Experiment with new ways of narration

Utopia and media reality in Germany’s first DVD video film "The Last Cowboy"

A cowboy rides across an avenue. Zap. footage of young pioneers staging a parade. Zap. I see a young man looking out of a window. The title "Indians" appears. Zap. Excerpts from a DEFA Indian film. With a remote control I zap back and forth between different picture planes. On the first level there are also lines of text. The soundtrack, a cowboy song, remains the same and creates an asthetic cohesion. Family photos alternating with images of industrial plants and American street scenes before ending with a cowboy scene.

Experiment with new ways of counting


The production The Last Cowboy, created by Nomad alias Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker, is a DVD-video work that has been invited to various film festivals and has recently been nominated for the International Video Art Award 1998. The title refers to a lost myth of the Eastern youth, which created identity and was directed against the idols set up from above. But he remains untraceable even in the West after the Wall has fallen.

The DVD, the Digital Versatile Disc, has been around for a few years now (see also the main topic in c`t 13/98). In principle, it is comparable to a CD-ROM, but it has a much higher storage capacity, sufficient for at least two hours of high-quality video and audio, making it the perfect successor to videotape. In Hollywood, more and more films are being released on DVD-Video. In Babelsberg this spring, one of the world’s first completely digital film productions on DVD was developed in the European DVD Lab, just "The Last Cowboy".

The Lab is part of Company b, the former High Tech Center, and specializes in services such as DVD authoring and encoding. There are – not easy to overlook – different standards. The DVD video specification, for example, makes possible a simple interactivity that works on DVD video players. Eight different video channels can be used in parallel, as well as nine audio channels and thirty-two subtitle functions. By remote control the viewer can call up menus or jump between different image levels.

Compared to other media, this production is virtually low-tech. The "Film" was recorded on digital video with commercial cameras, then fed directly into the computer via FireWire, a special network, edited on Macs with Adobe After Effects, and then MPEG 2 encoded. The finished video sequences – in the case of "The Last Cowboy" were three – were again ied on digital video and fed into the authoring system for DVD. They have a length of 16 minutes each. The authoring and encoding tool is called Creator and is also used by Hollywood companies, which now have their film archives pressed on DVD. In this system, among other things, the navigation possibilities for the users are determined. The DVD medium is itself forward-looking in that it provides new favorable production opportunities for filmmakers (more production information).

The project is an example of multilinear storytelling. Nomad wanted to avoid the model of an interactive movie and find a form that corresponds to the multi-layered way of human memory. "There is still the term interactive film," remarks Petra Epperlein, "What’s going on right now is that you come to a situation in a movie and you’re confronted with the question of whether I’d rather do this or that, and you decide how the story is going to unfold. This was too banal and uninteresting for us, because it reminds us more of a game metaphor than of a real film. We wanted more of an intuitive shift in the story or intuitive interactivity."

You can look at each strand of the image from beginning to end "Story" or else by zapping you can experience a "random" a multidimensional impression. The aim is to simulate the processes that take place when listening to a story or remembering a story. Each time it changes a little bit. In the work you can see one layer with text and image elements, on the second one an image that fills the whole screen, and on the third one more associatively integrated image sequences. It is stimulating to watch the material several times, because you always notice new nuances and develop your own fantasies. In this respect, it is not only the process of remembering, but also of daydreaming that becomes "simulated". From the perspective of an adolescent in the East, the imaginary parallel world of remembering, thinking, traumas is illustrated. By zapping back and forth between these levels via remote control, a very own film is created in the viewer’s mind, which revolves around the (non-)communicability of traumas, the course of (historical) time and the ideological fabrication of idols. The work is an interesting experiment, and it remains to be seen whether a new narrative can emerge in this way. New viewing habits develop over time, and Petra Epperlein is optimistic about this: "This is experimental until there are fifty different people who want to tell similar stories with similar technology. Then it is no longer experimental, because many people do it and simply get used to it."

The cowboy is the anti-hero, a lone stranger. After the fall of the real socialist systems, the imaginary border is now also open. The old idols have worn out, and the search for the hero in the West can begin. "The Last Cowboy" shows pictures from the USA in a process of de-swapping. Snapshots from the New Foreign World: A Run-down Hotel Room in New York. The hustle and bustle of Times Square, but without purpose. Poverty in the streets. The advertising theater on the house walls. This is the west I dreamed of, a voice says at one point. The people had a distant relationship, no view of their surroundings, they didn’t talk about anything, and money governed their actions. It becomes an unreal search for the desired image of the Western hero.

The East-West confrontation reverberates in the different perceptions of utopias and myths. Petra Epperlein reports, dab many users from the west the east symbolism in the work were not understood. The utopias in the West were private from the start, closely linked to the consumer world. The hope for a different, better life, this diffuse feeling of longing, which directs its attention to the future and cannot be fathomed in any political program, was at home in the East in a different field of tension. Just like the desire for "World Expansion" If the state’s ideology was pushed to very real limits, the all-embracing claim of the state ideology did its part to push the forces of imagination into a ghetto or into the clutches of the Western commodity aesthetics. The strong influence of Western pop culture on the East is undeniable. Consumer objects were a cult object, associated with desire and wish fulfillment, partly because they were not directly accessible. The media reality of the Federal Republic was present in the everyday consciousness of the GDR.

But this is not the whole truth. Myths are condensations of collective experiences that are reinterpreted and lived over and over again. The cowboy was something different for part of the East German youth than the imagined freedom of the Marlboro Man for West German kids. The DEFA Indian films had an enlightening impetus, but the eternal invocation of the collective life of good Indians was not fulfilling for everyone. The alternative could not be the imaginary promise of the world of commodities. Whatever the cowboy represented in terms of counter-utopias for individuals, it fades against the backdrop of the most recent history. And it cannot be (re)discovered in the West. From this interpenetration of media realities, from the superimposition in individual dreams and the confrontation with the unknown glittering world of consumption in a consciousness narrates "The Last Cowboy", by juxtaposing the different levels of the image.

The idea of a different reality, a utopia, is a prerequisite for art. One needs one’s own dream language in order to reach special results artistically. "The Last Cowboy" invites reflection on the disparity of imagination and common sense, on the rupture between rough history and individual biography.

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