‘Stömol’: a machinima to be called cinema

UPDATE: Besides being on YouTube, the movie has been embedded in a post on What the Huck?, Huckleberry Hax’s own blog.

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 flying vehicle navigates through the futuristic city where the story of ‘Stömol’ happens
The movie poster

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.

The roommate of one of the missing characters in ‘Stömol’

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.

Stömol being hired to find a missing boy

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.

Waarheid needs something from 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”.

One of the coders in the movie

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.

The main character behind a pillar

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.

The detective and the roommate of one of the missing characters

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.

5 thoughts on “‘Stömol’: a machinima to be called cinema

    1. Bou, you are too kind to me, I am speechless and appreciative, thank you! Actually, thanks to all of you who have put such an effort and time to conclude Stömol – and to make it freely available to us.

  1. A wonderfully reflective consideration of the film, Ricco.

    It’s interesting that you should pick on that point made by Peter Greenaway. I remember hearing about that many years ago. I had two reactions to it, one in agreement, one in disagreement. In agreement, then, the medium of SL machinima enables visual representation of ideas, thought and emotion that goes way beyond the ‘traditional’ linear story-line. Yes. It is a liberator of visual expression in the same way that the World Wide Web liberated writers from the traditional mass-market-driven and power-imbalanced mechanisms of publication. In disagreement, if cinema is exhausted then it is exhausted for many reasons, but this does not include (in my opinion) the death of linear storytelling. Stories are integral to human existence, they are a huge part of how we make sense of the world – from he movies we watch and books we read to the stories we tell of our own personal experiences and the narratives we create to explain current affairs. Stories always have been and always will be with us; they are a cross-cultural and timeless truth of our existence. Machinima, then, should encompass both of these ideals.

    So in fact that quote from Greenaway did play a small role in influencing STÖMOL: at the very start of this project I had one clear objective in mind, that my machinima (however it ended turning out) would tell a story. That was an intentional act. Whether it is in the end a worthwhile or interesting or well-told story is, of course, for the viewer to decide.

    Thank you for this very thoughtful piece. I am humbled by the attention you have given my film 🙂

    1. Thank you for your comment – and as I’ve said to Bou, and to Caitlin Tobias on Twitter, thank you people for the work you’ve done there, resulting in Stömol! The discussion on the death of cinema feels actually big. I have just mentioned it on this post, but I did avoid to treat it in depth, for it would actually derive in, i don’t know, another two or three posts, hehe… And that if I did not start considering, too, the discussion about the death of narrative.

      Personally, I think cinema is quite young and has had its death already declared many times. I remember once I met someone who said to me that cinema died in 1986, after Tarkovski’s “The Sacrifice”. If we are to consider that date, so it’s been over 30 years that the corpse has been there and it hasn’t been buried yet. Of course there are challenges, especially in the industrial side of the activity, such as, now, the fact that industrial cinema has been transformed into Marveland. For the way it has been done, it affects not only mainstream productions, but also the distribution of independent movies. Yet, I would wait a bit longer to declare that cinema is dead again.

      About stories, it seems that humanity has spent all its existence telling them – and I don’t see evidence that we will stop telling stories now. I totally agree with you. Which doesn’t mean that machinimas cannot try other ways too, as cinema has been employed as a means to something else than telling stories – think of “Blue”, Derek Jarman’s last movie, or of “Man With a Movie Camera”, by Dziga Vertov, or of Andy Warhol’s “Sleep” (which nonetheless was described by the author as an “anti-film”).

      The fact that machinima could or can do something else than telling stories doesn’t imply that it could not tell stories, as well. I think we are on the same page here. So, keep telling your stories – in my humble opinion, there’s nothing wrong with that 🙂

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