The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
A boxy, European sports car races through the medieval street-layout of Paris in pursuit of "THE PACKAGE." A hacker using a black, plastic-heavy Thinkpad laptop connects to "THE UPLINK" via cellular phone while sitting on a Eurostar train speeding from London to Brussels. A puffy-jacketed secret agent trying to look inconspicuous exchanges grainy photographs of "THE TARGET" with their "HANDLER" in Berlin’s bustling Alexanderplatz square. Meanwhile, in some nondescript, CRT-clad control center, green dots mark everyone’s position on an oversized map.
What do these characterizations, so specific to a certain time in moviemaking, have in common? Call it Nokiawave, a term first coined by David Rudnick while tracing tropes across American action movies. Across a non-conclusive set of films—amongst them GoldenEye (1995), Mission: Impossible (1996), Ronin (1998), and the first three movies of the Bourne series (2002-2007)—and inside an admittedly porous container, Nokiawave describes a subgenre investigating common cinematic motifs and tropes such as borders and motion, espionage and paranoia, city grids and network infrastructures, technology, and the role of administration. This might be a nighttime parked-car rendezvous on a wet, cobbled Budapest side street (Spy Game, 2001), or a “Terrorist Arms Bazaar” at an unspecified location at the “Russian Border” (Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997). Post-Cold War US/Europe, and in particular the “Schengen Area,” simultaneously becomes setting and character in these silver-screen narratives about the existential angst of empires losing control. In a world of dissolved dichotomies and struggles to reclaim dominance via interconnected systems of surveillance, the protagonists of these films—moving within, through, and against the infrastructure of a seemingly borderless Europe—manage to briefly lift the veil on the “control-grid,” a new order of maintaining control and administrating power that has replaced the old East-West opposition.
Essential to the fabric of Nokiawave films is the time of profound identity crisis and disorientation during which they were produced. The 1990s and early 2000s, from a Western point of view, were the post Cold War, pre 9/11 years, in which balances of geopolitical power and with them identity narratives were profoundly destabilized. With this struggle as backdrop, Hollywood, the greatest exporting entity of American cultural imperialism, played a crucial role in attempts at constructing new narratives to fill the void. In need of updated plot devices amongst these newly dissolved geopolitical certainties, Nokiawave films construct allegories which project their protagonists (often preemptively—hence the often over the top and unconvincing technology scenes) onto emerging digital networks, geopolitical ruptures, and yet to be determined rhizomatic infrastructures, suggesting new ways of enacting statecraft and influencing the built environment in their wake.
With enemy figures no longer contained spatially nor conceptually to Cold War dichotomies, and borders being redefined constantly, the films are forced to simultaneously speculate on what constitutes the functions and boundaries of the “control-grid” while propelling their “First World” intelligence operatives through, around, and in-between them. Claiming Nokiawave as a sub-genre posits that these surveillance aesthetics (what Frederick Jameson might call the “geopolitical aesthetic”) in the films played a part in establishing a globalized world, and by doing so contributed to producing us, the viewers, as globalized subjects fully immersed in the flow of goods, information, and labor they depict. To the extent that this can be confirmed, or accepted, Nokiawave films then serve as expressions and documents of a specific moment in history where cinema shaped contemporary power apparatuses.
True to its MacGuffin-riddled form, Nokiawave also frequently extends into both the past and future—both in terms of when a particular film was shot and the era it depicts—and finds familiar territory and spiritual kindred in productions outside its loose timeline, such as C'était un rendez-vous (1976), Escape from New York (1981), xXx (2002), and demonlover (2002), among many others. Less defined by genre or era, the two poles around which this tentative sub-genre rotates, the “control-grid” and “perpetual motion,” serve as recurring threads between the included (and outlying) films and constitute the very core of Nokiawave’s essence.
Nokiawave borrows and expands upon the term “control-grid” from Gregory Flaxman, whose writing maps an entanglement of cinema and control. In its service to the sub-genre, the control-grid is defined as the very same underlying force prevalent in and necessary for surveillance society—a state’s ability to monitor, track, accumulate information on, and predict the actions of an individual via a dominance over and weaponization of computers, databases, networks, cell phones, GPS, et cetera. The control-grid is at once cartographic while also increasingly immaterial—or intangible—and exists as more of a vessel for information and an access to knowledge than a blanket, strong-fisted deployment of control. In a cartographic sense, it’s born from the historic military tradition of gridding maps as a means of producing a visible, surveyed, and therefore controllable landscape. These were the methods of Columbus and Magellan in their colonial expeditions, and those of the U.S. military in their deployment of the 24-satellite-strong Defense Navigation Satellite System (which eventually became GPS). This production of the world as visible (whether charted, filmed, or surveyed) is where the intersection of control and cinema lays, especially in regards to Nokiawave, and makes clear how surveillance in film can be complicit in the project of a fully mapped and compartmentalized “world system,” one that creates its subjects as much as it portrays them. In other words, seeing things through the lens of a military technology, something rampant in Nokiawave films if not the lens itself, in turn militarizes the subjects being looked at (and those doing the looking).
This idea of an overlaying grid on which movement occurs and control is enforced is a prevalent motif in the Bourne (2002-2007) series of films, to the extent that it frequently acts as the narrative device and/or a character itself. This happens especially in the first three films of the series: Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity (2002) and Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). “All that matters is staying alive. You get off the grid, survive,” remarks Jason Bourne—in one sentence describing his sole objective throughout the series. Here, getting “off the grid” is no longer restricted to simply physically distancing oneself from society, but also requires disappearing one’s presence from the digital record, the always-listening, always-watching, and always-recording surveillance state, rendering one’s self invisible to its “global eye.” The films simultaneously map the existence of the control-grid, reveal the cracks in its surface, and function as soft propaganda for its existence.
The Bourne series of films are based on the novels of Robert Ludlum and feature the protagonist Jason Bourne, who viewers are first introduced to as an amnesia-stricken but clearly capable agent of the state. When pulled from the sea with two bullets in his back and a microchip (containing the account number belonging to a Swiss bank) in his hip in The Bourne Identity, Bourne can’t remember his name, the source of his heightened awareness, martial arts skills, or technical know-how and intuition. Viewers later learn that Jason Bourne is the result of a joint CIA and Department of Defense experiment into the psychological, biological, and genetic manipulation of a subject to achieve an “ideal soldier,” one with heightened sensibilities and lacking the moral compass (or a re-aligned one) or historic baggage that would interfere with anything other than a full obedience towards the agency’s conquest for geopolitical control.
What makes the Bourne series remarkable, and sets them apart from the plethora of similar espionage films of the time, is its unremarkable depiction of technology and the surveillance apparatus. Aside from Bourne’s frequent country-hopping that happens throughout the series, the setting for large portions of the films are nondescript and dull offices, board rooms, and “control rooms” filled with computers. No effort has been made to portray anything about this process as advanced, or anything other than mundane. Post-it notes, binders, paperclips, poorly pressed suits, and styrofoam cups of what is likely lukewarm Folgers coffee can all be discerned across the film’s mise en scène. The surveilling, tracking, and killing that takes place is largely an administrative act.
Considering that the first Bourne film came out the same year as the sleek screens seen in Minority Report (2002), it’s evident how this aesthetic is a conscious decision: rooms with drop-down ceilings, bulky equipment, and binders full of documents are the sites in which geopolitical power struggles play out. The same mentality is true of Jason Bourne’s movement through space—on the opposite side of the spectrum from the Bond films, Bourne largely relies on public transport, city infrastructure, and lo-fi tech to accomplish his objectives. Whereas James Bond might deploy a lethal gadget supplied by MI6, perhaps a propelling rope or a rocket fired from a sports car, Bourne is more likely to rely on a Casio watch set to UTC+02:00 and the public subway system to evade enemies. What we see is that the control-grid doesn’t rely on sci-fi futures or advanced technology to exist—it’s largely mundane and embedded into otherwise unremarkable environments and emerging technologies, largely independent from the actual capabilities of said technology and more so finding a temporary home in them. These are not science fiction films, they are films of the world we live in, almost to a boring extent.
The control-grid makes a constant appearance or is referenced throughout the films, with each cameo speaking to one of three facets of the control-grid. A pivotal set of scenes in The Bourne Identity takes place in an otherwise cinematically bland setting—the control room of Treadstone, the black ops project Bourne is part of—at the moment they begin tracking Jason Bourne’s movements. By examining surveillance footage, the room discovers Bourne is traveling with Marie, who is then marked as an accomplice, a subject of special interest, within the control-grid. An operations officer who oversees Treadstone calls his team into action: “Let’s get a map up here,” although Tony Gilroy’s original screenplay reads “Let’s get a grid map up here.” Also in the original script, someone remarks that Bourne was sighted “48 hours ago,” and that by now the “grid is huge.” One analyst makes the remark, “We’re getting grids. Airline, train, hotels” as nearly indecipherable amounts of information pour onto several computer monitors. In another scene the person in charge of tracing Bourne asks, “Where are your grids coming from?” to which she’s told “NSA Tactical.” As the CIA is in theory prohibited from participating in data collection, it relies on the NSA for information—highlighting the control-grid’s powers to reach across the aisle. During a scene in which the control room realizes Bourne is traveling with Marie, the analysts experience an initial moment of defeat when they discover Marie doesn’t have a strong record or history within the control-grid: “It’s tough, the girl’s a gypsy. I mean, she pops up on the grid here and there, but it’s chaotic at best.” As they begin to dive deeper—her work history, bills, taxes, cell phone records, records of anyone she’s been associated with—enough information can be cross-referenced to form a distinctive plot on the grid.
In a scene from The Bourne Supremacy, Bourne “pops up” on the grid after having gone rogue, and in another from The Bourne Ultimatum, control room handlers remark how one of his passports has “gone on the grid” for the first time after being used to pass through a customs checkpoint. From these scenes, spread across the three films, it can be deduced that the control-grid is simultaneously the literal, gridded mapping of space, as seen in the abundance of screens with city layouts; a link and point of access between otherwise separate systems, as seen in the cross-referencing of Marie’s history; and a container in which data about a subject can accumulate, as seen in the pulling of historical records, movements, and phone calls.
What is so particular about the control-grid in the context of these films, or, what is afforded to depictions of the control-grid when manifesting cinematically? Of course touching upon ideas of the surveillance state and weaponized network technologies isn’t something happening exclusively in these films, nor is it even restricted to cinema, however, there are particular phenomena present when the control-grid is reproduced cinematically. Here enters “perpetual motion,” the often-times literal driving force behind Nokiawave films. Whether rapidly switching between scenes and geographic locations, or a protagonist’s eternal state of being chased, the pace of Nokiawave films is one of constant propulsion, hardly pausing or taking a breath. In order to maintain the rhythm and speed demanded by a film in perpetual motion, several methods are called upon, including the quick and pinpoint editing of fight scenes, on-foot and in-car chase scenes, and the deployment of surveillance and satellite imagery as a continuity device.
In one scene from Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State (1998), the protagonist is paid an unexpected visit by some men in suits, and after hastily copying some sought-after data to a floppy disk and fleeing his apartment, a chase ensues. Particular to the scene is the way those doing the chasing (physically and remotely) employ access to satellite imagery in a way that not only allows them to better track the protagonist, but contributes greatly to the pace of the narrative. As soon as the fugitive is beyond view of the henchmen—and also the viewer, implied by the camera briefly assuming their street-view vantage point—the film cuts to a scene 36,000 kilometers above the Earth to a satellite hurriedly re-routing its orbit, as if to gain a better perspective. “Give me real-time imagery coverage at LAT 38, 55, LONG 77, 00,” demands one of the pursuers. The request is picked up by two headset-wearing agents inside a parked white van (“local control”) who then forward it to central HQ, presumably the source of the satellite manipulation. For the rest of the chase scene the camera oscillates between the street-level henchmen, the various stages of “control” rooms involved, real-time satellite imagery, and a camera-equipped helicopter which is also dispatched. All these layers act in unison to form a “stack” of cinematographic possibilities, vastly increasing the scene’s breadth of “field” and inciting its fast pace.
GPS and surveillance imagery allow (and force) the film to occur at a much quicker pace than standard, acting like a conceptual dolly which allows the film to propel itself, surroundings, and protagonists at high speeds. Operating at a speed that would otherwise undermine them, surveillance as a cinematic device allows Aristotle’s rules of drama, basically, that things be continuous and make sense, to be kept intact. By including this kind of imagery and camera work as a narrative device, or sometimes even character, the films are afforded the ability to trigger, push forward, and make credible fast-paced editing and cutting that alludes to the kind of narrative complexity and country-hopping connectivity that Nokiawave requires. Plots are advanced in ways that would have otherwise been impossible, or at least have required a lot more (and slower) filmic “leg work.” This kind of geo-surveillance maps to one of cinema’s core facets: the ability to track visually a subject over space and time, and affords the films a set of tools and methods to develop location and narrative fit for a geopolitical aesthetic. In the case of Nokiawave films, this directly contributes to the feeling of perpetual motion in their establishing shots—almost always “UPPERCASE CITY NAME” (Berlin, Budapest, London, and Langley) in the corner of the frame, their car chase scenes, and the ability to credibly, cinematically track a subject from a newly-obtained distance. At their height—whether that’s a camera affixed to the hood of a speeding 1991 BMW M5 E34 in John Frankenheimer’s Ronin or a satellite in orbit, and operating in a state of perpetual motion, Nokiawave films are able to mesh this surveillance-cinema stack together to depict world system-level narratives in a (deceivingly) cohesive manner.
Post-Nokiawave, if there is such a thing, we still inhabit societies of control, ones where the prevalence of surveillance is increasingly tangible and even mundane. Wherever one goes, we are on a screen or being recorded—captured by CCTV, tracked by a cellphone’s GPS or a device’s IP address, submitted to biometric recognition—while at the same generating metadata via our financial transactions, logins, web browsing history, and interactions with others on the phone. The “bug,” or phone tap, and photographic surveillance are no longer necessary for this to occur: there are vast, both private- and state-controlled systems in place which collect and categorize our interactions, movements, relationships to others, and even predict our actions. The white van parked outside the apartment has become obsolete, instead even the most intimate aspects of our lives are routed through and subjected to these systems of surveillance, which have become something we not only live with, but live through.
In his initial emails to the journalist Laura Poitras, and prior to the NSA leak, Edward Snowden warned of these systems’ capabilities and reach: “From now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, article you write, site you visit, subject line you type, and packet you route, is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not.” The more we move, the more detailed our file on networks, connections, and data becomes. We are perpetually moving within the coordinates of “the grid,” and much like Marie found, the chances of successful evasion are slim.
Perhaps one thing afforded to thinking Nokiawave as a sub-genre of films, dispersed across its retroactive nostalgia, yearning for a bygone era of supposed Western hegemony, and now laughable depictions of technology, is how it allows for cinematic depictions of otherwise invisible (and emerging) technologies of control. These technologies aren’t limited to the gadgets featured in the film—which are generally absurd, like Mission: Impossible’s Ethan Hunt navigating to MAX.COM in his search for a confidential source of the same name—but more consequentially extend to larger attempts at terraforming a narrative landscape. Years later, in an era of more opaque and embedded systems of surveillance, the control-grid becomes much more difficult to depict and commit to film. Much like a photograph of a data center failing to speak to the intricacies of algorithms, what can film viewers learn from Nokiawave in terms of an (in)ability to capture the contemporary condition? The answer might begin with Frederic Jameson’s call for “an aesthetic of cognitive mapping,” one that seeks “to endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of place in the global system” and which will “necessarily have to respect this now enormously complex representational dialectic and invent new forms in order to do it justice.” By not only identifying how the films succeeded in accomplishing this, but more importantly (and easily) noting how they failed, Nokiawave’s attempts at geopolitical speed running and ahead of itself future-telling during a time of East/West identity crisis present an interesting case for cinema’s world building potential.
Eternal gratitude to Till Wittwer, my co-operative and collaborator (Treffe dich am Alexanderplatz, Genosse), David Rudnick, whose coining of the term “Nokiawave” provided the scaffolding to turn our torrented-action-movies-over-beers conversations into something more solid, and filmfront, the Chicago-based cine-club who hosted our performance lecture “Perpetual Motion And The Control-Grid: A Nokiawave Primer” which served as the sandbox for most of the above. Now that interacting with this article has surely triggered attention being brought to your pulsing green dot on some grid, where to? Perhaps something from this list of Nokiawave films will provide an answer, or at least make for a good watch.