A few months ago I pulled Gene Youngblood’s classic Expanded Cinema (E.P. Dutton & Company, 1970, available online) off the shelf and read it again. The pages in my well worn softcover edition were falling out, the glue having dried over the two decades I’ve owned the book. The first time I read it was when I became interested in cinema in 1989 while living in San Francisco amidst a vibrant documentary and experimental media scene. Reading it again I was surprised, some parts of the book are still very fresh, yet, as we may expect, other parts are clearly a product of their time, however, this book is still a prophetic work of new media literature that belongs in the canon, forty years after its initial publication. Why?
Perhaps now, with the ability of everyone to “broadcast themselves” we might see some of the future that Younglood envisioned forty years ago. A media form in which the demands of commerce and narrative give way to personal experience, personal perceptions taking precedence over the demands of traditional narratives. As Youngblood challenges his readers then and now, we need to create new narratives that are authentic, based on our personal experience, and thus truly unique. We have the means of making, collaborating, and distribution in today’s internet-based mediascape to bring Youngblood’s vision of synaesthetic cinema alive.
The personal computer allows us to merge the traditions of photography, typography, graphic design, audio and moving image production, interactivity, interaction through sensors, and more, into an expanded palette of infinite possibilities that Lev Manovich refers to as “hybrid, intricate, complex and rich visual language” in The Language of New Media (Leonardo Books, MIT Press, 2006, p. 11), which I like to call computational media. It encompasses every conceivable media form in a computational environment, which essentially makes it a hyper-medium.
I prefer terms like computational media and hypermedia over multi-media or digital media. The important transformation in photography and cinematography has not been digitization, but the embodiment of the medium in a computational environment. Computation is what is truly new in new media. Now, forty years later, we are living in an environment that makes expanded cinema not only possible, but necessary. Youngblood suggests that artists are ecologist crafting the environment and that expanded cinema will bring art and life closer together. We have a ways to go before we achieve that vision. As the internet becomes a new space for commercial conquest and net neutrality is threatened, we must fight to preserve this brave new medium so we may see the vision of Expanded Cinema come alive in our lifetimes.
Anyone who makes or consumes media should read this book. It’s an essential component of our intellectual diet for a sane planet.