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The Eyeball: Playing in “Living Structures”

BMW has hired John Frankenheimer, Ang Lee and Wong Kar Wai to make a series of short films for the Web. "The Hire" (www.bmwfilms.com), with David Fincher as executive producer, features an intrepid BMW driver speeding around in ultra-kinetic car chase sequences and blazing machine gun battles. The marketing rationale makes sense: 85 percent of BMW’s customers go online before making a purchase, according to company spokesperson, Karen Vandermeulen. For the directors, BMW offered "complete creative control," which might explain why these A-list cinematic talents were happy to work on the Web.

I mention the BMW campaign because this amalgam of Hollywood and new media sends out a very different message about the state of the industry than another story I heard a few weeks ago, from the director of a San Francisco animation company. Visiting a pitch meeting with some TV producers in L.A., a friend advised the director against using the word "Internet." It was a banned word. Mentioning "the Internet" was one of those things Never to Say in a Pitch, like "satire," or "Spinal Tap," or any of those good things which, for one reason or another, have never made much money for the movie industry.

While the BMW ads have high production values and talented directors, as an online endeavor, they are unambitious. They are linear, and completely non-interactive. This is product-placement cinema, delivered to a niche demographic online. Is it even "Internet content"? The phrase sounds odd to me, probably because it’s associated with dead content companies and experimental or second-rate work that nobody wanted to watch. While this campaign signals the maturing of the Web as a medium for A-list talent, it could equally suggest that the Web is coming to resemble TV in the 1950s, when the programs were funded by corporate sponsors. If so, it seems like a wasted opportunity to do something new, because there are sites out there for which "Internet content" still seems the right phrase, and that deserve to survive.

Marrowmonkey.com, created by digital artist Erik Loyer, is one of my current favorites. The site features a work called Chroma, an unfolding narrative with game-like interactivity and puzzle elements, which begins with a lecture from a mysterious doctor. Eons ago, says Dr. Anders, human beings inhabited a realm known as mnemonos, filled with a substance called marrow — a "natural cyberspace" that transmitted information just as air transmits sound. All our modern electronic devices are an "expression of yearning" to return to that place. Anders has selected three humans for rebirth as "marrow monkeys." Chroma follows the monkeys on their journey. Borrowing a trick from computer adventure games, the player has to solve one level before reaching the next.

Chroma is beautiful, fun, and could only exist on the Internet. BMW would probably not fund it. Loyer is seeking an alternative form of patronage — credit card donations from fans. Meanwhile, he’s created a manifesto for Internet content. "Resist the epic," he declares, "Embrace the bounded." What he means is that interactive artists are too influenced by the central position of the Hollywood movie in our culture. Attempting to emulate the epic aesthetic of "Gladiator" or "Pearl Harbor," digital designers ignore the beauty of their own, less grandiose — but no less significant — modes of creativity. Awestruck by the epic, "designers begin to value static information relationships over dynamic ones, hoping to maintain authorial presence and control in the work to the fullest extent possible," writes Loyer. "As a result, users are left to plod through dead structures instead of playing in living ones."

I have my own campaign to "resist the epic." I’ve made a short film for Docuweb.org about a homeless woman with cancer. It’s part of a series of films, called "Essays on Docs," in which documentary filmmakers reflect on the nature of the filmmaking process. New York director Doug Block, who set up the project, sees "Essays on Docs" as a prototype for more ambitious online documentary collaborations, involving interaction via e-mail or videoconference between viewers, directors and perhaps interviewees themselves. You certainly don’t want to say the word "documentary" in a Hollywood pitch meeting. But, like Marrowmonkey, Docuweb is worth watching, if only to understand the creative potential of streaming.

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