Slideshow science on the silver screen

//Some extracts from a paper from last year that developed into an extended examination of Al Gore’s attempt in An Inconvenient Truth to bring powerpoint pedagogy to cinema screens worldwide.

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[…] Rarely have movie-going audiences been treated to what is essentially a science lecture transferred onto the silver screen for widespread cinematic release, and the hope is that some of these distinctive visual aspects of the film can be used as potential touchstones from which to further explore existing ideas around visual rhetoric. This paper will begin by looking at the three different mediums interwoven within the film’s visual canvas: visualization, powerpoint, and documentary movies. […]

Visualizations

After Gore, the other central character of the film is that of the slides themselves: the visualized representations of scientific data whose role it is throughout the film to present Gore’s case in as readily understandable a visual form as possible. Whether used specifically in a digital slideshow such as Gore’s, or as a growing feature of a number of other media formats, visualization is becoming a regular performer in the visual landscapes of today. As such perhaps it was only a matter of time before visualization was given a starring role by Hollywood. […]

[…] Such a practice of the “visualization of everything,” as it grows alongside a similar contemporary interest in the designing of all forms of information, has a potential to push visual meaning into a kind of transparent ubiquity. In a variety of disciplines it is as if it is no longer enough to simply say what you want to say. In a chapter titled ‘The Breakout of the Visual,’ Jay David Bolter (2009, p.54) describes just such a tendency towards a culture (or cult) of the visual, in which the image is everything and where even straightforward visualizations such as the bar graph “no longer seem to carry conviction without the reappearance as a picture of the imagery that was latent in them”:

the need to make a visually interesting picture has overridden the needs of the graph. It is as if the designers no longer trusted the arbitrary symbolic structure of the graph to sustain its meaning, as if writing as a texture of arbitrary signs were coming undone to reveal the icons that are assumed to lie “beneath” its surface. (Bolter 2009, pp.52-3)

Poet and science enthusiast Paul Valéry reportedly once said, “To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.” Partly what this paper is attempting is to treat the surface content of Gore’s heavily visualized presentation as just such a transparent texture of arbitrary signs, in order that one might change tact and ask, at least for a moment, what is the nature and message of visualization itself? What in fact is it that we are seeing – and forgetting – when we draw so strongly on the use of visualization and other visual techniques as a way of making sense of things?

“the need to make a visually interesting picture has overridden the needs of the graph” (USA Today graphic and quote from Bolter 2009)

[…] Just as eighteenth century orreries simulated the orbits of planets and moons through a system of gear ratios, Gore’s carefully aligned visualizations and slides act as a set of rhetorical and visual gears that he can manually rotate on the screens in front of us. For Tufte (1990, p.33) the key in any visualization is that the gears at work in this cognitive art should be as transparent as possible: “By giving the focus over to data rather than data-containers, these design strategies are transparent and self-effacing in character. Designs so good that they are invisible.” Gore, in the role of the presenter of this information, can be seen to be enacting just such a design principle throughout the film, even in the way in which he attempts to present his own character in a similarly transparent and self-effacing manner. This rhetorical positioning by Gore, of giving the impression of letting the visualizations speak for themselves, is the first of several examples in which we can detect competing forces at work. For despite this attempt on Gore’s part to let the data speak for itself, we are continually made aware of Gore’s presence as the visible hand that turns the invisible gears of the visualizations. Gore may try to position himself on the one hand as an impartial presenter of objective scientific data, but there is a sense in which he can’t ever really escape his central role as the unmistakably visible container of this data. […]

Powerpoints

Gore opts for the medium of a computer generated slideshow presentation to present this array of visualizations – what is commonly referred to as a ‘powerpoint.’ While Gore does in fact use Apple’s Keynote software, we use this lower-cased form of Microsoft’s popular slideshow programme as a generic umbrella term throughout the paper because it seems the most fitting in the way that the term itself points to the visual power struggles we are aiming to highlight in this examination, and also the way in which it captures both the corporately branded nature of its upper-cased namesake and the metonymic quality of a medium whose automated ubiquity has become so deeply embedded in language and practice (similar to a ‘xerox’ or the act of ‘googling’). As one reviewer of the film puts it (Harsin 2006), the status of this medium in the culture of today is one that is widely perceived as being “both a great innovation and a technology that threatens to undermine the ancient art of rhetoric by automating it.” Gore, already known for his wooden style, is at risk of looking even more the automaton in his use of powerpoint, and it is partly this perceived programmed nature of the powerpoint presentation that Gore and the filmmakers have to address in their decision to make such heavy use of it in a contrasting medium like that of film. […]

presenter-presentation

[…] Gore also has to work against what Tufte (2003, p.8) calls the “bureaucratic hyper-rationalism” that is the default cognitive norm of powerpoints. For artist David Byrne (2003), this hyper-rationalism is something like a pseudoscience of “recombinant phrenology,” whose visual logic verges on the surreal in its “rigorous methodology that follows nonrational rules.” In this sense, the objectivity of the data, already subject to a sense of tonal slippage in its visualized form, is under further threat by audiences weary of the tired tropes, both visual and cognitive, now so readily associated with this medium. An online video lobbying against the film, ‘Al Gore’s Penguin Army,’ partly plays off of these various connotations, with Gore depicted as a murmuring hypnotist, putting audiences (and penguins) to sleep with the drab magic of his grey slides.

[…] These are some of the central features of the medium of powerpoint which, even in its relatively short lifespan, is already characterized by several relatively concrete visual norms that are a result of what Crary (1992, p.38) might call its current status as a “compulsory site from which vision can be conceived or represented.” On the surface level, Gore uses the medium as a tool to easily move through his numerous visualizations. The mechanical gear-like nature of the medium, like the visual technologies of earlier centuries, might be said to lend a sense of ordered mechanical objectivity to the scientific data on show, with Gore as a kind of “post-Kantian subject who is ‘the organizer of the spectacle in which he appears’” (Crary 1992, p.92). But beneath this surface veneer there are added complexities, particularly in the dynamic interaction between this presenter, his audience and the shared site of the slides. […] It is just such “compulsory” and dynamic characteristics of the medium of powerpoint that we want to keep at the forefront of analysis when thinking about its presence and role within the piece as a whole.

Movies

[…] cinema, just like powerpoint, is a medium with its own set of dominant codes and conventions, which anyone operating within its domain will inevitably find themselves framed by in one way or another. In creating a filmed documentary of Gore’s presentation, the movie’s creators were presented with several challenges on the visual front which they felt they would have to address. In a Film&Video interview (Frazer 2006), director Davis Guggenheim and editor Dan Swietlik outline several of the visual specifics and various techniques employed in their attempts to “translate” Gore’s presentation into a style that would work in a movie setting.

There’s 35mm and 16mm. A lot of the stuff on the farm I just shot myself on 8mm film. We used four Sony F950 HDCAMs for the presentation. We shot three different kinds of prosumer HD, both 30 and 24. There’s MiniDV, there’s 3200 black-and-white stills, there’s digital stills […] There was three or four different types of animation. One of the animators is from New Zealand and emailed me his work. There’s JPEG stuff. Some of the animation was derived on Al’s computer, on his Keynote. A lot of his graphs we redesigned, but when we did this rear-screen projection – which is another whole thing, a 90-foot wide screen rear projection, with this fusion technology to stitch two images together — the only thing we didn’t use was charcoal drawings. I don’t know what else we could have used. Some of our footage, like some of the stuff from Katrina, was this news feed. And the only source was VHS tape. […] Yes, it would have been a lot easier to use one format, but there wasn’t one format. […] If it all looked like one format, I don’t think it would have had the same impact. And part of the power is cutting from Gore on stage with this crisp, hard data to more impressionistic memory stuff.

[…] In other words, the various aesthetics of each of these formats are being used as specific framing devices for the content being delivered. And the aesthetic context is derived from the understanding that as a film aimed at relatively wide release in movie houses across the globe, Gore’s vehicle would be entering into a competitive arena consisting of, amongst other things, several established and defining aesthetic visual norms. For instance, while clearly situating itself in a factual rather than fantastical realm, the film could (and was by many of its reviewers) be compared on one level to the eco-disaster blockbuster, a genre heavily defined by its use of state of the art computer graphics to achieve believable presentations of an ecological apocalypse. […]

a tale of two posters

[…] It is small wonder then that several reviewers of An Inconvenient Truth chose to single out the scene in the film featuring a distinctly low-definition looking computer-generated animation of a struggling polar bear as something that looked glaringly out of place on a movie screen. Both the medium and the genre here, defined as they each are by norms of hi-definition imagery, immediately cast an inquisitive spotlight on images working against this particular norm. A reviewer in The Village Voice (Nelson 2006) almost half-seriously claimed this medium maligning scene as an unwitting, visually emoting triumph for the film’s message: “That sad CG creature, left to drown in warm arctic water, emotes more poignantly than Gore or even the prehistoric casualties of Ice Age: The Meltdown—a crucial achievement for a summer movie whose truth runs the risk of remaining merely inconvenient if it can’t compete with fiction.” We might describe this as an example of secondary symbolism scrambling its way onto the level of the primary, where the surface symbolism has in this instance become rather slippery in the way that the structural (i.e. medium-based, genre-defined) coherence is weak enough that such alternative impressions can readily override the primary content of a scene. As closely focused as the film’s makers were on the various grains of film stock used, it would seem that the film, in at least some instances, rather unwittingly invites readings against its grain. […]

Duelling mediums

As we have been hinting at in the above sections, while An Inconvenient Truth’s message and intent may be relatively straightforward, there are underlying tensions and instabilities to the interplay of the multiple visual discourses at work in the film. One central such tension is that of the duelling mediums of powerpoint and cinema. […]

[…] In addition to the examples of medium specific dissonances already cited, there is the continuing issue of Gore being asked by the duelling logics of powerpoint and film to be both a lecturer and film star at the same time. […]

Even in the purportedly more objective material displayed in the visualizations, Rosteck & Frentz (Rosteck & Frentz 2009, pp.10-11) point to a secondary symbolism in which the story of global warning is mirrored against Gore’s own journey to such a degree that, in seeing Gore practically engulfed by the enlarged slides behind him, the statistical narratives of global warming and his own personal history become so rhetorically and visually intertwined that it becomes difficult to disentangle the two. […] For instance, Gore’s humble on stage posture and presentation style is intercut with filmic clips in which we see another vision of Gore, “in silhouette, back lit, looking again like a leader or a hero as he emerges from the wings onto another stage to give ‘the slide show’” (Rosteck & Frentz 2009, p.13).

hagiographic cinematogoraphy

One could even go so far as to propose that in the scene where Gore walks from left to right across the stage as the famous ‘hockey stick’ climate change graph is plotted out above him, at a subconscious level this upwardly sloping curve that follows Gore across the stage is nothing more than a visual transcription of his mythic journey, followed as it is at the end with Gore being dramatically elevated into the heavens. While such a reading of the scene may be dismissed as wilfully quirky or abstruse, one could counter that by this time in the film there has been built up a sufficient underlying sense of multiple levels of visual idiosyncrasies – to the effect that Gore’s visual stunt is as much a nod to the very recombinant and phrenological eccentricities of the proceedings as it is a comedic gesture. As we have tried to suggest in this section, regardless of whether or not one chooses to make such individual readings of the visuals on offer, the various logics at work in the mediums themselves – particularly those inherent and potentially “duelling” differences between them – are very much at the core of any such contrasting visual discourses that might make for more than just a sideshow to this particular slideshow.

Sublime scenes

[…] Oravce highlights several of the leading conventions that can be found in images aimed at representing a sense of the sublime in nature. One such central trope of sublime imagery is the way in which it aims “to position the viewer with respect to specific social, political, or ethical issues” (Oravec 1996, p.66). The artist can do this by placing visible observers within the landscape they are depicting, with these observing figures functioning as stand-ins for the external viewer of the image.

visual stand-ins

As Rosteck & Frentz (2009) point out in their own reading of Oravec, Gore functions as just such a positioning object, with the filmmakers placing his personal story within both a literal and narrative landscape of global warming. Thus in the pastoral shots of Gore walking through the fields of his family farm or others of him looking pensively out of airplane windows, the audience are being provided with a kind of field guide of visual indicators as to how they are supposed to respond to both the beauty and destruction of nature being shown on screen. Within this overall pedagogy of presentation, Gore is portrayed as the ideal subject position, whose particular postures and vantage points viewers are encouraged to adopt in their own perspectives on nature.

In addition to such an ideal subject position the viewer is also presented with several of what can be referred to as ideal images. […] in the presentation we see the iconic Earthrise and Blue Marble images used several times. These can also be understood to act as similar kinds of visual touchstones, pictures that move the image discourse to a level of the sublime in their evocation of a sense of an irreducible monumentality. This imagery can also be called “ideal” in the sense that it can function, at one level, as a kind of visual override to any questions viewers may have as to the accuracy of the other more readily quantifiable and data-dependent visualizations. These ideal images perform a rhetorical trick for Gore in the way that they hint at a kind of transcendental quality inherent to the natural world, one that is beyond questioning or reproach.

sublime/sublimating images – Earthrise

The regularly shifting positions of spectatorship that we have portrayed as being a central aspect of the film’s visual interplay can also seen to be duplicated in the very nature of sublime images themselves. For in such ideal images we are given what Oravec (1996, p.65) describes as “the feeling of both being in the scene and also being outside of it, viewing it (and onself) from a higher or more distant perspective.” Viewing the Earth from an idealised subject position in space, as we do in the Earthrise and Blue Marble images, permits us a kind of ecstasy (ekstasis) of standing outside our usual position as subjects of terra firma, whilst simultaneously reminding us, as Gore indeed does, of our place as shared subjects of the very scene which we are observing. Such a shifting, self-reflexive viewpoint is one that sublime images of nature regularly adopt, and Gore, whether intentionally or not, can be seen to be mirroring this rhetoric of being both within the scene and outside of it, not only in several of the images he uses but even in the way that he makes a point to visually place himself within the slides themselves – slides which, it should be pointed out, have been blown up to sublime proportions for the monumental screen that fills the landscape of his stage.

As noted earlier, Gore’s narrative journey can be said to be echoed and visually transcribed in scenes such as the one where we see him walking from left to right across stage while the curve of the visualization follows after him, tracing his journey in the space just above his head. This scene is perhaps the best example of Gore employing various forms of visual rhetoric to make his point. The scene ends with Gore using a mechanical lift to raise himself off the stage so that he can directly point with his hand at the particularly high levels of the ‘hockey stick’ set of scientific projections. In doing so, Gore adds an extra level of scale to the scene, using his own body as a visual measuring stick in the scene in order to emphasize the towering nature of the projected figures. There is a sense that Gore is both actively inside the image, in the way that with a little mechanical aid he can navigate across this rocky landscape, but also nothing more than a passive outside observer, situated on the edge of the picture and dwarfed by its relentlessly upward sloping curve. The darkness of the impenetrable black background of the screen only further emphasizes that sense of the infinite void that often lies at the heart of scenes of the sublime. The humour that Gore brings to this visual trick of his works as an offset intended to “leaven the grim grist” (Scott 2006) of the picture he is painting. It is the most successful visual moment in the film, a brief instance in which Gore is able to acknowledge key aspects of all three mediums in which he is working and to simultaneously harmonize and harness them towards adding effective emphasis to his central argument. […]

uplifting visual counterpoint

A subtle system of feints

[…] Rather than simply summing up all of these points once again in a few concluding lines, let us introduce one final piece of imagery and analysis that vividly encapsulates many of the complexities of visual discourse that we have been attempting to capture in the form of this essay. For Michel Foucault, in his close examination of the Velázquez painting Las Meninas, has provided a rather ideal theoretical account of the kind of “subtle system of faints” (Foucault 2001, p.3) which we are suggesting underpins so much of the visual discourse in An Inconvenient Truth. In other words, we finish by enacting a bit of recombinant phrenology of our own, superimposing the analyses of these two visual artefacts in a kind of ekphrastic fugal finale to this particular composition.

an inconvenient painting – Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656)

To begin with, Gore, as an artist working in the medium of a powerpoint presentation, could be said to take on the role of an embodied version of the Velázquez we see looking out at us in Las Meninas. Gore stands for the qualities of his canvas, outlining its relevance in his presentation and emphasizing his role as its author. He is able to make sense of and present to us the invisible canvas of global warming, the looming frame of which we are aware of, but whose visible surface we can’t quite see ourselves. This is indeed the surface discourse of the film – Gore is here to paint a picture of global warming to us. But it is not as simple as that; slippage occurs. For Gore is himself the subject of another’s gaze, namely that of the documentary crew who provide us with this portrait of Gore painting the scene for us. And while we may not see the film crew, we feel their presence in the heavy editing of the film. […]

[…] In the film we are also made aware of a layering affect, that of the screen of the powerpoint within the silver screen of the film, just as we are presented with a canvas within a canvas in Las Meninas. As observers of these multiple canvases we are treated to equally complex subject positions of our own. On the one hand, we are a central part of the picture Gore paints, living in the same world he is describing, and subject to (or soon to be) the various effects that we see presented before us. Just as in the painting, the gaze of the artist and the model look straight at us, making us feel our presence as subjects in their world (soon to be captured for good on the canvas being painted in front of us). In doing so, Gore regularly reminds us of our position as sovereigns of this very environment we live in, capable of both objectively analysing the visual information presented before us and of directly modifying our relationship to the world we live in. Velázquez also enacts such a placing of a burden of power onto the viewer in the way he puts us in the very position of the king and queen, whose faint reflection we can make out in the background mirror and whose on-looking presence we feel everywhere in the painting. Raised to the level of the sublime however, this sense of sovereignty, of seeing the whole from a position of power, can double back on us. As discussed in regards to sublime images such as Earthrise and The Blue Marble, our subject position as viewers of such imagery alternates between the objective view of the Earth seen from an astronaut’s photographic lens in outer space (a space that most of us have no direct experience of) and the counteracting subjective position of being inhabitants of the very image we are looking at (despite not being able to actually see ourselves). In similar fashion, Velázquez provides us with a scene that no ordinary viewer would normally be privy to, but one in which we sense our invisible presence – despite not being able to see ourselves. And underlying it all is the sense of the mechanisations at play, the visible and invisible gears whose shifting nature release such impressions upon us.

We won’t draw out this comparison further, suffice only to say that there does seem to be a sense in which both Las Meninas and An Inconvenient Truth share a quality of what Foucault (2001, p.12) variously describes as a pendular motion of “incompatible visibilities,” “unstable superimpositions,” “sagittal dimensions,” and constant feints in their visual discourse (similar to the constant feints in the language Foucault uses in his analysis). There can however be said to be one important difference between the two: their differing authorial intentions. In Las Meninas it is relatively clear that these kind of awkward qualities of the visual discourse are very much at the core of what Velázquez was looking to achieve with his painting, while in the case of An Inconvenient Truth, it seems fair to say that such visual awkwardness would have been much less intentional given Gore’s and the filmmakers’ clear aims. While they do their best to use many of the tricks of visualization, powerpoint and documentary cinema to present the issue of global warming in as clearly mediated a form as possible, there do seem to be some interesting levels of friction or slippage in the end product. With its multiple superimpositions of screens on screens, mediums within mediums, intertwining points of invisible, real, ideal and even surreal subject positions, the visuals of the film do indeed seem to put into play at least some added levels of rhetorical complexity that might be said to rub against the grain of its surface content. Quite how “inconvenient” this might be to the aims of such a project, one that still remains a relatively unique example of its kind, is for others to surmise.

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