Gilbey on Film: virtual reality bites

What happens when directors venture into cyberspace?

In the week that brings the release of Tron: Legacy, the new Disney blockbuster set inside a computer system where gladiatorial combat and neon are the new big things, I read that the 87-year-old film-maker and perpetual adventurer Chris Marker has set up shop in virtual reality. The latest issue of Film Comment reports that Marker, director of La jetée, Sans Soleil and AK, has built a museum in the sky of Second Life, that virtual world where users pilot their avatars through a plasticised parallel reality in which everything seems to be the colour of sports-casual wear on a Florida golf course (at least to these Luddite eyes).

Should you wish to explore the byways of Marker's museum, make a note of these numbers: 187, 61, 39. Those are either the Second Life co-ordinates, or the bus routes that will get you where you're going. Once you've reached the museum's skywalk, writes Film Comment's Jesse P Finnegan, what awaits you inside is a "digital Xanadu . . . strewn with cat-shaped coves, roving humpbacks, a castle keep, and a downed 747 . . . secreted hidden goodies in the nooks and crannies; animated loops, ironically reimagined silent movie posters, and a snapshot of Marker's feline alter-ego, Guillaume, visiting an SL version of Lenin's tomb".

Second Life has already hosted film premieres, but the participation of someone as esteemed and rigorous as Marker brings a hint of class to an enterprise that, for many of us, has never quite shaken its connotations of Dungeons and Dragons. (Not to mention the lunacy of users paying actual money to buy virtual real estate, in an ironic reversal of the situation that precipitated the recession – that is, actual real estate bought with virtual money.) My first thought on hearing about Marker's involvement was: "Maybe Second Life isn't a waste of time after all." This was followed swiftly by: "Peter Greenaway's going to be kicking himself when he hears about this: 'What am I supposed to do with all these bloody CD-Roms?' "

It's possible that there will always be something inherently ridiculous about cinema's dalliances with the virtual realities of cyberspace. Could it be that the art form is too much a limitless virtual reality already? Any portrait of a cyber world can only seem inhibited by comparison. Look at Cocteau's Blood of a Poet, or the original 1985 version of A Nightmare on Elm Street, or the recent Coraline, or anything by Buñuel or Polanski – these films establish quickly and vividly the contours of their respective alternative existences with a formalist authority that makes, say, the Matrix sequels, or the Tron movies, seem improvised and off-the-cuff.

I've reviewed Tron: Legacy in this week's NS Christmas Special, but regardless of that film's strengths or weaknesses, it belongs to a tradition of cinematic storytelling that has to work overtime to impress and convince. Suspension of disbelief is a given when we enter a cinema – we may be handing over cash at the popcorn counter, but I always feel like I'm checking in some of my churlish everyday scepticism as well.

A double suspension is asked of us by pictures like The Lawnmower Man, Virtuosity or Disclosure (which ends with a cringe-making cyber-showdown); in those cases, the correlation between the corporeal world and its cyber stand-in is so flimsy that the stakes tend to fall to the point of being negligible.

Better for a film-maker to spike the visual excesses of these brave new worlds with scepticism. When Kathryn Bigelow, in Strange Days, or David Cronenberg, in eXistenZ, ventured into the virtual, they did so not to dazzle, but to disorientate. The worlds created in those films are unsettling yet still vaguely familiar – the ad-agency gloss of the fantasies in Strange Days, the humdrum griminess (a factory, a petrol station) of the locations in eXistenZ.

Bigelow and Cronenberg showed that virtual reality offers not an escape from our daily problems and neuroses, but a mirror in which they are magnified to new and horrific proportions.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times