Peter and Talley have just met. Talley, a young, idealistic woman, likes TV and her phone and the way they connect people. Peter, a pragmatic bike messenger, fears that digitally-altered reality, purveyed by media companies, diminishes his life.

Their beliefs and nascent attraction are put to the test when they and four other strangers inexplicably find themselves to be characters in the movie Nothing In A Rectangle Is True. The movie's scene structure prevents Talley and Peter from connecting and discovering more about each other. Meanwhile Roy, a world-wizened older man, regrets mistakes he's made in life: he vows to live the rest of it more directly. This proves hard to do inside a movie.

The characters, who also include a middle aged housewife, a media-savvy young boy and a matter-of-fact Thai student, end up on a green-screen special effects stage well stocked with media equipment. They experiment with storytelling by making this movie. As both media-makers and characters, they arrange revealing interviews with real life media wizards, net hackers, app entrepreneurs, scientists, filmmakers, philosophers and other tricksters, including film director Martin Scorsese, Buddhist scholar Wes Nisker and cyborg anthropologist Amber Case, to substantiate their differing beliefs about digital life, media, truth and reality.

Technology has increasingly wedged itself between us and reality: we now experience each other and much of our world through the narrow bandwidth of digital media. Peter and Roy find that the personalized stories told on our screens are fragmenting our society into a constellation of micro-communities organized around the self, which subverts the marketplace of ideas and makes working together for change impossible. Talley thinks that they should relax and wonders what it means when Peter won't return her texts.

Rectangle's characters gain insights but not solutions from the experts that they interview. Talley and Peter, attempting to get closer, struggle to overcome ideology, media illusion, delusion and, perhaps most bothersome, the relentless pace of film narrative. Roy searches for authentic experience and a way to escape the boundaries of the screen. In the process, they challenge the audience's perception of mediated and actual reality.

Kiss Reality Goodbye

Nothing in a Rectangle Is True is a fast-paced, entertaining romp through life in digitized culture, inspired equally by Sesame Street and Jean-Luc Godard. It is a unique blend of documentary and fiction that attempts to change society by challenging the increasingly fictional center of it.

Rectangle's characters ask the questions we should all be asking: Are virtual relationships real? Does gadget augmentation make us more cyborg and less human? What are we giving up when we view our lives and each other increasingly through media? Does knowing more about each other foster world citizenship and increase the peace? Are we more or less free when we live in a mediated world?

Ironically, Nothing In A Rectangle Is True is itself a movie and is therefore not true. This leaves the viewer holding the bag, responsible for his or her own ideas and questions about media, truth, culture and, to some extent, life itself.

About The Filmmaker

Don Starnes has a deep practical knowledge of the media after more than thirty years behind and beside the camera. He has been backstage at the culture carnival and knows how media is used to manipulate and construct reality. An inveterate observer of culture, Don has discussed mediated culture with people around the world for more than a dozen years. He's found a growing awareness and concern, particularly among young people, who suspect that the virtual life they've inherited isn't all that it's cracked up to be.

Don needs to make this movie to atone for his sins: he has photographed media training as politicians and CEOs learn to spin messages in order to exercise power over people. He has constructed “reality” while filming reality shows and “news” while making video news releases. Watching gifted practitioners such as Karl Rove or Barack Obama, Don sees the craft behind the art, as they lead millions of people by telling stories, for better and for worse.

Viewing all of this through the lens of humanism and social justice, Don would like to help people understand how media works, how it assimilates them and uses them to gain corporate power and capital. Don would like to help people to be less at the affect of media and thus more free.

Approach, Structure and Style

Rectangle gives its characters a job to do: understanding how media works and proving or disproving the problem of mediated life – from inside a movie. This forces Peter and Talley to focus on their conflict about media and reality, when what they want is to get to know each other better. This awkward love story positions essential human frailty and desire against the modern pursuit of digitally-augmented reality.

Rectangle resembles Sesame Street in structure; it is episodic, ostensibly didactic and its story is told simply – smooth movements or static camera, plain lighting, long takes, little cutting.

Much of the story takes place in three types of segments:

  • A green-screen special effects stage:
    Rectangle's characters mess around with film making equipment, making this film and being made by it.
  • Tutorials:
    The characters give imaginative and concise lessons in digital media methods and secrets that are normally hidden by professionals. These are heavily stylized and say as much about the characters as they do about the media.
  • Documentary clips:
    To support their beliefs about mediated life, the characters go on location to film classic documentary clips with noted experts and scholars.

The movie is mischievous: it frequently provides the characters and audience with a reality and then, with a stroke of movie magic, pulls the rug out from under everyone. This causes the audience, as well as Talley, to experience the falseness of media constructions.

Initially a believer in media and its connectivity, Talley comes to find that these connections aren't necessarily authentic and that media stories, while potentially moving, can't be true. Her journey will lead the audience to doubt the mediation of their own lives.


Every social issue is understood or misunderstood, resolved or perpetuated through media.

We believe the structure of life itself is changing, with virtualized, fictional life slowly replacing real life.

Digital media is personal: algorithms craft individual experiences for us. For example, our Google results for the same query are all different. Our digital “me” boxes create differing fictional worlds that divide us into exclusive groups. This makes working together for social justice very difficult. Witness, say, the abstracted, low turnout 2012 presidential election or the divides between [red state/blue state, urban/rural, 99%/1%, and so on] people. Mediated life tends to benefit the few, who control the media, to the detriment of everyone else.

Rectangle attempts to teach people how the media works on them so they can be more free of it.

Mediated Life

The Denial of the Real

Life lived on computers and televisions is indirect life, mediated, as if you were watching life through the camera on your phone instead of experiencing it with your physical senses. When you post on your Facebook wall, you are digitizing a small part of your life, telling a story about it, making it smaller. However, you and your Facebook audience proceed as though that reduced copy of that bit of your life, that story, is real. Mediated reality is moderated by someone else (in this example, Facebook), leaving you less free. Nothing in a Rectangle Is True, which challenges this constructed reality, is a gift of freedom from philosophical Boomers to our Millennial children.

In our postmodern culture, mediations of life range from stories about life and people on TV or the web, to the compulsion to enjoy a concert by recording it on your phone, to eating processed food, to thinking about real people as metaphors for fictional characters.

Reality is disappearing

Is reality possible?

Jean Baudrillard believed that postmodernism has led us to a disassociation from reality that he called hyperreality (post reality; an inability to distinguish reality from a constructed world).

Baudrillard describes a “precession of simulacra” or succession of the types of copies of things; these are stages that society has gone through in recent years, as technology and culture feed back on each other and culture remodels itself through the latest technology. Each new type of copy leads us further away from real experience. The simulacra that Baudrillard refers to are the significations of culture that construct perceived reality.

In our current, media-saturated, hyperreal stage of this precession, the elements of our lives tend to be copies of copies, with no relationship to any reality whatsoever. Baudrillard suggests that we consume reality through signs of signs, with events, meaning and history no longer being produced from shifting, contradictory real experience, but produced as artifacts of media. “The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it.”

Reality, he suggests, is not possible in this mediated culture.

One thing is obvious: unmediated life is real. Less mediated life is more real. The self-evident world beneath the signs and symbols of digital culture is still there. A ground of being exists, one more luminous, magical and powerful than any indirect experience of it.

Reality hunger

The Boomers questioned reality. Generation X achieved freedom from reality by, for example, abstracting people into avatars on personal digital devices and turning the Harvard online yearbook into Facebook, a foundation of everyone's social life today.

However, as Boomer icon and radio personality Scoop Nisker says in our film, “In the Sixties the thing was to turn on, tune in and drop out. Nowadays what's needed is to turn off, tune out and drop in.”

We are seeing people's hunger for value, and the real ground beneath us in many different places: from the provenance movement in which people want to know exactly where their food is coming from and how it was handled, to the popularity of bluegrass music people make themselves, to the Occupy movement in which people are trying to bring the economy back to human scale and find new relations to each other.

People yearn for reality because they don't feel free. Those who experience reality directly are free. If we discover reality to be more than a playground of objects made expressly for us, then we are free to move in a world of objects unencumbered by meanings and references provided to us by digital culture. We are able to see the simple beauty of the real world.



i: Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures (SAGE Publications Ltd., 1998) (Amazon)

ii: Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order: The Phenomenon of Life (CES Publishing, 2001) (Amazon)

iii: The Cross Platform Report – Q4 2011. Rep. The Nielsen Company, 2011. Web.

iv: TV Internet and Mobile Usage In US Keeps Increasing Says Nielsen. Rep. The Nielsen Company, 2009. Web.

v: Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., & Signorielli, N. (2002). “Growing up with television: The cultivation perspective” in M. Morgan (Ed.), Against the mainstream: The selected works of George Gerbner (pp.193-213). New York: Peter Lang.

vi: Pontius, Erika S. “The Impact of Reality Television on Viewers' Perception of Reality.” National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse. Missouri Western State University, 2009.

vii: Philip K. Dick, “How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later”, I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon (Doubleday, 1985) (Amazon)

viii: “Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change.” Pew Social Demographic Trends RSS. Pew Research Center, 24 Feb. 2010. Web.

ix: Feldmann, Derrick, and Ted Grossnickle, eds. Millennial Donors Report 2011. Rep. The Millennial Impact, 2011. Web.

x: Jeff Fromm, Celeste Lindell, and Lainie Decker. American Millennials: Deciphering the Enigma Generation. Rep. Barkley, 2011. Web.