A Book Review by T. R. Merchant-Knudsen.
A fantastic meditation on post-cinema that begs the reader to consider both the horrors and possibilities afforded with technological advancements.”
2020 was a year in which everyone had to deal with the consequences of screens, digital media, and the implications of how people feel when they are forced to stare at them for days on end. In an era saturated with digital media, film and media scholars are left to grapple with the concept of post-cinema – when filmmaking moves from celluloid to digital. Oddly enough, Shane Denson’s book Discorrelated Images (Duke University Press, 2020) could not have been released at a better time. It carefully examines the post-cinematic age of digital images and goes as far as to theorize how these images work for audiences. Denson positions the goal of his book within the first sentence: “Discorrelated Images explores the transitional space-time between cinema and post-cinema” (1). His phenomenological and epistemological examination of film and media studies questions space, time, and how an audience begins to feel the images as “discorrelated” from themselves – the moment in which rationality with temporal and spatial grounding becomes questioned, provoked, and prodded. His incredibly clear introduction examines long-take introductions to Gravity (2013), Lost (2004-2010), and the video game Metroid Prime (2002) to showcase discorrelation. In each of these examples of one-takes, the audience is both positioned alongside the subject by inhabiting a character’s point-of-view and then suddenly bring the object of their gaze back into view. He argues that this feeling exemplifies the post-cinema movement as media moves closer to embracing more technological advancements in the digital age.
Part One of Discorrelated Images, “Theorizing Discorrelation” contains three chapters that begin to shape Denson’s methodology and approach. “Crazy Cameras” continues the introduction’s look at “post-cinematic cameras” by discussing how they present a “reconfiguration of affective embodiment” (22-3). He first examines CGI-generated lens flares to set up the disjunction of how an audience will both feel implicated by and discorrelated from the false lights that remind viewers of the artificiality of the digital images. Then, he moves into ideas of “metabolic images,” which he defines as images that act outside of human control – similar to metabolic processes of one’s body (42). The images seemingly act as moments of extreme information overload and apart from human interaction, as seen in Shane Carruth’s films on time travel and ecology. The next chapter, “Dividuated Images,” then anticipates possible objections to the discorrelated images by examining glitches and compression that come into being without the expressed desire of a human subject (58). This is perhaps the densest chapter of the book; Denson recontextualizes Gilles Deleuze’s ideas of dividuation in the digital age, discusses the substrate/form divide, and provides a glance at mediality to proclaim how a “viewer’s body must essentially resonate with the frequencies of the electronic image, be affectively tuned to it in order for perception to take place” (67). However, “Screen Time,” the following chapter, brings these high-concept discussions into perspective by thinking about streaming, the processes at work behind the image, and the work that happens outside of human perception. Examining Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018), Denson discusses how the viewer’s choices in the narrative never stop the film in its tracks; loading times and choices are presented with accompanying scenes that essentially fill the time it takes for the stream to load invisibly from a viewer’s perception (83). The time process is external to the human body and acts outside of the realm of human interaction.
Part Two, “Making Sense of Discorrelation,” uses the theory throughout Part One to showcase an idea of how film and media scholars can begin to approach examples in film and media studies. While Denson still builds theory throughout, the second half of the book seems more concerned with utilizing the theory to discuss examples in the digital age. “Life to Those Pixels” discusses animation in the digital age, specifically around CGI animation and the utilization of discorrelation in films about AI and robots, like Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Ex-Machina (2014). Denson states that the goal of this chapter is to examine animation, specifically of self-reflexive spectacles much like spectacles of the cinema of attractions, and what it “can tell us about post-cinema’s understanding of itself, about our situation in the world, and about the role played by discorrelated images in shaping a posthuman future” (114). “The Horrors of Discorrleation,” the following chapter, dissects Unfriended (2014) and how the film plays with our expectations when screened on computer screens. Examining the film’s presentation as a computer screen, his connection to side-channel attacks, computer hacking, and then finally online shorts about terrorism, plays into the themes of the film as it shows glitches and computers acting outside of human action; the horror, then, comes from a loss of humanity. The book comes to a strong conclusion in “Post-Cinema After Extinction,” which examines art installations by Grégory Chatonsky, dystopia images in films, and the video game Nier: Automata (2017) to find out how media is already fascinated by the extinction of humanity. These post-cinematic objects “envision and transmit affective clues about a world without us, a world beyond so-called correlationism, a world that arises at the other end of the Anthropocene” (194). It’s not a dreary end to the book, though; in fact, it asks the reader to be hopeful about the ways in which humanity exists in echoes after everyone is gone. Instead of thinking about the ending as just an ending, it asks the reader to consider how we might already be there and how we can come to terms with the advancing technology now.
Overall, Discorrelated Images is a fantastic meditation on post-cinema that begs the reader to consider both the horrors and possibilities afforded with technological advancements. Shane Denson’s book attempts to bridge many examples and ideas throughout, and the impact result is mostly successful; if there are any negatives with the book, it concerns the density of the theory and missed opportunities that perhaps lend a hand towards allowing other academics to step in and build upon Denson’s ideas. As previously mentioned, this book is dense; Denson juggles Gilles Deleuze, Bruno Latour, Vivian Sobchack, Steven Shaviro, and so many more film theorists that create a flurry of high concept ideas. It may require an additional read-through – or two or three. Additionally, Denson’s breadth of examples both comes with praise and missed opportunities. While Denson mentions a slew of examples in the second part, there are instances where the examinations could be more in-depth. For instance, Denson paints Samantha from Her (2013) as being heard but not seen; however, what about the animations on computer and phone screens in the film? While she does not appear as a humanoid in animation, like those in Blade Runner 2049 and Ex-Machina, it can be interesting to explore the effect as it works for non-humanoid animations. This is not a bad thing though on Denson’s part; it allows the reader to ask these questions more directly and begin to participate in the mode of thinking that Denson is providing. Shane Denson’s clear definitions and willingness to continuously refer back and forth to other parts of the book allows the definitions to constantly build upon themselves. The book has this reader brainstorming how discorrelation can fit in with these and other objects. With COVID-19 having ushered a new era of streaming, we are engaging with post-cinematic structures constantly and now have to come to terms with how these technologies amplify us and exist outside of us.
T. R. Merchant-Knudsen has a Master’s in English with a concentration in film and media studies from North Carolina State University. He is an instructor, teaching assistant, and the Image Editor for Film International. His writing has been published in Film Matters, Film International, Language Literature and Interdisciplinary Studies, and Southeast Asian Review of English. His interests in film and media studies are on phenomenology, animation, sound design and music, and narratives within spectacular media environments.