Monday, January 12, 2009

The Border Between Calm and Catastrophe

There is a deeply ambivalent feeling about the rise of digital among the hardwired film fans I know. (And I am one of them.)

The prevailing wisdom is that digital is taking over in all avenues of media, that film as a production medium is dead, that all film will be forgotten, including the very experience of watching film.

That's actually all likely. Most t.v. and all major motion pictures are created on digital media and edited, colored, adjusted and outputted by computers now. There is no "negative." There is no physical object that is worked as an artisan in the old sense of the word might do, or have done for the last 100 years of Hollywood's history. Indeed there is no original object by which we can ever go back to "restore" or save from the dustbin of time.

Digital is so resolutely and stubbornly of the now, and has no reverberant history or meaning beyond its present tense of today's transmission. No remnant of history, but rather just a shiny but shallow reflection, of what it captures. And, in many ways, of the industry itself.

But digital imagery is so pretty. The images are clear in a way that goes beyond mere photographic indexical capturing - hobbled and abstract as it tends to be. Film does not capture everything in front 0f it- only a trace, the light traces. The "art of film" has always depended upon what aspects of that light (the reflections on the street, the highlights in Garbo's eyes) that the filmmakers choose to capture.

HD manifests clearly a bit-streamed millions of colors at a level that goes (at least 1%) beyond the human ability to discern differences in the subtlest shades in the palette. When digital is presented by a carrier that can accurately (that is, electronically bit by bit) address and convert all the information of a hi-def moving-image to a screen or display, the images transform to a hyperreal, hyper-present, and hyper-modern reflection of what happened in front of the camera lens.

It has an intoxicating assertiveness that goes beyond any deconstructive arguments about the indexical limits of a photo-chemical filmed image. Digital is culturally savvy, it is urgent, and it is portable. It is anonymous, democratic, and non-empirical.

It is crystal clear. It's transparent.

To insist in the old modes of production creates a kind of self-imposed obsolescence. So we find ourselves rushing to embrace the beauties of digital cinema and the new modern mode of spectatorship that it engenders.

The unexpected, yet unmourned fall of the previous 100-year reign of film troubles us. We "know" how to do film, and find comfort in its relatively conservative cache. Yet the glitz and glamour of digital seduces us.

So do we follow our worst (or is it best) impulses? Do we allow ourselves to be seduced by what we want over what we know? By what makes us comfortable? Or do we engage the future, even though we're understandably suspicious we'll regret it? And will have lost our innocence and what we don't even know is important until it's gone?

Do we jump?

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