Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 8#1 Paul Groot 1 Jan 1994

The Satanic Verses as a Minimal Movie

Pentiums, PowerPC chips and cd-roms have become the stars of the multimedia spectacle. But what if all you have is a Macintosh PowerBook 145, black-and-white, and still want to take part in this new trend? After reporting on his earlier experiences with the McHugh on the Classic, and Word 5 on the PowerBook, Paul Groot now describes his struggle with MacroMedia's Director. With enough compression and a lot of artistic algorithms it should be possible to make a minimal movie of The Satanic Verses. After all, Rushdie treated this novel as a cartoon scenario!


Old computer program -

Whoever is holding a PowerBook 145 with MacroMedia's Director in his lap with the intention of making a minimal movie will be forced to learn the Lingo specific to this programme. A language which, to the outsider, is sort of opaque at first, but which on further consideration reflects the jargon of animated cartoon film makers.

So whoever plunges into multimedia is an animator and has to associate himself with the Disney and Avery studios. A strange experience, in fact, for someone who in one way or another has always linked multimedia practice with the nineteenth-century idea of synaesthetics, and, in Huysmans' novel, A Rebours, saw the bible as multimedia. Mistakenly so, multi-media is not a way of working by which the experiences of one sense are described in terms of another; it is a question of literally putting it all into images.

Only in the scripts does the text still have any meaning as a creative factor. It never occurred to the designers of Director that literature could be the ideal template of the multimedia experience. They have focused mainly on the paradigmatic transformation and interactive interface. Film labs and cinema have become redundant; from now on you edit your film with the `drag & drop' agility of a stamp collector. You feed your sound into the film score and put your images in temporal sequence using menu intervention.

Lingo brings coherence to the fragmentation of Directora word processor, a cartoon and film studio, a sound studio and a few other facilities. Being a computer language based on HyperCard, Lingo derives its power from the syntax of the animated cartoon. By means of factories and Xobjects you make a movie with a cast of sprites and puppets.

Despite all the poetic echoes, the language of multimedia is still mainly a technical matter. The formulation of the scripts leaves no room for doubt. What is not precisely formulated does not work. Language is used as a structure of command: all other nuances of language are lost here. That is why a character designed in Lingo is hopelessly inadequate compared to a truly artistic invention.


Puppets are sprites that you can control with Lingo scripts from anywhere in the movie (a Movie script, a Cast script, and so on). Sounds, tempos, transitions, and palettes can also be puppets. (From: MacroMind Director Interactivity Manual)

Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, the most important novel published since World War II, is a work of art whose political power could be compared with Picasso's Guernica. As a novel which incorporates its own stigmata, its power grows with the years. After it had first been read and applauded as a novel and then misunderstood as a religious diatribe, we use it here in perhaps the most obvious way. Whoever reads The Satanic Verses realises that, apart from it being a remarkably portentous text when it comes to the author's fate, most of all it is a multi-media text and an animated film scenario.

The novel is a 'death', Roland Barthes said somewhere, for it turns life into fate, memory into a usable happening, and duration into guided and meaningful time. But this 'death' is in fact precisely the spot where Rushdie's most powerful imagination nestles itself. Within a simple text written in ASCII characters, some 500 pages long this fate, this happening and this time turn once again into life, memory and duration. What appeared to have fallen apart regains coherence, while the grey of oblivion is coloured a new.

With the usual literary and rhetorical artifices – artistic algorithms with a power beside which multimedia as a concept pales into insignificance – complemented with an imagination kindled by the cinema, especially the animated cartoon, The Satanic Verses depict the exploits of the schizophrenic film actor Gibreel Farishta. He begins to think that he is the archangel Gabriel whispering texts into the prophet Mohammed's ear, gradually loses all control over himself. As his frenzied imagination unsettles him more and more, he ends up by committing suicide. Rushdie's description of his adventures is like a Steven Spielberg film; not the kitsch of Schindler's List, but more an artistic and politically committed episode of Indiana Jones . Here it is not the white scientist venturing into an exotic culture, but rather the other way around, a film star, living off the artistic kitsch of Bombay, who is subjected to the Western world. A revealing portrait of a culture, in particular the British colonial culture in the process of decay.

The Satanic Verses are almost self-evidently connected with memory art and the extremely efficient methods this has yielded. If only because Mohammed's message is a purely verbal one, since the prophet himself refused to have it written down. This is also why the atmosphere of the Verses sometimes borders on that of a memory tract, and here and there even reminds us of the adventures of Giordano Bruno as a secret agent in London a few centuries earlier. Both Bruno, the high priest of the memory cult, and Rushdie, who defines this atmosphere almost casually, have proved that memory systems are actually usable as artistic algorithms.


Although not everybody agrees with this: in his Tractatus logico- philosophicus (Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung), Ludwig Wittgenstein denies the effectiveness of these algorithms developed by memory art and cabalistic magic. His simple comment on all these efforts to capture the world in as few sentences as possible, ends with the lamentation that we had better keep quiet about that which we cannot talk about. Apparently he lacked the artistic sensitivity we encounter in his contemporary, Rudolf Carnap. Carnap describes the ideal artistic model in Die Logische Aufbau der Welt (The Logical Build-Up of the World), which is a brilliant visual set-up for the outline of a movie. It proves that you can condense the infinite number of worlds which can be developed in reality into a relatively well-ordered model. The ideal tool for MacroMedia's Director on the PowerBook to convert letters and punctuation marks through applications of the Bézier curves (but just as easily via accidental distortions and incorrect readings) into pictographs.

In the same way as the visual representations of the classic memory systems, which bear a striking resemblance to the logical and physical arrangement of a hard disk, are well matched with the spreadsheet-like form of the Director score. An image of the memory as a sophisticated apparatus which answers Giordano Bruno's question who is that shadow walking beside me with a shadow not beside , but contained within its own texture.

Thus you could develop a mechanical storage device, an efficient three-dimensional filing system, by means of a fractal solution, or even one that goes beyond perceptibility. But until these tools have been programmed into Director , we will have to make do with a conceptual navigator. No 'mind machine' which manages to carry out the work of the human mind by means of mechanical devices, but rather one that can absorb artistic algorithms into the script, from literary metaphors and metamorphoses to cinematic tricks and clichés such as Hitchcocks' MacGuffins (it's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands) .

All these artistic algorithms are there for the taking. The only problem is how to incorporate them into the Lingo of Director , how to make the computer speak a language which not only observes the existing examples, but can also teach itself new ones. One that can develop new instructions from other ones, which can effortlessly transfer sub expressions from one instruction to another through a process of trial & error, with each expression as an argument for another. No survival strategies through variables in a series, as with the usual genetic algorithms where it is customary to apply the metaphor of Darwin's natural selection and evolution, in the best tradition of Survival of the Fittest.

No, you would have to refashion the models towards an artistic 'autistic' atmosphere: mental, and suicidal, rather. To cultivate a theoretical and artistic conceptual model, aimed at the human imagination, that really works.


The Satanic Verses is intrinsically a cartoon script. It was written so precisely that you could leave the book at the office of a cartoon studio without further directions. Each scene is described in detail, every transformation accurately defined, each effect has a well thought-out plan. Of course it is disputable whether the leading roles, who in fact together form a single person - two sides of a complex personality, the angel and the devil - resemble a Disney or rather an Avery character. Both, in fact. You give the angel, Gibreel Farishta, a sugary Bambi- fantasy mask, and turn the devil, Saladin Chamcha, into more of a Daffy Duck. Or even more contemporary, Gabriel is Stimpy, and Satan is Ren. They have the same modern extremeness as John K.'s comic characters, who, beyond the limitations of classic animation, only exist when they metamorphose. Their existence is the metamorphosis, they only exist in a state of transformation, their basic form is unknown. And that is precisely the existential shape of Gibreel & Saladin.

In Rushdie's scenario, the special effects have been worked out meticulously. The exploding, whizzing, skid-sliding and otherwise impossibly acrobatic figurations typical of the cartoon are the norm here. These are the impossible characters of the animated cartoon, where the horns of the devil and those of the jealous husband melt into each other.

As with the classical Moses figures, they literally appear on Saladin Chamcha's skull as the impossible loops we know from the world of art and science, from logic and Gestalt theory. Gibreel is that flat reptile locked into Escher's etching, which becomes three-dimensional for a trip into the real world. Saladin, who, amidst an awful stench of sulphurous fumes, temporarily manifests himself as the devil, is like Lars Eijssen's self-portrait going though life as an etching on a minimal piece of metal and coming alive, pixelated into digital values under the electron bioscope via ion clouds, molecular spheres and atomic particles.

If you want to make these logical modules function as components in a lingo adapted for the PowerBook, you will need more than just the conceptual reshuffles of the specific sensory perceptions. But what kinds of algorithm are we talking about?

The acoustic kind, for example. Saladin Chamcha once earned a living as `the Man with A-Thousand-and-One-Voices'. If you wanted to know how to talk as a ketchup bottle in a TV ad, if you were in doubt about the ideal voice for your crispy garlic snacks, he was your man. So this is the suggestion of a voice illustrating the constant gossip and hypocritical piousness which takes shape in rumours, slander and suspicions in Mecca, London and Bombay...

And it indicates how on the set, at the back left, Gabriel's voice is echoing, or how the interior of Chamcha's room resounds with a heaving sigh behind a newspaper. Not Saladin's `real' voice - that would take up too much writing space - but a text script which turns the movie into a `silent sound movie', as a comment and annotation on Rushdie's text. Not by literally using the voice of the garlic snack, but by describing its acoustic effects.

The maker of a real animated film adaptation has to follow Rushdie's precise instructions. From the beginning of Gabriel's tumbling down (Gibreel, the tuneless soloist, had been cavorting in moonlight as he sang his impromptu gazal, swimming in air, butterfly-stroke, breast-stroke, bunching himself into a ball, spreadeagling himself against the almost-infinity of the almost-dawn, adopting heraldic postures, rampant, couchant, pitting levity against gravity) to the final pages (Gibreel took the lid off the wonderful lamp of Changez Chamchawala and let it fall clattering to the floor) you are right in the middle of a cartoon. But you need an adaptation for the minimal movie on the PowerBook 145. And if you want to keep it in the hallucinating atmosphere anyway, a simple solution might perhaps be best.

The after image of a camera flash in his eyes, made hypersensitive by the drugs he was taking, inspired British film maker Derek Jarman to make a film about a single colour, blue. The hallucinating effect reminded him of the blue emptiness of Yves Klein's paintings. In his eyes, literally a blue rising above the solid geometry of human limitations, indeed, a blue which could free him from his suffering personality. A blue which became his artistic testament in Blue, a film in a single colour, in which the screen shows nothing but a uniform blue colour. The viewer stares at the blue, the only thing he can do is to arouse his own visual imagination with the help of the words from the sound track. Multi-media magic: if the doors of perception were cleansed then everything would be seen as it is . We adopt this invention for our film, and expand on it: here, a simple black-and-white channel must simply suggest the blue, a virtual blue which can be retrieved by a single Lingo command. Blue which is the colour of the sublime as well as of the sentimental. Blue and its symbolic associations are the basis of our sublime experiences. This blue sometimes dims as in a dark mirror - when the limits of visibility vanish into a painful blue - but sometimes this blue turns into the blinding light of the eye of God. Jarman begins his film with the words You say to the boy: Open your eyes. But what is then the colour of Gabriel's eyes? – to answer the question is to produce kitsch. The blue of cinematic transparency is the blue of the movie: blue is the universal love in which man bathes - it is the terrestrial paradise.

Rushdie's text has multimedia dimensions which turn Gabriel & Chamcha into a single present-day character. This character, from the very beginning an anonymous puppet, can simply be incorporated as a movable sprite into the compression and expansion of the digital material (expanding, inflating, heating, zipping & compressing, deflating, icing, unzipping.) The models of the three-dimensional and the fractal compression constitute his equipment. With Rushdie's idiosyncrasies as undocumented resources for artistic use in the Lingo.


Suicides are ideal for a minimal movie. They can help you to end it at a moment when the claim on the memory becomes to great.

A neighbour saw the flash of gunpowder and heard the shot; but because everything remained totally quiet he did not pay it any attention, writes Goethe after Werther put the pistol to his temple. With Rushdie we read: Then very quickly, before Salahuddin could move a finger, Gibreel put the barrel of the gun into his own mouth; and pulled the trigger; and was free. Unlike Goethe, where Charlotte, his impossible love, hands Werther the pistol herself, with Gabriel it is a revolver he has hidden in Aladdin's lamp. Gabriel uses it to kill the sprite and the puppet which torture him from inside. A fearsome genie of monstrous stature appeared, Salahuddin remembered. What is your wish? I am the slave of him who holds the lamp!

In The Satanic Verses (the movie), the final suicide is adapted to a digital atmosphere. The gun shot is replaced by an explosion which brings Gabriel's life, and at the same time the movie itself, to a digital end. The genie transforms the pistol into a portrait of Gibreel on a Kodak photo CD with, in the least significant of each of the 24 bits of the red, green and blue colours, a secret message within the image of the white of an eye streaked with red veins is hidden. When we try to download his portrait, there is no message indicating `insufficient memory'. The genie coming out of the lamp is like a letter bomb being opened.

Who can tell whether this suddenly flashing blue reflects the images, is transparent, or perhaps the bearer of the images themselves?

A perfect moment to let the movie crash.