There can be no doubt that the digitisation of the moving image has radically and irrevocably altered the phenomenon which we call the cinema, and that the characteristics of this transformation leave open an entirely new field of visual figuration. For those who live and work in the post-filmic era – i.e., those who have come to consciousness in the past twenty years – the digital world is not only an accomplished fact, but also the dominant medium of visual discourse. Many of my students remark that the liberation of the moving image from the tyranny of the “imperfect” medium of film is a technical shift that is not only inevitable, but also desirable.
For younger viewers, the scratch-free, grain-free, glossily perfect contours of the digital image hold a pristine allure that the relative roughness of the filmic image lacks. Indeed, by doing away with film, many of my students persuasively argue that we are witnessing the next step in what will be a continual evolution of moving image recording, which, in turn, will be followed by newer mediums of image capture now unknown to us. For others, those of my age, the filmic medium is a separate and sacrosanct domain, and the “coldness” of the digital image, stripped of any of the inherent qualities of light, plastics and coloured dyes, betrays a lack of emotion, a disconnect from the real in the classical Bazinian sense. DVDs are easy to use and cheap to produce, but can’t afford the visual depth and resonance of a projected 35mm filmic image. And, it seems to me, both arguments have valid points and are equally worthy of serious consideration.
Yet the problem, ultimately, with such considerations is that, in the end, there is no “right” answer, no clearly superior medium, no set of values that emerges as the clear winner in any disputation that must, of necessity, be based on personal æsthetics, as well as practical and financial consideration. 16mm, we might as well face it, is dead, and I mourn its passing as much as anyone. Indeed, I run 16mm prints in my classes as much as I possibly can, and revel in the pictorial values and warmth of the film image during my analytical student screenings of classic films. But, in my home, I no longer have a 16mm projection set-up, which I had for many years in the 1960s through to the early 1980s; DVDs have replaced the hundreds of 16mm prints I used to own, and have since sold or donated to various archives. When screened on a 50” plasma monitor in the proper aspect ratio, DVDs offer a very satisfactory viewing experience, even if what emerges is, at least in my view, a copy of a copy.
But it is important to note that the majority of viewers – and I include many of the new generation of academics here – make no such distinction. Watching Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) on DVD, for example, 21st century viewers realize that they are watching (optimally) a 35mm negative transferred to digital memory and then downloaded to a DVD for home use, and that the final image they watch “copies” the filmic nature of the original image, but at the same time gives only the “impression” of its original source material. But given this a priori assumption, 21st century viewers quickly move past this empirical certainty to embrace this newly digitised image as the simulacrum of a 20th century medium. There is no sadness in this and no betrayal of the maker’s original intent; it is merely a translation from one image capture medium to another.
Certainly it can be argued that this is an oversimplification of a rather knotty problem; film comes with one set of values inherently present in the stock itself (a tendency towards warmth in colour for some film stocks, or towards cooler hues in others, as well as characteristics of grain, depth and definition which are unique to each individual film matrix), while the digital video image offers another entirely different set of characteristics, verging on a hyperreal glossiness that seems to shimmer on the screen. To achieve a reconsideration of the basic states of representationalism inherent in any comparison of these two mediums is a difficult task, calling into question more than a century of cinematic practice, and a host of assumptions shared by practitioners and viewers alike. Insofar as the moving image is concerned, it might well be termed what Friedrich Nietzsche cited in Ecce Homo as the re-evaluation of all values, or “the old truth coming to an end” (1), opening up a series of questions, claims and counterclaims that instantaneously obliterate almost all of our preconceptions of the nature of the moving image.
This is hard work, and yet it is work that must be attempted critically and theoretically, because, paradoxically, it has already been accomplished as a physical fact; the film image is about to become the sarcophagus of memory, while a new medium of moving image recording takes centre stage, for the moment, its moment, bringing with it a whole new host of æsthetic and practical issues, such as archiving, distribution and audience reception; how different is it to view these images primarily in the privacy – or isolation – of one’s own home, as opposed to the communal nature of traditional filmic projection in an auditorium of strangers?
I won’t shed tears over the death of cinema. This might be its first real chance to be taken seriously. It is estimated that about one and a half billion viewing hours of moving images were produced in the year 1999, twice the number made just a decade before. If that rate of growth continues, three billion viewing hours of moving images will be made in 2006, and six billion in 2011. By the year 2025 there will be some one hundred billion hours of these images to be seen. In 1895, the ratio was just above forty minutes, and most of it is now preserved. The meaning is clear. One and a half billion hours is already well beyond the capacity of any single human: it translates into more than 171,000 viewing years of moving pictures in a calendar year. (2)
In short, cinema history is so vast that it can never be encompassed, no matter how assiduously one might try, and images are disintegrating or being erased faster than we can possibly archive them. Jean Cocteau was right when he observed in 1943 that “a cinema studio is a factory for making ghosts. The cinema is a ghost language that has to be learned.” (3) But such a language, despite having widespread currency, is also a language that is inherently ephemeral, leaving a series of impressions that have more tangible currency than the fragile film stock on which they are fixed. The 21st century has given us a new “ghost language” with its own rules, ciphers and grammar.
Such 20th century fetish films as Peter Delpeut’s Lyrical Nitrate (1991) and The Forbidden Quest (1993) document the evanescent ebbing and fading of the filmic image in its last stages of existence, as its hold on physical existence threatens to expire from moment to moment, finding a tragic beauty in the ineluctable decay of the film image. But the digital image is also given to similar displays of spectacular mortality, dissolving at a moment’s notice in a whorl of pixels, image rips, rolling sync bars and video grain. For contemporary moving-image production, the line between film and digital has crossed this boundary, as well; in each instance, the image is only temporarily fixed, as mortal as we are ourselves. Geoffrey O’Brien once posited that the act of viewing a film plunges the spectator into a world of endless self-references and permutations, in which one inhabits a world populated by, among other things,
[The Battleship] Potemkin (4), Charlie Chaplin in drag, Filipino horror movies about mad surgeons, animated maps tracking the pincer movements of [Field Marshall] Rommel’s Panzer divisions, Egyptian soap operas in which insanely jealous husbands weep for what seems like hours at a stretch, made-for-TV stories about hitchhikers and serial killers, a long row of seventy-minute cavalry westerns, Russian science fiction intercut with nude scenes shot on Long Island, the best of the Bowery Boys, an amateur bondage cassette filmed on location in a dentist’s office in Ronkonkoma, They Drive by Night [Raoul Walsh, 1940], All This, and Heaven Too [Anatole Litvak, 1940], The Barkleys of Broadway [Charles Waters, 1949], Hindi religious musicals, Japanese gangster movies, countless adaptations of the works of William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and the Brontë sisters, L’Avventura [Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960], The Gene Krupa Story [Don Weis, 1959], [La Noche del terror ciego (The] Night of the Blind Dead [Amando de Ossorio, 1971], Betty Boop cartoons with color added, touristic documentation of Calcutta and Isfahan, a Bulgarian punk band captured live, and the complete photoplays of Louise Brooks, Greta Garbo, and Veronica Lake. (5)
For O’Brien, viewing these images accomplishes one thing above all others: it provides “minimal proof that you were not dead” (6). But these images, now accessible to you primarily through the scan lines of a flat-screen television, on DVD or BluRay DVD, exist at a distance, separated from the faces and places that created their phantom existence. A digital copy is a copy of a copy, transformed into another medium, and yet more concrete than the presence of the original negative of the film itself, stored in a different vault miles below the surface of the earth, indifferently awaiting revival, retrieval, transfer or oblivion. Gerard Malanga, Andy Warhol’s right-hand man during his most prolific period in the early-to-mid 1960s, noted of his own cinematographic work in 1989, long after Warhol’s Factory had vanished, that the most mundane images often held unexpected resonance for him, noting that in the archival process, “I discovered images I would not have seriously considered at the time of having made them. But I truly believe photographs have [an] innate and unique ability to take on new significance with age.” (7)
And yet, as Usai argues, even as he venerates the images that informed the interior landscape of his youth, “nostalgia in any form gives me the creeps. Brooding over the past bores me to death” (8), a paradoxical stance to take when he simultaneously admits that “an archive for moving images will end as a kind of museum – in the sense we currently give that term of an asylum for cultural artifacts” (9). As a medium, the cinema, whether digital or filmic, has always thrived on, and actively sought out, agencies of dramatic and transformative change. Paper film gave way to cellulose nitrate, and then to “safety film”; black and white has fallen to colour film, silence has given way to multidimensional stereophonic sound, digitally recorded for Dolby playback. Yet it seems at each juncture in this evolutionary parade that it is the critics and theoreticians of the medium that are most resistant to change, as when Rouben Mamoulian’s Becky Sharp premiered in three-step Technicolor in 1935 to one critic’s comment that
the total impression is one of a brass band in color rather than a well-modulated symphony […] As long as color in film has the quality of a gaudy calendar lithograph, there is no future for it, artistically, except in the embellishment of […] the animated cartoon
while producer Walter Wanger enthused “color is just as inevitable as speech. I don’t believe that one black-and-white picture will be produced four years hence”, while Samuel Goldwyn announced that all his new pictures would be made in Technicolor, predicting that “black and whites soon would be as rare as silent films” (10).
VCRs, along with a host of other factors, eventually killed drive-ins, making it possible to view a film at home with ease and convenience; DVDs wiped the VHS format out of existence a few years after their introduction. In the same fashion, second-run theatres were also killed off by the burgeoning DVD market, as the window between VHS and the theatrical release of a film and its appearance on DVD dwindled into nonexistence. And yet, as the public audience for 20th century cinema film becomes increasingly specialized and narrowly segmented, to the point that American Blockbuster stores no longer even bother with a token “classics” section – even such reliable standbys as Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) are ignored in most of the chain’s stores – for those who embrace the past a wider range of films has become available. Often these DVDs go out of print in a matter of months, so one must purchase them immediately upon their release, as fetish objects that also have a temporal existence of their own, and a thriving bootleg “industry” exists as well, making copies of all but the most fugitive films available to the private collector.
In 2001, I wrote an essay entitled “Twenty-five Reasons Why It’s All Over”, which argued that the cinema, as we had grown up with it, had been altered so drastically so as to be a different medium altogether, as the combatant result of the collapse of theatrical distribution as an across the board “given” for all 35mm films, the ever-rising bottom line, the tyranny of teen audiences and hyperconglomerates driven to satisfy the greatest number of viewers with the least amount of risk, the “lock out” of foreign films from US audiences except in a few major cities, and numerous other factors. While all of this is demonstrably true, it now strikes me as profoundly beside the point. The digital reinvention of the cinema is every bit as revolutionary as the dawn of cinema itself, and it comes with an entirely new set of rules and expectations. While James Cameron and George Lucas may embrace these new tools for more superficial ends, and the medium will never be any more democratic than it has been historically, newer works continue to pop up on the margins of moving-image discourse, created by filmmakers who simply do not care if their images are captured on film, digital tape, or a hard drive, so long as their phantom vision reaches the screen – the screen of your plasma television, the screen of your local multiplex, the screen of your cell phone.
Just as a generation in the 1960s celebrated the inherent “funkiness” of the 16mm image, especially when blown up to 35mm, as being somehow more “raw” and “real” than its slicker cinematographic counterpart, the digital generation is comfortable with the roughness of low-end digital video, and hails the “water marks” of cell phone footage and YouTube downloads as artistic cultural artefacts. In addition, a South Korean company has developed a miniature laser video projector that can fit into mobile phones and digital cameras. In April 2006, the Iljin Display Company publicly demonstrated various prototypes of a number of mini-size video projectors built directly into mobile phones. By the end of 2007, if not before, they will be on the market. Using this technology, users can project photos and video images on the wall from the built-in projector, making movies truly portable, downloaded through one’s phone and projected at a moment’s notice. Who needs to go to the movies anymore when you can simply carry it with you? This is yet another example of cross-platforming, which demonstrates that the theatrical film experience is being faced with numerous alternative delivery systems. (11)
As A. O. Scott and David Denby noted in two separate articles that appeared almost simultaneously in, respectively, The New York Times and The New Yorker, young viewers today are, in Scott’s words, “platform agnostic, perfectly happy to consume moving pictures wherever they pop up – in the living room, on the laptop, in the car, on the cell phone – without assigning priority among the various forms” (12). While Scott is, in his own words, an “unapologetic adherent” (13) to standard theatrical presentation as the preferred medium of choice for movie-going, his children have opened up for him an entirely new way of seeing films, whether mainstream contemporary films or canonical classics. With a house full of DVDs, Scott’s son and daughter, aged 10 and 7, mix the past and the present with impunity, cross-platforming between Turner Classic Movies, iPod downloads, DVDs and trips to revival houses to see older films on the big screen. As Scott noted of the experience of taking his children to see an older film,
‘Why is he purple?’ my daughter asked in the middle of West Side Story [Robert Wise, 1961], noticing the effects of an aging Technicolor print on Tony’s face. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance [John Ford, 1961] the tint would periodically switch from sepia to silver and back again. My son, noting each shift, wanted to know why it was happening: a question about aesthetics that I could only answer with a whispered lecture about chemistry. Most of the old movies he had seen were delivered by means of new technology; this one was old in the physical as well as the cultural sense.
What he made of it I don’t know. (He was amused that Lee Marvin, as the titular villain, calls Jimmy Stewart’s character ‘dude.’) But he watched with an unusual intentness, the same quality of attention he brought to Monty Python and the Holy Grail [Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, 1975], Oliver! [Carol Reed, 1968] and [Jôi-uchi: Hairyô tsuma shimatsu (]Samurai Rebellion [Masaki Kobayashi, 1967], some of the other stops on our haphazard tour of movie history. I’m convinced that these films’ beguiling strangeness was magnified by the experience of seeing them away from home and its distractions, with the whir of the projector faintly audible in the background and motes of dust suspended in the path from projector to screen. (14)
And yet Scott’s son would never have had this experience if his father hadn’t bothered to take him to the cinema; even as an older teen, he probably would be more likely to seek out the latest Indiana Jones sequel over a 1962 black-and-white film by John Ford. For the generation of students who now are involved in cinema as both a critical and/or active pursuit, the digitisation of the cinema is an accomplished fact. Some younger artists seemingly side with Scott in his preference for conventional filmic projection, a “museum format” if ever there was one. As Melissa Gronlund comments of some of these new image-makers:
Hollywood pictures, newsreels and documentaries, film stock, cameras and projectors and the auditorium space itself have become the focal point for several artists’ works – particularly since celluloid has come under threat from digital technology. The collaborative Al and Al are using their residency at FACT in Liverpool to transform a defunct train station into a bluescreen studio. In Kodak (2006) Tacita Dean filmed the last standard 16-millimeter film factory in France on the final five rolls of stock the factory produced. At Cerith Wyn Evans’ show at London’s ICA in 2005 a bulky 35-[mm] film projector screened a blank film, tracking the deterioration of the celluloid to create a changing abstraction of scratches and tears. (15)
Such an act memorialises the past of cinema, even as the industry itself rushes to become a part of the new digital domain. Barry Meyer, the chairman and C. E. O. of Warner Brothers, sums the current situation up in two sentences: “Digital distribution is easy, ubiquitous, and inexpensive. We have to adapt, or we’ll become dinosaurs.” (16) John Fitman, president of NATO (the National Association of Theater Owners), is even more direct, noting that
we’re competing with the high-tech entertainment crowd, and we’re using technology in theaters that’s a hundred years old. We need to modernize existing theaters, and tear down old ones at the same rate […] In ten years, I doubt there will be any more film. (17)
Critics Nathan Lee, Kent Jones and Paul Arthur concur, noting that Superman Returns (Bryan Singer), Apocalypto (Mel Gibson), A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman), Flyboys (Tony Bill), Miami Vice (Michael Mann) and Click (Frank Coraci), all released in 2006,
have one thing in common: they were all shot in high-def [digital video]. And no one blinked. All the huffing and puffing about the purity of 35mm now feels very 2003 […] all things considered,  may have been the year when film and video became indistinguishable. (18)
It’s true that all these films were transferred from digital high-definition video to 35mm for conventional theatrical release, but that’s simply a holdover from the past. Soon high definition will be projected in theatres worldwide in their original production format, and conventional film production will become, for better or worse, a thing of the past, a museum format.
There is another new development in the area of theatrical moving-image exhibition related to our discussion here, which shoots off in new and interesting directions. In Madrid, Spain, theatre owners are discovering that conventional films, no matter what their format (digital or film), or genre, are failing to attract all-important younger viewers. Thus, a new theatre, Cinegames, has opened in Madrid, offering theatre-screen-size video gaming for a predominantly male audience. “Forget the pathetic speakers of a PC or television!” exhorts one advertisement for the new facility. “Come feel the sound that puts you at the center of the action!” For a mere 3 Euros, or about $4, much cheaper than a conventional movie admission, audience participants engage in spirited group contests of World of Warcraft and other popular videogames, projected on a giant cinema screen (19).
As described by one observer, the resulting environment is
a hybrid movie theater with all the digital fire and fury of a video game: fog, black light, flashing green lasers, high definition digital projectors, vibrating seats, game pads, and dozens of 17-inch screens attached to individual chairs (20)
to monitor each person’s game play, while the combined contest plays out on a huge screen in the front of the auditorium. “We’re trying this concept because there are so many theaters in Spain, and admissions are down. We have to offer new products”, notes Enrique Martinez, proprietor of Cinegames.
We see the future with multiplexes with five screens, one for the traditional Hollywood spectaculars and the others for screens for video halls and 3-D. That’s the next step. (21)
Similar facilities throughout Europe and North America are scheduled to open throughout 2007, and the model seems to be working quite well, although it skews the audience almost entirely to “young men in their late teens and 20s”, while “a few […] female supporters […] paid 1 euro each to watch the action”, but not to participate (22).
Whether or not this will become a major new audience model remains to be seen. Big-screen video gaming may go the way of 3-D movies and Cinerama, or it may become a solid niche market appealing to a younger audience. But while the “platform” of film may vanish, I would argue that, for most audiences, the “films” themselves will remain, and audiences, now adjusted to viewing moving images in a variety of different ways, will still want to see their dreams and desires projected on a large screen for the visceral thrill of the spectacle, as well as the communal aspect inherent in any public performance. Film is indeed disappearing, but movies are not. If anything, they are more robust than ever, and are shot in a multiplicity of formats that boggle the mind; analogue video, digital video, conventional film, high definition video, on cell phones and pocket-size, hard-drive, fixed-focus, auto-exposure cameras, in 16mm, 35mm, 70 mm and a host of other platforms now just emerging from the workshop of image making.
For those of us who see the cinema as a vast tapestry of films and filmmakers covering more than 100 years of cinema from all over the world, the use of digital technology is a plus because it allows us to access the images of the past with ease and efficiency. For those who know only the cinema of the present, pure Hollywood product for the most part, it nevertheless puts the tools of production into the hands of the rawest enthusiast, anyone capable of shooting a video and downloading it on YouTube or Current TV. The literally hundreds of thousands of clips now on the web at Google, Yahoo and other sites (many of them lifted from existing films and television programs) present an inchoate glut of imagery that resembles a new forest of the imagination. This thicket of conflicting images, both homebrew and borrowed, reminds me of the British filmmaker Anthony Scott’s conceptual feature film, The Longest Most Meaningless Movie in the Whole Wide World (1969), which represented a similar cacophony of images to its viewers nearly forty years ago, entirely prefiguring our current image overload. As described by David Curtis, the film
consist[ed] […] of adverts, complete and incomplete sequences from feature films, out-takes, sound-only film, home-movie material and so on. Often a shot or a whole sequence will repeat ad nauseam, sometimes whole lengths of film appear upside down and running backwards […] By rearranging familiar material into new and often absurd relationships, the viewer’s traditional dependence on continuity is rudely interrupted, and in that disturbed state, some kind of re-evaluation of the material shown (either to its advantage or to its detriment) is inevitable. (23)
This same sort of “re-evaluation of the material shown” is now taking place on a much larger scale, larger than nearly anyone could have conceived of even five years ago. Film is disappearing, but in its place a new platform has emerged, which can comfortably support all previously existing formats. As with all such previous technological shifts in moving image study and production, a host of new æsthetic and practical considerations thus sweep to the fore. Is a digital copy of a film still a film? It is, and it isn’t. Is the digital image preferable to the filmic image, or the other way around? It’s clearly a matter of personal opinion.
The archival concerns raised by the digital shift are many and varied, but as Val Lewton observed in the 1940s of his own work in film, making movies “is like writing on water”. Some images will survive, others will not. I would argue that the digitisation of our visual culture will lead to the further preservation of its filmic source materials, rather than the other way around. With a whole new market opening up for these films of the past, the master negatives are being taken out of the vault and digitally transferred for popular conservation, with one especially desirable side effect; newer audiences now know of the film’s existence. Entombed in 16mm and 35mm frames for projection equipment that is becoming less and less prevalent (especially in the case of 16mm), these films might otherwise never reach a 21st century audience. Perhaps film isn’t disappearing after all. Perhaps it is coming back to life.
Other Works Consulted
Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, translated by Chris Turner (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1994).
Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1995).
Peter Delpeut, director and writer, Lyrical Nitrate (Amsterdam: Yuca Film and Netherlands Filmmuseum, 1991).
—-, The Forbidden Quest (Amsterdam: Ariel Film and KRO Television, 1993).
Wheeler Winston Dixon, “Twenty-five Reasons Why It’s All Over”, The End of Cinema As We Know It (New York: New York UP, 2001), pp. 356-66.
Barbara Klinger, Beyond the Multiplex: Cinema, New Technologies and the Home (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, translated by R. J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin, 1992), p. 86.
- Paolo Cherchi Usai, The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory and the Digital Dark Age (London: BFI Publishing, 2001), p. 111.
- Jean Cocteau, The Art of the Cinema, translated by Robin Buss (London: Marion Boyars, 2001), p. 131.
- Bronenosets Potyomkin (The Battleship Potemkin, Sergei M. Eisenstein, 1925).
- Geoffrey O’Brien, The Phantom Empire (New York: Norton, 1993), p. 24.
- Ibid, p. 27.
- Quoted in Ben Maddow, “Acts of Friendship”, in Patrick Remy and Marc Parent (Eds), Gerard Malanga: Screen Tests, Portraits, Nudes 1964-1996 (Göttingen, Germany: Steidl Publishers, 2000), p. 123.
- Usai, p. 113.
- Ibid, pp. 115-6.
- Quoted in Susan Jonas and Marilyn Nissenson, Going Going Gone: Vanishing Americana (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1994), p. 20.
- Cho Jin-seo, “Phone to Carry Video Projector”, The Korea Times, 13 April 2006. Accessed 14 January 2007.
- A. O. Scott, “And You’ll Be a Moviegoer, My Son”, The New York Times, 5 January 2007, B1.
- A. O. Scott, B22.
- Melissa Gronlund, “Artfilm’s New Haven”, Sight and Sound, January 2007, p. 29.
- David Denby, “Big Pictures: Where Are the Movies Heading?”, The New Yorker, 8 January 2007, p. 56.
- Ibid, p. 62.
- Nathan Lee, Kent Jones and Paul Arthur, “Movies That Mattered”, Film Comment January- February 2007, p. 39.
- Doreen Carvajal, “The New Video Arcade in Spain Might Be The Movie Theater”, The New York Times, 26 February 2007, C4.
- David Curtis, Experimental Cinema (New York: Universe, 1971), p. 145.