I never got to see the original performances of John Milton’s Paradise Lost in Second Life. First of all, I wasn’t sure what I was doing when, and then the opportunity slipped away – so getting to see the filmed version of Paradise Lost is a bonus and is an endorsement of one of the reasons for Canary Beck gives for producing the video on her website.
It has a runtime of just under an hour. My initial reaction was of concern, born out of enduring too many poorly edited artist video art However, I need not have worried – it really doesn’t feel too long. The episodic approach of using movements of Mozart’s Requiem Mass is an editorial discipline that keeps things moving along.
The whole play is performed within the Basilica at Basilique. Space need not have been constrained, but it was a good decision. Instead of being open and expansive, this containments adds to a sense of presence, theatricality and story-telling.
It also creates a constant sense of looking – looking at, looking through, looking out from, and looking into – as the camera moves position. The angels, an audience sat lined in pews or dancing in formation, emphasise that we are all bearing witness to the creation and loss of Paradise.
The creation itself in Act I Scene 2 is the kind of portrayal that can be done in virtual worlds in a way simply not possible by physical means. The scene is appears in layers with light finally cutting through. As we move through Act I to Scene 4, the camera moves around incessently before slowly panning round, Eden as a theatrical backdrop to Adam and Eve, the animals watching on until finally panning out of scene into the Basilica.
The filming technique is interesting. The camera position is almost in constant motion, an effective approach that only on a couple of occasions became over-intrusive. The camera also moves between lens lengths, from telephoto to wide-angle, which also creates a dynamic. Telephoto shots were used in early scenes to look through the dancers, creating abstract patterns that were further abstracted by moving in and out of focus. This movement reinforces the constant sense of looking – at, through, from, into.
In Act II Scenes 1 & 2, Eve dances with the serpent, until the apple is passed to Eve; the music and dance fit well, and the mood remains green, lush and verdant, and then in Act II Scenes 3 & 4, there’s a change to reds and pinks, emphasising the start of the fall, Paradise Lost.
The flaming swords were the one thing that didn’t work for me, and Act III Scene 1, where it is supposed to be an epic celestial battle, it felt like a few guys replaying Quake with gas lighters. It was a small let down in contrast to the rest of the play, which played more strongly to the strengths of a virtual world.
And that said, it is closely followed by one of the best sections: Act III Scene 2. The set has moved to whites, and the dancers breath shows as they move. The camera moves into and out of focus breaks up what would otherwise be repetitive animations. The camera moves and the set is seen within the interior of the Basilica, the red sun blazing colour behind the whiteness of the stable. This is superbly staged.
After Adam makes the brief climb up the hill with the Archangel Michael, we move into Act III Scenes 4 & 5. This is Adam being led through a vision of the future. There is an ingenious flow of movement through the visions; they often feel too big to be contained within the Basilica, yet there are glimpses beyond the action that show the building walls. In turn, Noah builds the Ark and the animals move to it, it rains and the Basilica floor is flooded.
Then to Egyptian buildings, and as the slaves are freed the camera turns to out from the set to watch Moses lead the slaves through the sea that lies at the bottom of the Basilica and out through the door. This last move is particularly effective. The play concludes with Act III Scene 6, with Adam and Eve taking Cain and Abel, out into the world; rather than just sauntering off set, they disappear against the abstract shapes of colours on the face of the sun.
Paradise Lost is an impressive exercise in machinima making. The use of different ‘lens lengths’, blurring/out of focus and camera motion makes the movement of the avatars less familiar and creates abstract patterns. This is playing to the strength of Second Life as a virtual world – it is a world of movement, of the abstract and of glitch. It resists the static or literal representations.
At the end of Paradise Lost is a long list of credits. Benedict Anderson in his famous work Imagined Communities talked about communities that were so big that people could never meet everyone else, and so had to imagine themselves as a whole. Second Life is a community that is created virtually, but paradoxically is not as imagined as nations and many real life communities. True, many people move through without being much noticed. But the long list of contributors, participants and audience at the end of the film, emphasises interconnectedness. Linden Lab talk about Project Sansar creating virtual experiences. No, that’s not the point. This is it – real experiences in virtual spaces produced by a real community.
Header photograph, photograph and poster in the text by Canary Beck, sourced from Flickr: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0