As a full-length machinima structured, to a great extent, as a traditional movie (no judgement here, I just mean it more or less follows the tradition), science-fiction Stömol was released in a big event today, Friday, July 24, and will probably become a milestone and a reference in Second Life. Although it’s not my intention to write a review of the movie (go watch it, and we can exchange impressions and observations later if you want to), I would like to underline some aspects of the film, created and directed by Huckleberry Hax – and, to begin with, let’s say that the familiarity of Stömol seems central, to me, in its development.
A review could be a way to analyze a movie, its structure, the editing process, screenplay, photography – in other words, how the film tells its story. Instead, to a great extent, reviews are understood, nowadays, as opinions emitted by people who are supposedly qualified (or who are in a position of power) to do so and to determine what is good and what is not. In some cases, those opinions may be more richly justified. The vast majority, however, seem impressionistic exercises that don’t explain much and only praise or bash a movie without opening doors for people to think about the production itself. I’m out of that pointless enterprise for many reasons and, among them, because my opinion is not better than anyone else’s.
Having said that, I think it’s interesting to notice how Stömol is built on some familiar elements. First, I would say, there are noticeable references to Blade Runner, a motion picture that still shapes the way we visually structure and understand sci-fi movies today. One of the initial elements that one can spot, for that matter, is the voice-over (yes, I know not all versions of Blade Runner have it) that also helps Huckleberry Hax’s work remind us of those productions of the golden age of American film noir. But there are many other references, from scenery to the dream with unicorns, which transform Stömol into a big tribute to Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic.
Going further, it’s not only that Stömol refers to a defining sci-fi movie, but also that its whole grammar is, in general, a classic one. Its editing is clever, as in a sequence in which the main character goes to different places, asking people who may have information that leads to the guy he is searching for. The scenes in which he wanders on the streets are combined with stills of him pressing other characters to tell whatever they may know. This actually creates the idea of a long and difficult – and unfruitful – journey. Yet, even having such thoughtful sequences, the whole movie, except for its very beginning, has a linear story, a linear editing.
Going even further, the grammar that characterizes Stömol seems to be related with a whole set of options that make the movie look familiar to us. We are following a story, which is set in the future, but not in a distant time in which life hasbeen transformed, let’s say, into a bodiless presence or in which bodies have become fluid. Actually, we are watching a detective story, with a well-known narrative structure. And we are presented with a combination of images (and sounds) in a way that they form a familiar set called “movie”.
With that, I arrived at a point that really called my attention. Let’s think of what director Peter Greenaway used to say about Second Life machinima: that it could be a vehicle to newness after what he called “the exhausted death of cinema”. In order to be so, machinima would nonetheless have to go away from the centrality of text, stories, narratives and plots, from limiting their scenes to frames, from the idea that we need actors to be human (or to reproduce human patterns) and so on. Maybe, for completing that task, it would have to be more like a haiku, not a full-length movie. That is, to a great extent, the opposite of Stömol.
It’s not my intention here to discuss if it is good or bad to be the opposite of what Greenaway said. Nor if cinema is dead or dying. Not even if we need stories and narratives. My point is that, for the way Stömol is structured, Huckleberry Hax made it dialogue with what we have up to now understood as movies – or as fiction movies, which are the dominant form of films in our cinematic repertoire (and I don’t mean that they exceed in numbers other forms of motion picture – I wouldn’t be able to state that for sure, and probably they don’t – but that they correspond more or less to what we imagine when we think of motion pictures). This is important because, had someone planned some machinima to be newness incarnated, it would have run the risk of being dismissed as a movie, even if it had a high reputation as something else – like video art, that can be praised and celebrated but which is hardly thought of as sharing the same nature of what we ordinarily call “movies”.
The familiarity of Stömol is, thus, an option – good or bad – that allows Huckleberry Hax’s work to rest in the same field of cinema in general. It could have been more creative, or less, but still the sense that we can refer it to the repertoire of what we call “movies” opens to us a door to apprehend it, appreciate it, acclaim it, criticize it or discuss it as part of that domain of our knowledge. By doing so, there’s also something interesting that happens when we observe Stömol: it certainly has to deal with some characteristics of Second Life itself, and it shows – but not necessarily in a bad way.
Before watching the movie, for instance, I had a conversation with my husband in which we mentioned that the limits of acting in SL could be a problem for the whole result. In Second Life, interactions are often accompanied by written descriptions of how we feel or look, because avatars have no real eye contact and have restricted options for body language. In a movie, that would not really work, though it could be sometimes replaced by voice-over insertions (but not in all occasions). Also, SL tends to move the objects which we focus on to the center of the screen, and it does the same with our avatars when we are walking. For sure, the centralization of the camera can be circumvented, but it could be that the movie would also show a more centralized composition in a great number of individual scenes.
As I said, all that shows, and they are elements to be dealt with. Particularly, in what has to do with acting, it is interesting to notice that performances for movies are very recent and it’s not that they follow a pattern that has been there forever. Throughout art history, people have acted with masks, under a distance from which their faces would barely be noticed by the public, declaiming, hidden behind puppets and in a number of other situations that would differ a lot from the naturalistic acting that we got used to see in movies (and in TV series). So, maybe the characteristics of SL won’t even have any important consequence to the way the stories are perceived in machinimas.
Finally, for SLers, another curiosity of the movie may be the locations where scenes were filmed (“do I know that place?”, “is it still on the grid?” – most are not) and the considerations about who is showing on the screen (for the same actor or actress can have different avatars). For the public in general, there are also some games: for instance, how many characters are called “truth”? And for Linden Lab, I think Stömol has a remarkable potential of working as a showcase of what Second Life is and can be.
So, if you are interested in watching Stömol, you can find it on Youtube now.