There’s more than one way to tell a tale

by Steve

Film still from whiteonwhite - showing satellite dish in desolate landscape

This feels like one of those posts where I should really do something clever with the format, to reflect the subject matter and outline its possibilities. But I suspect that is beyond your humble correspondent’s capabilities, particularly as he tries to squeeze in a blog post in an already truncated lunch break, and oh the excuses! Anyway, let me tell you about whiteandwhite, an algorithmic noir movie.

What the hell is an algorithmic noir? Well, the film-makers essentially produced a series of scenes, voiceovers and stills for a dystopian noir film – then tagged those items, fed them into some funky computer programme and allowed an algorithm to determine how the film actually played out. This happens each time the film is shown, so the same film is never shown twice. There is no real set beginning, middle or end.

From the clips alone, the method works. It is very much a noir in the sense of mood, if not in the sense of plot. As so many noir plots are kind of plup-y and formulaic anyway, this doesn’t seem to matter. Considering the plot (if there is one) concerns a man trying to understand a dystopian world it makes a strange kind of sense to present that in a confused, fragmentary and determinedly non-linear fashion.

This kind of storytelling reminded me of the A Visit from the Goon Squad app, which allows readers to reorder the chapters randomly, or the 1969 novel The Unfortunates, which consisted of 27 sections in a box that could be read in any order.

The Unfortunates shows playing with linearity and randomness isn’t necessarily new. And even mainstream audiences seem able to cope with non-chronological narratives pretty easily and have been able to for some time  – Pulp Fiction anyone? Yet, this concept does still feel particularly modern.

Our worlds, and our understanding of the wider world, feel less and less linear. Take a Major News Event of your choice. One hundred years ago we would have had the event explained to us in a chronological manner through our morning newspaper. We would experience a Major Event in a similar way fifty years ago with the TV evening news. But now? Now, we’re just as likely to piece a major news story together from all manner of disparate sources, and not necessarily in a chronological fashion, in order to understand what happened. This is often in ‘real-time’, but that’s not to say we are there at the start of the story, or even understand it is a ‘story’ right away, as we don’t necessarily have the filtering or mediation of the traditional media.

Or take research – where once we might have consulted the encyclopedia, or visited the library, now we have those resources plus Google, immediate word-of-mouth advice from social media etc.

And not only do we piece together these elements as they come to us in a non-linear and non-chronological form, we also make judgement calls along the way in terms of reliability and usefulness. whiteonwhite, and whatever other projects that have preceded it or now follow it, feels like a strong method of representing the confusing, complex world we live in. It might not make sense of our lives, but it might make us think about how we do communicate and consume knowledge, and perhaps how we fail to make sense of our world. I think there could be a lot of fun to be had taking some of these ideas forward and developing them further.