Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Arbitrary Walter Benjamin Reference

After Cannes last week, Mahnola Dargis, Roger Ebert and then even Cinematical piped in on whether or not the august film festival should be showing films digitally, whether or not we can tell the difference, whether the filmmakers care, and what if anything, exactly is lost by this.

It is a conversation fraught with anxiety, nostalgia, knee-jerk conservatism, and nerdy one-up-manship. There's a sense in the air that the age of film is dying before our eyes. Buyers aren't buying at the festival, and sellers aren't coming anymore. There were no US films there except for "Robin Hood," which doesn't even seem to have a presence in America. It's not even really made by Americans. Godard, Ebert reports, is now finally and culturally irrelevant.

I think they're really nostalgic for a community that was worldwide and was dependent upon meeting face to face to see art and discuss marketing and sales. Do people really still care about watching films on film? Doesn't it scratch? Wear? Fade? How high is hi-resolution? Isn't everything already done digitally nowadays anyway?

The question should be reframed. To engage in the question of the value of a film print as a unique format for art to be preserved and shown in its native state is not a question that has anything to do with the filmmaker's motive or intent. The vast majority of the production and industrial habits and processes are ingrained in the capitalistic infrastructure and the artist has no input into the end result. We read about and discuss outliers like Spielberg, who may insist on cutting on film with a flatbed because he likes the "feel" of the cuts, and is allowed to because he's rich enough to be this eccentric, but even he can't stop "Raiders 4" from being digitally projected in most venues (or prevent the analog stunts in "Raiders 3" from looking fake). Fincher insists he can fix it all in post, because his post started 2 years before filming, but that freedom (and distraction) is the worst thing that happened to him. His grosses are a lot lower but the studios are more than happy to have him experiment on making Brad Pitt younger, on-the-job research for when the real Brad Pitt isn't around anymore and they still want to make Brad Pitt movies.

And yet Fincher's upcoming remake of "Reincarnation of Peter Proud" will be struck to film and projected at the local Galaxy theatre, possibly out of focus. Digital effects be damned.

Nor should we accuse poor film showing environments as damning of the medium en toto. Too many times proponents of digital point out that it doesn't scratch. Yet digital fails unexpectedly in different ways, and it's presumed divorcement from the mortal coil of physicality only replaces the problems of inertia, dust and time; it does not make it invincible. Every venue and every showing is different - film will scratch and bulbs will dim and hard drives will skip and the white balance won't be properly recalibrated. Not to mention human error.

To decide that film or film theatres suck because we had a bad experience when a showing of "Sex and the City" broke 2 years ago is to confuse effect with cause. Theatres haven't had union projectionist in their booths for 10 years - those new fancy digital projectors will manifest the same inability to keep going without constant and expensive upkeep soon enough.

Instead we should consider the nature of film projection vs. the nature of digital delivery in a utopian and ideal environment and what the medium, or should I say "format," conveys phenomologically rather than anecdotally. It's a question of reception rather than in the transmission contingencies in the first place.

Film, rather famously, is indexical; that is, it is a one-to-one representation of what the makers created, a print off the negative which was cut/edited from actual strips of film in a camera that was on the set in front of the famous (or infamous) actors there. The line of provenance from object to object is clear and possesses a tangible value as an artifact of a specific time, a place, a method by which it was worked, and its travel through space to arrive behind you as you sit. Light bounced off Ringo Starr and landed on the emulsion in the camera in 1965, in which negatives were printed from. Those negatives were the actual source of the 100s of prints that were sent to theatres. The light shines through it and you see the shadow of those grains of chemical, a kind of apparition of history rewritten on the wall in the glance of light 24 times a second.

The one-to-one-to-one direct lineage is perhaps more important philosophically than cognitively. But the sense that you're watching the same film that has been seen by thousands of others when you see a distressed print of "Help" gives one pause. It creates an awareness of the extra-narrative context over time.

Digital delivery packages, conversely, are translated information from data and output electronically. It is not indexical and has no one-to-one provenance from the original event. It is an electronic construct, and re-constructed. Digital files capture images and events by math. Not by chemical proximity. This material shift from object to data may mean the image is as perfect or as degraded as it has been programed to be. It can be smooth, and has a creaminess that film with its 24-frames-a-second grain can't duplicate. It doesn't manifest scratches. It glows and "feels" perfect.

It doesn't age with experience. Each showing is a new event, a unique performance without previous history.

We respond differently to the flicker of film, some people suggesting it creates a dreamlike fugue state in which the dark between the frames, upwards of 70% of the time, lulls us into a more forgiving right-brain epileptic engagement. Digital streams at 60 or double that frames a second, and commands our attention like a shining inheritance. It's a florescence compared to film's incandescent shimmer, exciting our senses without rest.

Our minds process and get tired watching digital. Certain films work much better that way, insistent and quirky and of the surface. That image up there, the film-strip dress, will not keep her warm at night. It's something else - it looks tactile and has a visual pleasure that barely hides as much as it reveals. It only suggests, promising what it can deliver. The question is whether or not we prefer the shot to be clear and even. Or do we like the evidence of those 24 frames? Does that comfort us, or do we want an image entirely and continually as smooth as milk?


Anonymous said...

I'm going to re-read FLICKER now.

Roger L. said...

In print or on your iPad?

Thanks for reading.

Doug Bonner said...

Isn't it interesting that now, especially at screenings of classic films, how a 35mm print now has that "aura" of the original that Benjamin talked about. It's such an interesting time to see how the Industry will continue to go digital.

Doug Bonner said...

I also am totally eating up your observations on the qualities of film. As a teacher in film school said to our class, "When an audience watches a two-hour film, they're actually looking at one hour of film and sitting in the dark for an hour; they just alternate every 48th of a second."

Roger L. said...


Thanks so much. See previous entry:


for more "flicker" talk. Digital is here to stay, and I'm guessing a backlash will set in. It is not "better" so much as just "different." thanks for reading!