Antonioni, Dead Space, and an Alternative Web.

Yesterday, I read a book on Michelangelo Antonioni which, with a number of essays, analyzed the unique craft of Antonioni as a film director. While I have not read each and every one of these essays, there are a couple of things in the essays that caught my attention, and which triggered me to touch upon the topic of content here, from the perspective of a builder and creator of Web content.

Alternatives to Content.

For those in the know, Michelangelo Antonioni is a director famous (infamous) for his oblique way of narrative. In L’Avventura, for example, the plot was virtually non-existent; in L’Eclisse,the closing sequence was—still is—to many viewers, a long, unnecessary length of unfathomable shots that’s completely unrelated to the plot until then.

A shot in L' Eclisse with the male lead kissing the female lead on the cheek
A gorgeous shot of Alain Delon and Monica Vitti in L’ Eclisse

In short, here is a director who, in the heyday of art cinema, practiced film narrative in a way that is completely alien to the typical movie goer who is used to the straightforward narrative of mainstream movies. To many who have tried to watch his films and ended up hating them, his films are perhaps an affront, a complete waste of their time, largely because these viewers didn’t feel like they were getting the full package of what they had expected.

And herein lies the source of this conflict: expectation.

Most haters of Antonioni’s films did not realize that they were expecting the wrong things out of his films. Because they were accustomed to, and in fact, trained to see films as a straightforward narrative that has a beginning, middle, and end and that is supposed to be endlessly entertaining instead of being filled with dead spaces (or temp mort), they find the experience alienating and unenjoyable. It’s like biting into a red apple and tasting the sourness of an orange—naturally you’re going to despise the experience.

The same can be said of content on the Web these days. I’ve talked about this many times, but the Web used to host more diverse content. Almost twenty years into the Web, though, it has started to skew towards hosting commercial and utilitarian content (with the latter often serving the former). Surfers of the Web are now expecting content to be useful (like shopping sites or informative ones like Wikipedia) or otherwise entertaining (think amateur Youtube videos and pirated commercial movies and music).

Imagine shoving upon users content, like Antonioni’s films, that are full of empty narratives, that have no clear message, and that require them to stare at the screen for more than 1 minute without any narrative progress. I assure you they will either close the browser window within 30s, or, if given a channel, whine like a baby against the “negative” experience.

I love the idea of that.

Just as viewers have been trained to accept mainstream movies as the norm, users of the Web have been trained to see it as a tool and an entertainment center. And just as art films will never take over mainstream movie but will continue being a niche in the world of cinema, so can alternative content on the Web become a niche that caters to the interests of a very specific group of users. (And annoy the rest, I’m sure.)

Just as art cinema can influence mainstream cinema and vice versa, so can alternative content on the Web affect the mainstream content. It is of course not the goal of people who create alternative content to want to change the mainstream content, because they mostly know how futile that is. But having variety, having alternatives, is always a good thing. Art cinema can provide mainstream cinema a glimpse at the things mainstream cinema have never thought of doing (like closing scenes that are open to interpretation), while mainstream cinema can pull art cinema one step away from its elitism. And while mainstream content on the Web has served us very well so far, it is surely not a bad idea to come up with content that’s less utilitarian and perhaps more subtle and open to interpretation. A more mature set of Internet users, in the near future, must surely demand a more subtle and challenging category of content than is available now. (At least I hope so.)

Technology: a Means to an End – Any End.

As builders of Web content—the designers and developers and information architects, the scientists and the artists—we are obliged to not just build the present, but also ponder the future. And whatever the technology we’re loving right now, we need to recognize that it is what we can contribute to humanity and civilization that matters more than anything else. While Javascript may be cool, its contribution to popularizing neuroscience applications may well be cooler. Similarly, designing animated advertisements for small businesses on the Web is certainly a breakthrough, but we will want our artists to harness the power of technology to contemplate our existence as well.

More than ever, when I look at the exponential growth of technology in our lives, I see it as an extremely powerful tool that can be harnessed to achieve many things. But, as I’ve blogged many times before, technology must not be limited to the technologists and the businesses. For the artists and the philosophers and philanthropists, this is perhaps the perfect time to internalize (and not just adopt) technology to create a new generation of content for the world. We have had our share of the Bill Gates and Linus Torvalds of this technological age; it’s time we nurture our generation of Confuscius and Manets, no? (Oh, and Antonionis, of course.)