Digital Fiction, “transmedia” moments, and mood: What we can learn from the opening scene of Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse

shazia hafiz ramji

On the train home after the first day of the Digital Pathways workshop, I was left with the question: “Why do I feel the way I feel when I read or watch something really great? Why don’t I feel it often? What exactly is it that I feel?” I thought about the conversations in class, and concluded that we discussed this feeling in terms of the “experiential,” and how this can be achieved by incorporating different media in a web platform that aggregates. I realized that I understood this ambiguous feeling i.e. the “experiential,” as the “mood.”

In Seven Types of Ambiguity, Empson writes: “Critics often say or imply casually that some poetic effect conveys a direct “physical” quality, something mysteriously intimate, something which it is strange a poet could convey, something like a sensation which is not attached to any one of the senses. This may only be a statement of how they themselves applied their conscious attention when reading the poem; thus a musical chord is a direct sensation, but not therefore unanalysable into its separate notes even at the moment of sensing…. But it may mean something more important, involving a distinction between “sensation” and “feeling”; that what the poet has conveyed is no assembly of grammatical meanings, capable of analysis, but a “mood”, an “atmosphere”, a “personality”, an attitude to life, an undifferentiated mode of being.

The opening scene from The Turin Horse by Bela Tarr is almost six minutes long. It is composed of one long shot. The first thing we see is a blank black screen, which is accompanied by a voice (the director’s) that tells us the story of Nietzsche witnessing a horse being whipped. Witnessing this scene supposedly drove Nietzsche to silence and madness. The director’s voice asks “But what of the horse?” So, we start the film (about the horse, the horse’s owner, and the owner’s daughter) without an image, but with a voice, and a story, that is a reference to another story.

The scene which fades in begins in the middle of the action. The action is a man (sitting in his horse-drawn cart), and his horse making their way through a stormy day. It sounds boring. But the scene isn’t just the image—the music completes the image: the horse’s legs are not in the frame, they only hint at strain, but the music—cellos and violins in somber notes—completes the image of the horse’s tendons and muscles under strain. I can go on and on trying to explain and analyze the nuances of this scene, but this would be missing Empson’s point. In my understanding, the reason it works is because the mood is very strong. Using Empson’s passage, this scene is undifferentiated and embodies an attitude to life (that of suffering, repetition, obligation, labour): there is a tightly woven unity to all the elements, down to the last few seconds during which the “real” sounds of the carriage on the path gradually replace the music. This element of surprise increases the immediacy. I know this, because it was “experiential”; my mood flipped, completely. I wept for a while, watched the opening scene many times, eventually watched the film, wrote a poem shortly after while weeping and eating potatoes as the characters did in the film, cancelled work the next day, and went to sleep at 8 a.m. I have never before or since missed work because of a piece of art.

Because of my interactive experience (interactive: generative, active response and participation) with this film, I want to argue that this multimedia scene is a forerunner to the successful and effective “transmedia” moment because of its mood, which is achieved through unity—created through ambiguity.

In class, we were constantly thinking of our senses, and how to create opportunities for interaction by engaging the senses, whether it was by clicking an image as a point of access, or hovering over the text, which expanded to a video.

On realizing how mood is an ambiguous undifferentiated feeling, I think that transmedia storytelling offers many opportunities, but to execute an awesome piece of fiction, there has to be ambiguity. This is how we get in. Ambiguity is simply an invitation to understand, and this is what interactivity does—it invites you to understand by making sense of it yourself, just like I responded to the scene from The Turin Horse by writing a poem.

Why not begin with complete ambiguity as the entry access point (instead of having an image, or text, or sound, or clicking a link, or any other form of interactivity that has already been established online)? Why not create an “atmosphere,” a space that makes you ask “What am I still doing here (on this site) even though I have to be out of the house in five minutes?”

The CBC Radio 3 magazine archives are effective in mimicking this mood. The page pops into music, and you’re simultaneously seeing the background. Before you can even ask “What is this?” you’re already feeling. There is no time to right click and “open in a new tab.” It’s just there; it’s immersive first—the ambiguity is an effect of totality that is very quick—and it is interactive second, but the realization of these two occur at the same time.

The Silence of the Ebooks

In the midst of an animated discussion with a grad student, weighed down with armfuls of books on media archaeology and criticism, I was utterly stumped by my inability to locate something I’d remembered reading last year: a fascinating chapter on John Cage’s 4’33 (of silence) and other interesting examples of blank media that still, somehow, have content. I struggled, I googled, I searched high and low on bookshelves, hard drives, gmails… all in vain. Eventually I turned to googling bare keywords in the hope that somebody, somewhere would refer to this text. Or maybe I dreamt it? Seemed plausible: a dream about a non-existent article about a non-existent song.

It turns out the truth wasn’t far off that. What I recalled reading was in fact a book – Craig Dworkin’s No Medium – which I read last summer, in one of the two pine muskoka chairs I had built and which sit in the shade of a katsura tree in my front yard. That part of the memory was crystal clear. How come I couldn’t remember what I’d read?

Eventually the details fell into place. I read it on the Kindle, which is of course why it didn’t turn up in any of my searches. And indeed, Craig Dworkin’s core argument, beautifully illustrated by literally hundreds of examples of blank, non-existent media, is that there is actually no such thing as a bare medium; rather, media are interpretive occasions, or at least eventful: their context is gathered, rather than given.

When I remember reading a book, I remember so much more than the text. I remember the physicality of the book, and where (and when) I was when I read it, and probably traces of whatever else was going on at the time. How the ebook messes with that memory! By erasing the physicality of a text, or at least by submerging it in a bland and anonymous container, the experience of reading – or rather, the experience of having read – is truncated.

If there is to be an embodied sense of a digital text, it must necessarily come from the text itself. I wonder if – putting ebooks aside – it would be possible to create an immersive digital storyworld rich enough to flesh out that part of the experience of reading, to provide the sense of a time and a place and a surrounding context. Is this perhaps easier with fiction than nonfiction? Because fiction provides a location, an immersive world to inhabit? And if so, how to provide that grounding in a nonfiction reading experience?