- “Is This A Film?”
The natural place for any story to start is the beginning. In the case of Justin Bieber, let’s rewind from the current moment of facial paralysis. Let’s skip past Hailey Baldwin and Selena Gomez, past the paparazzi and #CutForBieber, past the Christmas album and the pre-Monster Future collaboration. Let’s go all the way back to 100 Huntley Street, a Canadian Christian daily talk show that hosted Bieber’s first appearance on broadcast television in 2009. Bieber’s mother does all the talking — about how he’s the most subscribed musician on YouTube in Canada, and the 20th most subscribed in the world — while he sits quietly, showing the world the iconic Bieber haircut for the first time. In a time before algorithms, all you had to do was search “Justin singing” and he’d be the first thing you see. Mother Bieber talks more about how Justin Timberlake and Usher are courting him before the segment closes with a call for prayer to support Justin on his journey. It’s a seminal video document because it marks the rise of the internet-made music popstar, but also is indicative of television dominance in decline. Bieber came of age, and to stardom, at the same time as phone cameras exploded in numbers and the internet transformed the ways we live. Bieber was the first smartphone superstar.
We construct stories, just as we construct nature. Five years later, after this initial televisual prayer, TMZ leaked footage of a deposition given by Bieber. The crux of the issue revolves around Bieber allegedly instructing his security to beat up paparazzi photographers. We invent words, as things that are invented need names. Paparazzi emerged from Paparazzo, a character in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). “Justin Bieber” emerged from Justin Bieber, his government name, creating a lifelong rift between the image of Bieber and the identity he maintained. Perhaps this is best seen through Lil B’s 2011 music video “Lil B – Justin Beiber MUSIC VIDEO COOKING MUSIC!!! OMG!!!”, in which Lil B repeats Bieber’s name over and over again, until emptied of meaning, reduced to pure signifier. At one moment, a lawyer instructs Bieber to watch a video on a television, saying “Can you look at the film?”, to which Bieber, ever-aware that this deposition would get leaked and, as such, performing for the camera, repeatedly asking “Is this a film?” in a tone that turns from innocent to mocking. The lawyer replies “Is there a difference between a film and something else?” Bieber warbles out an unsteady “Yes.”
It remains important that we situate Bieber’s deposition in a brief but significant lineage of superstar celebrity deposition leaks of the 2010s, the other notable tape belonging to rapper Lil Wayne. The leak of this tape by TMZ established a precedent in which Bieber and his team would have expected their deposition to leak as well, creating a situation where Bieber was not just answering questions for lawyers, but performing “Justin Bieber” for the world to see. There are moments where he breaks — questions that encroach about his then-recent breakup with Selena Gomez being one — yet we can only imagine that Bieber was overwhelmed with emotion; La Dolce Vita and the paparazzi flashing through his mind when he insisted that the video the lawyers were showing him on the television screen was not a film. We create definitions, definitions which in turn outline the contours of our reality. The difference between “a film and something else” is a map.
- Le Temps de L’Amour
Dimitris Panayiotatos’s Lovers Beyond Time (1990) is a softcore Greek love story, bathed in lush neon that heightens Panayiotatos’s erotic vision, and accompanied by a sensuous synth score that itself becomes a character in the film. Written by Petro Markaris, best known for his collaborations with Theo Angelopoulos, the film is a beautiful minor work that has now been predominantly relegated to the status of a file floating through P2P torrent networks and sites such as rarelust.com, an archive maintained by a single anonymous webmaster who states the site is a “personal project to keep rare flick rips alive freely and stop sellers who sell these movies at insane prices”; a few DVD copies remain on eBay and Amazon from a Mondo Macabro release. There is little material about the film published, and no interviews with Panayiotatos published in the Anglosphere, yet the director remains active on Facebook, posting musings and links to his writing authored in Greek.
The story goes like this: a young beautiful couple, Sylvia (Christine Skaza) and Angelos (Benoît Rossel), are embroiled in a passionate, chaotic relationship. The sex is phenomenal, but it’s all too inundating for Sylvia, who breaks it off, frightened of what she’s experienced. A heartbroken Angelos stabs his hand at dinner, then Sylvia’s jacket is covered in blood as the couple has one last fuck in the restaurant bathroom. Before they part ways in the night, Angelos tells Sylvia about a musician, Zinos Flerianos, and how she needs to take a tape of his music to the record label she works at — he intends it as both a final gift to her, yet a curse if she refuses. The mysterious figure of Flerianos lingers throughout the film, and his music reflexively operates as the score of the film, a gorgeous accompaniment that heightens the sensuality of certain long takes, allowing the mysteries of love and time to penetrate deep. As elements of time travel warp into the story, we come to find out that the Angelos and Sylvia of that evening will never be together, though, as the title suggests, there is still love to be found between the Angelos’s and Sylvia’s of the past and future.
Mati Diop’s Atlantics (2019) is another film whose dazzling score, a composition by Fatima Al Qadiri, plays an essential role in what is simultaneously a love story, a ghost story, and a detective thriller. The film speaks through a postcolonial lens about the impacts of globalization on migration and the precarity of laborers in developing nations. A young man, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), who after months of not receiving pay for construction labor on a new skyscraper in Senegal (which is depicted through one of the best deployments of CGI in recent years) decides to attempt to sail to Europe in search of better work to help provide for his family. Souleiman leaves with a group of young men – all of whom are leaving behind their girlfriends and wives -who tragically perish at sea. The souls of the young men then take control of their partners at night, as they work to seek retribution for those who forced them out to sea in search of money.
Diop splices in gorgeous shots of the sea throughout the film, which also underscores, despite their tranquility, the violent potential to kill contained within them. The relation of these images to the score, which crescendos with the song “Body Double” during the film’s climax, a dance between lovers alone in a bar, is an essential part of the interlocking commentaries woven together by Diop. It is a film of rhythms, romance, and heartbreak, that shows us the realities hidden across our present globe and provides us with a way to think beyond the migration crisis into one of what it means to be human, yet also realizes the limitations of how language can convey this story. While commenting on Chris Marker’s Letter to Siberia (1958), André Bazin states “it might be said that the basic element is the beauty of what is said and heard, that intelligence flows from the audio element to the visual”. Al Qadiri’s score, in effect, takes the impossibility of visualizing the true impacts of colonialism and renders it into sound.
Marguerite Duras’s India Song (1975) and Her Venetian Name in Deserted Calcutta (1976) present an extraordinary double feature in line with Bazin’s conceptualization of aural intelligence flowing into the visual elements. The latter film uses the entire soundtrack of India Song – itself a unique film in that the dialogue is never spoken by on-screen characters – while substituting in shots of colonial wealth in decay and ruins where we once saw extravagant furnishings and decadent couture in a house of opulence. Duras would continue to build a body of filmic work based on this cinema of aural intelligence. In her 1979 release Le Navire Night, a film that tells a story over telephones during the German occupation of France, there is a moment early in the film, where a female voice says “The love story. A story without images.” Indeed, through Lovers Beyond Time, Atlantics, and Le Navire Night, the moments at which cinema can convey the closest feeling towards ideals that can never be fully expressible, whether that of Love, Tragedy, or a combination of the two, is through the soundtrack. Is this a song? Is this a film? Is this a whisper? It is whispers and songs and songs of whispers that make the film.
“… sound is simultaneously ‘in’ the screen, in front, behind, around, and throughout the entire movie theatre… the language used by technicians and studios, without realizing it, conceptualizes sound in a way that makes sense only for the image. We claim that we are talking about sound, but we are actually thinking of the visual image of the sound’s source.”
Christian Metz, The Aural Objects (1980)
Vilém Flusser, ‘Chamber Music’ in Into the Universe of Technical Images (1985)
“In a sounding image, the image does not mix with music; rather both are raised to a new level, the audiovisual, which could not realize its meaning until now because of its grounding in earlier levels… It will become pointless to try and distinguish between music and so-called visual arts because everyone will be a composer, will make images.”
In tandem, Metz and Flusser bring us to a new function of how sound and image function today, with Flusser cheekily referencing the idea of “Chamber Music” being transformed into a synthetic and improvisational mode of music-making through computers and code. We see this today with DAWs (Digital Audio Workstation) like Ableton, FL Studio, and GarageBand creating ways to make music for individuals who might not even know how to read music, instead operating these interfaces in a manner of signal processing. This extends into digital image-making, as workflows on non-linear editing softwares transform the process once controlled by the Steenbeck. Image-generating software, whether simple tools like Microsoft Paint or AI tools like Midjourney and Dall-E, have the trajectory of image-making in the same way as analogue photography transformed painting. Sound and image are now composed magically, and the ease of creating compositions has enveloped us in a torrent of audiovisual media.
As telematic societies emerged and transformed in the 1980s and onwards, we witnessed an unprecedented rise of types of electronic music that continues to sprawl towards infinity today. At first, it was house and techno created in Black communities in Detroit and Chicago and spreading to Europe, then it became hip-hop spreading from New York City to the rest of the world, and the transition from radio and physical media to streaming and the connections of the Internet resulted in the popular soundscape we have today. In a reading of her essay-poem METRO BOOMIN WANT SOME MORE NIGGA, poet Simone White examines the phenomenon of Trap music functions. This reading, delivered at Abrons Arts Center in New York City in September of 2017, occurs just as trap music was in the process of mutating into a new form — that of drill music. White reads:
“The trap music producer exhales a pervasive diffuse and dilute sonic affective atmosphere through the machines. Trap beat-making is a methodology of surround so that we find ourselves in a club that we have not chosen to enter, but we’ve paid. The club is everywhere and everyone is in it. It is put on the internet; it flies through the air. A cursory scroll through the discography of the producer Lex Luger bears out the extraordinary historical speed at which the trap surround has developed and spread. The numerosity and thickness that belong to its presence. A sub-bass drone accompanies words the rapper says, deftness, sleight-of-hand, with the limited discursive materials of consumable black life, more of which below. This is borrowed from the beat-making repertoire of electronic dance music, which thrives on investments in the pushy invasion that occurs when sine waves developed in vast open space make contact with bodies that intend to absorb them, bodies invested in turning toward the direction of the sound, catching the wave of bass between them as intimacy, sex, euphoria. To make much or everything of a single ambient tone, to throw it about a cavernous space… In rap music the open space of the club is the world space of the music industry, the anti-club, everywhere.”
- Make A Movie
In the summer of 2022, drill rappers Kay Flock and Fivio Foreign released their collaborative single and music video “Make A Movie”, a collaboration between the boroughs of Brooklyn, where Fivio Foreign is from, known for pioneering and developing drill music in New York City, and The Bronx, the birthplace of hip-hop in the late 70s and Kay Flock in the early 2000s, which took the sounds of Brooklyn drill that emerged in the late 2010s and reconfigured it even further. The video is a fascinating text – it doesn’t draw definitions, but instead creates worlds within worlds. The opening shot shows a couple walking into a theater with posters and the marquee advertising “Make A Movie” by Kay Flock and Fivio Foreign. Thenthe lights dim, and the song soundtracks images of a teenager with braids and a cracked iPhone going from recording songs in his bedroom to walking on stage to perform in front of a massive crowd. A later shot shows the teen with a new iPhone but the screen still shows the same image – a music player with Kay Flock’s 2021 song “Being Honest”. Spliced into all of this is Fivio Foreign and his friends, rapping and dancing inside and outside of the theater the couple walked into. The question of “Is this a film?” cedes to “Where is the film?” which is, as White read, “the open space of the club is the world space of the music industry, the anti-club, everywhere”. Like Lovers Beyond Time, like Atlantics, the film is its soundtrack, the flow from the audio to the visual.
When White delivered her poem in 2017, rap was in the midst of another moment of its continual transformation, a defining aspect of its shape-shifting ability to escape definition. The trap music she describes comes from Atlanta, brought to popularity by rappers such as Gucci Mane, Young Jeezy, and Waka Flocka Flame during the late 2000s and early 2010s before a major fork in the sound emerged. In Atlanta, a new style of rap would be brought to the forefront – that of Young Thug’s delivery, which was inspired by and hyper-extended the patternings of New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne. Meanwhile, the trap production styles migrated to Chicago, forming the sonic backbones of what would eventually become known as drill music, with stars such as Chief Keef, Lil Durk, and the late King Von bringing it to the forefront of culture. Drill music was a virus, and aided by the access to the internet that came with the 2010s it traveled the globe. Chicago Drill traveled to London, where it underwent further transmutation, incorporating the sounds of grime and garage. In 2016 and 2017, rappers in Brooklyn such as 22Gz and Sheff G began rapping on UK drill instrumentals – Brooklyn drill, still a nascent genre at the time of White’s reading, rapidly ascended with Canarsie rapper Pop Smoke rising to stardom in 2019, before he was tragically shot dead in February 2020.
“I’m talking about now, and about the future, about the beautiful and terrible new kind of consciousness this new black music surfaces… This is a sound of no hope, no futurity, black life is black death,” White continues in her reading. And indeed, both the sound-images of drill music and the music videos that accompany them are bleak reflections of the realities that produce these sounds. See Yus Gz’s Dead Loccs, a 2021 music video from the Bronx rapper, which samples the Macarena, that opens with a clip of paramedics performing CPR on a rival gang member, shot on a phone camera, before continuing to feature Yus Gz and a group of teenagers dancing and rapping along to his lyrics dissing rival gang members, both dead and alive.
This visualization of street politics through both music and the internet is a phenomenon that lies at the center of O Block (2022), a Youtube documentary by independent journalist and filmmaker Andrew Callahan (best known for his All Gas No Brakes web series which later became Channel 5 News). The piece contains interviews with residents of “O Block”, the Chicago housing project where Michelle Obama grew up and where drill music was born. Callahan and Channel 5 go beyond speaking to the individuals on the street and also interview content creators DJ Akademiks — best known for his video series covering the early days of Chicago drill called “The War in Chiraq” — and Adam22, host of the No Jumper podcast, which frequently platforms and interviews active gang members.
The problem as Callahan sees it is when music about highly specific and localized gang disputes gets pushed by algorithms to gain millions of views. In turn, forums, such as the subreddits r/Chiraqology and r/NYStateofMind, and other forms of content emerge, sharing information about things that everyday civilians and suburban residents would never know about without the internet. This creates feedback loops that can amplify violence and also creates opportunities for content creators to make money by creating the type of content the algorithm rewards by creating narratives around the violence — like that of what DJ Akademiks and Adam22 have put out. Callahan specifically questions Akademiks, who had bestowed nicknames like “The Chicago Grim Reaper” on rappers who had allegedly committed multiple murders, on whether he feels responsibility for inciting tensions leading to violence, victims of which are often teenagers. Akademiks maintains that he is not at fault, that he isn’t the one pulling the trigger. All the world’s a stage, and he’s merely reading narration — which begs the question: who writes the script?
Like any other blockbuster, there are profits to be taken. While O Block residents lament that they feel that the outside world views them only as characters, Lil Durk, one of the biggest rappers to make it out of the same projects, partnered with the video game Grand Theft Auto Online to create a custom role-playing server called ‘Trenches’. Durk appears in the game as a playable character, while the game also features a mural honoring the late King Von, an O Block rapper whose videos now boast hundreds of millions of views. And as rumors that the housing project itself has been sold and will undergo the cycle of redevelopment and gentrification that has come to define American cities in the 21st century, memory of the time and place will become consolidated from the physical to the digital. Near the end of his sprawling Livestream Follies, Nick Pinkerton briefly discusses the life and death of Pop Smoke, and how the visualization of both his youth and his rise to fame created a “Damn, my life a movie,” effect. And as Fivio Foreign frequently ad-libs “Viral!” and “Movie!” throughout his songs, it becomes clear that the magic of the movie theater has been compressed into the screen through which we access the world.
- TV To The Internet
👨🏿🎨🇫🇷 (Or, “Man Artist: Dark Skin Tone Emoji”, “Flag from France Emoji”), a video uploaded by the YouTube channel denna frances glass on July 29, 2022, presents footage of American rappers arriving at Paris Fashion Week over the recent years. Kodak Black, Playboi Carti, Lil Baby, Pop Smoke, and Gunna, among others, emerge from their luxury vehicles, dripped out in designer — the images are cut to audio from Mike Dibb’s Channel 4 documentary The Miles Davis Story (2001). The narration explicitly ties the current trajectory of rappers, and the concept of the rapper-as-artist, to the jazz artists of the 60s and 70s who have now been institutionalized into the American academic systems: “It was his first trip to Europe and he was overwhelmed by the reception. Not only was jazz accepted on an equal basis with the other arts, but black musicians were accepted as equals by enthusiastic white audiences.”
The situation is different now, and the 21st century will not be the 20th century. As academies crumble financially, neither Juilliard, Oberlin, nor NYU will teach rap, be it drill or “Soundcloud”, just as the academic funding that allowed theorists such as Fred Moten to produce works like Black and Blur (2017) will not be there for future generations of theorists to produce book-length studies on the works of Lil B, movements in Drill, or the future-music yet to come. Instead, these theorizations became subsumed into the practice of music-making itself. What makes rap a preeminent form in its ability to reinvent, transmutate, and ceaselessly evolve is that it isn’t hindered by these institutions. In Flusser’s Vampyroteuthis Infernalis (1993), which lies somewhere between a scientific study and theory-fiction – using the case of the vampire squid to comment on human society, art, and culture – Flusser writes:
“Society did not realise, at the time, the impact of the industrial revolution upon the creative process, because art in the restricted modern sense of the term continued to be crafted, untouched by the new methods of production since it was relegated to ghettos called “exhibitions and museums”.”
And the video piece by denna frances glass escapes these constraints, while simultaneously recalling works that exist within these boundaries with similar themes. Arthur Jafa is perhaps the best inflection point to examine, with works like Love is the Message, The Message is Death (2016) which exists in Flusser’s ghettos and can only be seen in fragments and poor images, filmed in galleries on smartphones and uploaded to YouTube, and the music video for Ye (formerly Kanye) West’s Wash Us In The Blood (2020), which exists as an inversion – archival and cell phone footage compiled, reoriented, and sequenced for an intended broadcast through the internet. The latter work’s utilization of CGI and video game footage (from none other than Grand Theft Auto) add a further dimension to the work in which the “Realness” of the images seen is destabilized and undermined. As Ye raps “I know it’s fake if it’s in the news”, the words coalesce with the images of the riots of 2020, emphasizing how the media channels of the 20th century utterly fail to adequately capture the realities of our current situation. It’s a phenomenon that Lil B rapped about on the 2010 track “TV To The Internet”.
“…it’s like TV doesn’t show what’s real in life, but the Internet, you got the power to do whatever you wanna do and put it out there… I learned about the Internet around 15-16 really heavy, started getting on it heavy, but didn’t understand the power that it was beheading… it’s like TV, the Internet is real though, you watch TV and you can’t respond, the Internet you have a response, you have a voice, you can comment, you can move through different things, you can move through different channels and present yourself, so really the Internet is another world…”
Rapped is not the perfect word — perhaps there isn’t one to describe what Lil B does. In “METRO BOOMIN WANT SOME MORE NIGGA”, White talks about how her students say that the late XXXTentacion is not a rapper: “He just does this thing and puts it on the internet”. And Lil B pioneered “doing a thing and putting it on the internet”. “TV To The Internet” is closer to spoken word, the instrumental does not have drums, and Lil B’s stream of consciousness about television and the internet produces priceless gems with just as much if not more theoretical value than the tomes of Vilém Flusser.
The track, broadcast through the internet, becomes an exegesis of being on the Internet, an ekphrasis of the Internet, and effectively “doing” media theory. But rather than creating a volume of essays like Flusser’s Into the Universe of Technical Images, Lil B creates mixtapes – like Dior Paint (2010) – effectively essays of sound-images, some of which can be transcribed into linear text, parts of which remain ineffable within the bounds of linear writing and can only be furthered along in dialogue through more sound-images. Other Lil B tracks in this oeuvre include “Paint” and “The Canvas”, which orient themselves too as aural tracks with the intention to evoke sound-images.
As beautiful and transcendental as some of these works can be, they also serve as a continual reminder of death. Barthes notes in Camera Lucida (1980) that every photograph of a person is an image containing death, and in the same way every recording of someone’s voice contains their eventual death as well. We witness this in how “Futura Free”, the penultimate track of Frank Ocean’s Blonde (2016), has transformed since the death of Ocean’s younger brother, whose vocals are heavily featured on the track and album’s outro, just as how drill music is transformed when it’s an archive of the slew of lives lost due to a preexisting system of violence, and Soundcloud rap has transformed when the voice behind the music has been lost to a system that perpetuates violence and an opioid epidemic.
In the 1953 essay film Statues Also Die, the narration, authored by Chris Marker notes that “An object is dead when the living gaze that was once cast upon it has disappeared. And when we disappear, our objects will go where we send those of the Africans: to the museum.” Marshall McLuhan’s most famous statement “The medium is the message” echoes through the title of Jafa’s Love is the Message, The Message is Death. Everything that passes through the Internet and its world of images is marked by death – The Message is Death.
Refrain: “This Is A Film?”
There was a second question. Before Justin Bieber asked “Is this a film?”, he began by repeating “This is a film?” twice. The words cut through the deposition tape itself, as the “this” shifts from the video pictured on the screen in the video to the experience of watching the video on your screen: This is a film?
In 2021, the late Jean-Luc Godard joined the International Film Festival of Kerala for a conversation about film, that is, about a World created by Godard, that was hosted over Zoom. Televisual in essence, the discussion contains a crucial moment where Godard says:“I thought that production was the main aspect of cinema, and I realized that distribution was and today more than before. Distribution has choked production by pretending to be in service of the audience. Today distribution serves the audience but production does not.” As the conversation is transposes separate realities into digital image and sound, it enters a lineage with other cinematic essays of Godard, such as Letter to Jane (1972), a postscript film to Tout va bien (1972), that is now available on YouTube, just like the aforementioned conversation. Though his authorship in the presentation of this piece is limited, the question remains: This is a film?
The same morning news broke out that Godard had passed, electing to commit assisted suicide, a prominent snuff film circulated on Twitter – cell phone footage of rapper PnB Rock shot and dying in Los Angeles. The rapper’s biggest song on YouTube, Middle Child, has more than 80 million views and features XXXTentacion, whose murder was also filmed on smartphones and posted onto social media. Millions across the world have screen memories of the two bleeding out: This is a film?
Within hours of the news of PnB Rock’s death, DJ Akademics uploaded the video “PNB Rock Talks about How he Almost Got Lined and Robbed in Los Angeles while out with GF & Daughter”, a snippet of a conversation with the late rapper recorded a week and a half prior to the incident according to the description. Despite mostly bringing his coverage of “The War in Chiraq” to a halt, DJ Akademics posted this video, designed to bring in as much as much algorithmic traffic as possible through its title: This is a film?
When Pop Smoke was shot and killed in the Hollywood Hills mansion he was staying at, much attention was put onto social media posts the rapper made that potentially exposed his location. When PnB Rock was shot and killed outside the Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles, much attention went to an Instagram story his girlfriend had posted and then deleted, documenting their dinner out. The camera and the screen can make life a movie, but they can very well edit reality as well. When Souleimane and the other laborers decide to sail for Europe in Atlantics, they do it because they’ve heard of and seen it done before. Their deaths are never pictured on screen, only existing as aural images, told by a ghost possessing a woman’s body, spoken through whispers and songs: This is a film?
To write about the internet is to critique a map with shifting contours, that is constantly drawing and redrawing itself, where the Borgesian 1:1 map that stretches across the entire territory is impossible to perceive, just as it is impossible to view every image and hear every sound. It is a beautiful graveyard full of the dead, undead, and the dying inching and accelerating towards their caskets, waiting to be lowered and buried, some of which will receive engravings on their headstones, others to be set into unmarked graves. Though just like flammable celluloid, the zeroes and ones behind the digital image are not forever. In Prophetic Culture: Recreation for Adolescents (2021), Italian philosopher Federico Campagna notes that “More fragile than the papyri of the ancient world, the immense wealth of digitized culture hangs to a thread, depending for its survival on the continuation of the techno-economic settings of this civilization. The treasure of this society, obsessed with data, will be the first victim of annihilation, once its historical body will have exhaled its last breath.”
There is death in the image and voice of Justin Bieber – indeed the Justin Bieber who asked “This is a film?” is dead. We keep him undead, cryogenically preserved in that moment of questioning, through a medium and a technology that could at any moment break. This is a film.
Cinema Year Zero is volunteer run. Our goal is to pay writers a fair fee for their work. So if you like what you find at Cinema Year Zero, please consider subscribing to our Patreon!