picture to the interactive, infinite-perspective display of the computer screen.

While the web contains institutional structures, it allows, in its capacity for user participation, for an open-ended experience of any storyline where user choice plays a central role

Objective perspective, spatial and temporal linearity, and passive audience spectatorship are hallmarks of the cinematic age; but in the web era our mode of thought derives from non-linear narratives, multiple perspectives, and competing channels of representation. Tracing the depiction of internet media in film and television uncovers an old medium bending back on itself, with the rise of a novel medium that heralds new modes of structuring narrative, not just on our screens, but in our minds. The introduction of digital to filmic screens changes not only the way a film plot proceeds, but the way we process thought and derive meaning, the way our consciousness is shaped.

Screen-based media forms have historically encouraged passive spectatorship. One can trace a similarity between the way people watch movies and the way they look at photography or even paintings: A viewer stands before a screen and tries to see reality as that particular screen presents it. Prior visual media frequently preached the usage of visual elements to guide the viewer’s eyeline to the focal points of the image — the practice of mise-en-scène, which has been applied to painting, photography and film, often involved blocking to ensure the focus of the space remained on the protagonist. Old Hollywood favorites like It Happened One Night, Bringing Up and It’s a Wonderful Life were dominated by aesthetics designed to position the silver screen as a privileged lens on reality. These old movies exhibited unity in plot and visuals in order to distract from the constructed nature of the movie’s diegetic world. In these narrative arcs, the story moves forward in pace with the film reel, images flow seamlessly between edits, and the audience knows more than the characters do. These techniques — temporal linearity, continuity editing, and objective storytelling — create an outcome in which every visual and plot decision builds to a single logical narrative that is meant to serve as the sole window onto the world, allowing the audience to sit back and watch without questioning the role of the passive viewer.

Technologies that might complicate this dynamic could often be neatly contained by the conventions of classical storytelling. In Michael Gordon’s Pillow Talk (1959), two leads are repeatedly shown talking on the phone; the film employs a split-screen and distracts from the artificiality of this editing technique by creating visual matches between the images on either side. The actors move in symmetry, and this layout serves the greater narrative purpose by juxtaposing two characters who will be romantically joined by the end of the film. The telephone isn’t shown to complicate or refract the nature of “traditional” romantic bonds, nor does it challenge the primacy of one-on-one, in-person interaction. The film, like others of its era, produces the illusion of a world in which everything makes sense, in which a story can be told truthfully and completely by a unified perspective.

The viewer is complicit in meaning-making as they watch; the stories of the information age are crowd-sourced

Online media are not so easily contained within the confines of conventional cinematic storytelling. Social media open new dimensions for communication itself — not only the direct, disembodied voice, but the image, the statement, the video, sent and received among many others, instantly or with meaningful delay. They also change the dynamics by which communication happens, opening new channels for connection, and for interference. The interactive nature of digital media warps the historically one-way, passive spectator-screen relationship, posing a double challenge for cinema: how to depict new, complex forms of connection, and how to compete with the more complex narrative structures they beget. Internet narratives break apart traditional film images as much as the very institutional idea of who has the right to tell stories, who interacts with those stories, and what is considered a story at all.

For cinema to depict digital media with accuracy means grappling with its own historical limitations. Starting in the 2000s, the so-called Web 2.0 era involved open access collaboration, user-generated content, and network-based communication that created a two-way relationship in which users were both viewers and generators of content. While the web, like older forms of media, contains institutional structures like corporate social media platforms, it allows, in its capacity for user participation, for an open-ended experience of any storyline where the element of user choice plays a central role in determining the narrative the screen contains.

The computer screen is not merely a display tool on which a movie plays; it is part of a larger flexible, omnipresent network of devices. These devices have necessitated changes in cinematic techniques to accommodate interactivity, mixed media content, complex social networks and universal agency, all of which serve to call into question the objective frame of the film camera. In one Black Mirror episode, a device called the “grain” allows characters to edit recordings of their own lives, deleting portions, re-arranging moments and then organizing and labeling sequences into “albums.” The episode flits between third- and first-person perspectives on what the characters see, creating a constant juxtaposition between filmic and “real” narratives. The greater implication is that, with computer tools, the “viewer” becomes a “user” with the power to manipulate images through clicking and typing, moving us from an age of mass culture consumption to an age of mass culture production. Of course, Black Mirror plays on the viewer’s computer screen as one tab among many.

No single source of media can be held up as a potential objective representation of reality anymore; film and photography are positioned as single lenses in a huge multimedia matrix. In the opening and title sequences of the 2014 ABC series Selfie, a close-up on the main character Eliza is digitally altered to show her face framed in by the white and blue border of Instagram with its associated likes and comments below. This image presents a consolidation of external and internal, representing separate visualizations of experience in concurrent modes. Audiences must resolve this tension themselves; ultimately, this style of filmmaking pulls the viewer further out of the diegetic fiction of the film as they consider the mechanisms involved in creating representation.

Computer-based technologies fracture the previously unified narrative. In order for cinema to adapt, it has to bend back on the tropes it was founded on, letting them splinter

Audiences are also made aware that there are options for perspective in any given scene. Portrayals of 21st century life on the filmic screen must acknowledge the way modern technology provides constant reminders of the ways others experience the same phenomena. Scenes from the 2014 film Men, Women and Children show the characters’ social media activity constantly popping up over their heads; programs like Sherlock often feature sequences where web messages pop up all over the screen in shots with wide depths of focus. Sequences like these demonstrate both a visual and narrative fragmentation wherein the source of the story is generated from multiple focal points, and from multiple characters all with their own separate narrative arcs. They also offer the viewer a choice of where to concentrate their attention, giving them subjective authority over their experience of the narrative, subverting the traditionally passive audience-screen relationship of cinema. The viewer is complicit in meaning-making as they watch; the stories of the information age are crowd-sourced.

The new ways information is experienced cannot be unified by a linear plotline. A major global event might be understood through Twitter timeline-scrolling, piecing together statements — expressive, informational, abstract — from different people in different parts of the world, at various response stages and with various stakes. A relationship enacted in text messages and emails might be re-lived differently after the fact, through evidence that points to a separate narrative than what was experienced. This is reflected in filmic and television narratives by the splintering of character relations, particularly in romantic films. In the contemporary romance Her, technology is the source of separation for its leads, Theo, and an operating system named Samantha. Dorien Zandbergen observes that “While for Theodore, Samantha is the One and Only, Samantha has thousands of simultaneous connections with virtual other entities.” At the film’s conclusion, Theo learns that Samantha has been talking with thousands of other users and engaging in romantic relationships with hundreds of them.

Characters are embedded in managing multiple relationships at once; when characters do connect with each other in this new media ecosystem, the politics of relationships have altered. Sequences in modern films such as The Fault in Our Stars or LOL depict characters waiting for each other to message back as well as sequences where characters both talk in person and text other people at once. These cinematic narratives exhibit social relations that are geographically fragmented, temporally unstable and perspective-wise uncertain. Contrast this conclusion with Pillow Talk, where the film narratively and visually joins the two characters together in a monogamous union, therefore producing a single unified narrative without loose ends. Computer-based technologies change the way media operates as a tool of communication, establishing complex matrices of relationships in a way that fractures the previously unified narrative. In order for cinema to adapt, it has to bend back on the tropes it was founded on, letting them splinter.

The opening sequence of Black Mirror exhibits the screen “breaking” — the single unified filmic image can no longer serve as sole witness to experience, or even to imagined futures. Depicting the computer screen requires the filmic screen to fracture into a collage of multiple narratives, diverse mediums and infinite data. In the show’s first episode, “National Anthem,” YouTube gives a single rogue artist/terrorist the ability to take over a national television broadcast, blackmailing the British prime minister, and demonstrating the individual’s newfound power to disseminate his own vision in place of the perspectives of established institutions. The power to disseminate narrative no longer originates only with the film camera’s individual eye, but with unpredictable sources from among the technologically-empowered masses.

Our experience of media has always been deeply tied to our experience of reality as a whole; media provides a means of accessing reality beyond the purely physical. Prior screen technologies presented facsimiles of reality in the form of painting, photography or film; as described above, many fundamental film techniques are predicated on creating the illusion that the viewer is seeing a narrative reality rather than a staged fiction. Such an illusion is now impossible to sustain. Our experience of social reality is refracted among the media we use to connect with each other; no one of us can claim objectivity, or ignore the experiences of others. Our expectations of narrative have evolved in step. Filmic depictions of online life reflect the contrast between the grassroots, crowd-sourced nature of web narratives and the institutionalized control held by prior sources of mass media like television and film; they are ways in which cinema acknowledges and accepts the diminishing of its power.

Cynthia X. Hua is a researcher working on Internet media ecosystems. She has studied web video at Hulu, BuzzFeed and Facebook Video.