Friday, April 20, 2007

Digital cinema: the debate rages on... Or is it just beginning?

I recently made the distinction between "film" and "cinema" and observed why these terms are crucial to how we constitute, understand, and build upon the medium. David Bordwell brings these issues to light in the latest entry on his blog by mapping a cinema in relation to its influences. He points to the fact that cinema is a fusion of various media, technologies, and aesthetic traditions, which in turn provides a wide number of theoretical frameworks through which to engage it. Of particular interest to me in relation to my recent discussion of film versus cinema is Bordwell's mention of the photographic properties of cinema and how they have influenced our notions of what cinema is:

"The great film theorist André Bazin claimed that cinema’s photographic basis made it very different from the more traditional arts. By recording the world in all its immediacy, giving us slices of actual space and true duration, film puts us in a position to discover our link to primordial experience. Other arts rely on conventions, Bazin thought, but cinema goes beyond convention to reacquaint us with the concrete reality that surrounds us but that we seldom notice.

I think that Bazin’s idea lies behind our sense that long takes and a static camera are putting us in touch with reality and inviting us to notice details that we usually overlook in everyday life. (I try out this line of argument in relation to the tactility of Sátántangó here.) Moreover, you can argue that in treating cinema as a photographic art the filmmaker surrenders a degree of control over what we see and how we see it. Bazin made this claim about the Italian neorealists and Jean Renoir: creation becomes a matter of an existential collaboration between humans and the concrete world around us.

An example I used in my book Figures Traced in Light pertains to a moment in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Summer at Grandfather’s, when a tiny toy fan falls between railroad tracks as a locomotive roars past. The fan’s blades stop, then spin in the opposite direction as the train thunders over it. The blades reverse again when the train has gone. (This detail might not be visible on video.) Did Hou know how the fan would behave? Isn’t it just as likely he simply discovered it after the fact, making his shot a kind of experiment in the behavior of things? Conceived as a species of photography, cinema can yield visual discoveries that no other art can.

Interestingly, cinema didn’t have to be photographic. Many early experiments with moving images were made with strips of drawings, such as the Belgian Émile Reynaud’s Praxinoscope. You can argue that recording glimpses of the world photographically simply proved to be the easiest way to obtain a long string of slightly different images that could generate the illusion of movement. Some filmmakers, such as George Lucas, hold that filmmakers are no longer tied to photography, and that the digital revolution will allow cinema to finally realize itself as a painterly art."

This last paragraph is particularly resonant because it dares to suggest that perhaps cinema is not interchangeable with film. Perhaps we have been using the wrong terms to discuss cinema, in so doing shaping a very limited approach to what constitutes a moving image. Somewhere along the line, it seems as though with use of terms like film we have conditioned ourselves to understand cinema exclusively in terms of photographic. As Bordwell mentions, there is a myriad of narrative conventions, technologies, and media that have contributed to the birth of cinema. Why must our understanding of cinema be limited to what can be captured with a camera?

The emergence of digital technology directly calls into question what constitutes a produced moving image. Interestingly, we often refer to digital cinema as digital effects in movies, in which a digital component is added to the photographically captured image. The digital is often understand within a culturally cemented understanding of cinema as film in that digital technology is often understood in relation to photographically captured images. But what constitutes a pure photographed image? While a camera captures "actual" reality, that reality is represented on film differently than it may be perceived by the eye. While the camera is an obvious technological extension of phisiological components of the eye and the brain, as is all of cinema, but what can we account for as truly being "real." Digital images on film represent a component of cinema outside of "film," yet it is often comfortably situated amongst our ideology of cinema as film. Therefore, digital images are meant to "stand-in" for the real; they synthetically add elements to a composition that the camera did not capture, but they are still positioned as such. Shilo T. McLean elucidates these matters in the essential book, Digital Storytelling: The Narrative Power of Visual Effects in Film.

But I am particularly interested in an oft-forgotten (and arguably more important) aspect of the digital cinema: digital video. With digital video, you have a digital treatment of a medium that was dominated with a photgraphic understanding of the analog. Therefore, digital video has its roots in film, only it represents a different form of photographically capturing an image. Movement is captured, constructed, and presented differently, therefore relations of time are understood differently (since, according to Deleuze, space creates time, not the other way around) via new synaptic possibilities of presenting movement within a space as digital video enables. With digital video, then, we face a problematic issue of defining film or cinema and, more importantly, how those definitions greatly influence how we interpret the images it produces and understand the techologies through which such images are constructed. Of course, this is an oversimplified summation of concepts and analytical approaches that require far more in-depth examination. Nevertheless, this necesary overhaul of how we understand cinema begins with identifying the tensions within our current ideologies regarding the medium and recognizing the problem. We must first start by asking the question: what is cinema? Perhaps that is harder to answer than we think. And maybe we can't answer that question sufficiently because the tools with which we build our conceptions of cinema have constructed an ideology of cinema that ignores a great variety of other possibilities that would alter how we define the medium of cinema and how that medium grows.


Damian said...

First of all, I should probably apologize in advance for the sheer length of this comment but I am actually addressing to two posts. I planned on responding to the first blog you wrote on this subject ("Film or Cinema?") but wanted to track down some passages from a particular book before doing so. By the time I found them, it had been a while since you posted the blog. So, in a way, I'm grateful that you've recently written another blog on the subject, except that now you've reminded me of a passage in yet another book that I want to seek out. So, before I get too far behind I'm just gonna go ahead and respond now.

To the question of the use of "film" vs. "cinema:" Although I, like a lot of people, tend to use them interchangably in my speech as well as my writing (depending on which word sounds more aesthetically pleasing to me in whatever context I am using it) the question of which one is more "appropriate" (or more "accurate") does frequently seem to pop up, especially since a lot of "films" nowadays aren't even shot on film and a lot of "cinema" is not necessarily seen in the cinema anymore. I don't know that I will ever completely resolve the matter in my own mind but whenever the question is asked I can't help but think of some ideas expressed by James Monaco in his book How To Read a Film. Incidentally, I don't necessarily agree with everything presented in the following passages, but I do think it's interesting food for thought and I figured I would just put it out there as a reaction to your question. This first passage is the opening paragraph of a section entitled "The Shape of Film History" (this chapter is called "Movies/Film/Cinema"):

French theorists are fond of making the differentiation between "film" and "cinema." The "filmic" is the aspect of the art that concerns its relationship with the world around it; the "cinematic" deals strictly with the esthetics and internal structure of the art. In English, we have a third word for "film" and "cinema"-"movies"-which provides a convenient label for the third facet of the phenomenon: it's function as an economic commodity. These three aspects are closely interrelated, of course; one person's "movie" is another's "film." But in general we use these three names for the art in a way that closely parallels this differentiation: "movies," like popcorn, are to be consumed; "cinema" (at least in American parlance) is high art, redolent of esthetics; "film" is the most general term with the fewest connotations. (pp. 228)

Shortly thereafter, though, Monanco more or less dismisses these distinct definitions as he proceeds to break down the "walls" that separate the three terms (movies, film and cinema) from one another and proposes that a "new medium" has come into existence:

Indeed, we now need a new term to indicate the generalized production of audiovisual communications and entertainment. Whether this unnamed but pervasive form is produced on filmstock or magentic tape or disc, analogically or digitally; whether it is distributed through theatres, via broadcast, "narrowcast," cable, satellites, disc or tape-our core experience of it amounts to the same thing. Now, when we speak of movies/film/cinema we usually mean to infer all of these various media forms. (pp. 230)

Near the end of a later chapter (entitled "'Cinema': Esthetics"), Monaco continues this line of thought that the differences between the various media are essentially just a matter of semantics:

By 1980 it was clear that it was no longer possible to make a distinction between what we call film and what we know as video or television. These various forms of audiovisual narrative had been seen as separate-even antagonistic-for more than thirty years. Now they must be regarded as parts of the same continuum. Indeed, we need a new word to embrace both film and tape forms. As video technology continues to grow in sophistication and flexibility, "film"makers increasingly will find the choice of format more a matter of economics and technology than of esthetics. (pp. 381)

And so, at the end of the chapter (and the entire section) Monaco concludes with what is probably the most radical of his claims:

Finally, the sum of these forces suggests that it may be a good time to announce the end of movies/film/cinema-at least as we have known them. From now on, "film" is simply raw material, one of the possible choices, along with disc and tape, available to the media artist. "Movies" are now an intergral part of a new encompassing art, technology and industry for which we do not have a name, except perhaps "multimedia." And "cinema"? After eighty-five years of dominating the way we view our world-a long, temptestuous, romantic, and rewarding life-cinema has quietly passed on. (pp. 385)

What are we to make of these sentiments? Is Monaco telling the truth? Has he accurately described our modern situation with regard to film/movies/cinema? Honestly, I am not sure yet. I'm still thinking about it, though I would be interested to hear your reeaction to it, Ted (when you have the time, of course).

In the meantime, I'm going to keep searching for a passage in another book (I think it's the one I wrote about on your "Friday Screen Test" over at DVD Panache: The History of Narrative Film) that addresses some of the issues you raise in your latest post on the subject, particularly with regard to digital cinema. I am not going to be able to capture the essence of the argument nearly as well as the author did, but it was something to the effect that our abundant use of digital technology in movies, TV and so forth is actually turning all of our art and entertainment into animation; i.e. that the difference between "live-action" and a "cartoon" will become increasingly blurred. All movies will essentially become animation in which varying degrees of "real" things were shot by a camera. As I look at examples like the Star Wars prequels, the Lord of the Rings trilogy and, for this upcoming summer, Pirates of the Carribean and Spider-Man, I think he is onto something. As soon as I find the exact quote, I will post it here.

Again, sorry for the length. As always, it's a pleasure to read anything you've written. It's very stimulating (even if it's often a bit laborious for my rather "lazy brain"). So, please, keep up the good work. :)

Ted Pigeon said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post, Damian. This is precisely the kind of response I hope to provoke in my posts because I love engaging with various perspectives.

First, I should note that I probably cannot address all of the issues of film language you mention. As you know, I have poked around with the notion in several of my recent posts, but, honestly, it's not something I can sum up easily in the form of one post. I'm hoping that all of these posts represent a greater effort for my argument; I could make the simple argument that the cinema and its capacities of presenting moving images is not an image based on its audiovisual properties, but this argument requires much articulation. In order to sustain such an argument, one needs to consider it from a variety of perspectives and undergo a very mechanical process of studying images. Also, much articulation is needed because, quite simply, this argument is not widely held by film academics. Many scholars hold that film is a language, a coded system of symbolic signification.

In order to refute this claim, one must lay a solid groundwork for proposing a new approach to cinema, which is why I was trying to get at in my "film vs. cinema" post. You raise several good points about the film/cinema/movies discussion; one I'm going to have to think on longer before I work it into an argument here on the blog. I think Monaco's observations regading the semantics of the images is defintely valid. In fact, I would argue that it practically an unconscious process now. I agree with him in what the words represent, and that they are used as unconscious symbols for how one perceives film/movies/cinema, so as to narrow down how we perceive cinema.

I'm trying to understand the effects of using such terms, and how it shapes our relationship to the medium itself. Thus, how we develop its technologies and how we relate to them alters that relationships but sets it to a course that remains familiar to how we currently understand the cinema. My concern is that we may be fundamentally misunderstanding the process of interpreting moving images. The debate over digital cinema is fertile ground for discussion of the very conceptions and ideas we employ for constituting a medium that, in my mind, is the next step.

In short, many films do indeed play into film language, as do many viewers, filmmakers, etc. Therefore, we condition the medium to suit our own understanding and familiarity with symbolic representation, since it is language that constitutes our sense of identity, existence, narrative, and memory. In short, it constitutes who we are. THere will always be a built-in component of language in our technologies, even as they become increasingly visual. but I propose a new paradigm for understanding these media, one that will hopefully expand how understand our systems of communication, language or not.

Thanks again for the comments. I welcome more! I will be writing more in this in the future though, you can count on that!

Damian said...

I found the section I was referring to in my last message. It was indeed in David A. Cook's A History of Narrative Film. The following passage is from the Preface to the Fourth Edition (published in 2004):

"The cinema has undergone two major changes in the eight years since the third edition of this book was published. The first is the hegemonic control by American distributors of viryually every film market in the world-the conscious and calculated effect of 'globalization.' The other is the fact that the majority of films produced in the United States and much of the developed world are previsualized, produced and post-produced at least partially in the digital domain. In this edition, the dominance of American distributors is duly noted in the treatment of individual national cinemas, and the digitization of the filmmaking process is given a new chapter (21) of its own. This chapter argues that since the mid-1990s digital imaging technology has transfromed the making of feature films in the industrialized West-and will soon transform their distribution and exhibition as well-in a way that redefines the very nature of cinema by bringing it closer to the condition of animation. I believe, in fact, that a shift has taken place in film aesthetics in which postproduction has acquired a status equal to production and in which cinema is no longer exclusively the art of the moving photographic image: the replication of the real is giving way to simulation through computer-generate imagery, or CGI."

At the end of the preface, Cook says:

"The ability to generate photorealistic images directly in the computer displaces live-action photography as the only basic material of the cinema; coversely, live-action footage, when scanned into a computer and digitized, becomes just another set of pixels to be manipulated together with computer-generated ones. It is this circumstance that led Lev Manovich, in 1997 article entitled "What is Digital Cinema?" to predict that cinema would soon become a particular case of animation which uses live action footage as one of its many elements.'"

Again, some interesting ideas that reading your posts reminded me of.