Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Film or Cinema?

Some would argue that words are just words and that we need not fret over specifics and details when it comes to defining concepts and objects. Others, myself included, would argue that words are just about all we have concerning our capacity to understand that which we see and provide meaning. Words may not be much more than the fundamental elements of the system of signification we know as language, but it is through that system that we are able to perceive and interpret lived experience and external stimuli in the way that we do. Language therefore both enables and limits lived experience as we know it. It mediates and forms our experiences, allowing for the existence of memory, problem-solving, technology, various media, and social institutions of all forms. Those in opposition to this viewpoint often cite that such an approach to communication puts no emphasis on the chemical components of perception, phisiological make-up of our bodies, and physical matter existing so as for us to perceive. My only response to this rebuttal is that while such things most certainly contribute to perception and relating to the world outside one's body, we can only understand them within language.

Analyzing the word choices within the practices of criticism describing the medium as either "film" or "cinema" reflects these larger issues of communication as well as how we collectively understand film/cinema as a medium and its capacities. By now, one can tell that on this blog I prefer to use the term "cinema" when discussing, film/cinema. However, the dominant word choice of these studies seems to be "film." One might ask, what's the difference? They mean the same thing, don't they? In general terms, yes. But in light of my recent post on forming new kinds of images in the digital age, I could not help but wonder whether film is the appropriate term for this discipline. Furthermore, I considered that perhaps why so many seem to be reluctant to embrace digital cinema/film is because "film" is such a common term for describing cinema.

I have observed that many film scholars and writers describe the digital age in cinema as a cheapening of the art, as if digital video and effects somehow represent everything that cinema is not. In his book, The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich offers a unique perspective to understanding the digital revolution that all of cinema finds itself in. He traces the history of cinema to animation, a narrative medium that never involved film. It was technically a digital medium, as opposed to analog. Manovich argues that medium of cinema is thus rooted in the digital, but not digital in the technological sense. Cinema was then born from the traditions of animation as a means of capturing motion, only it marked the beginning of photographically capturing images within a certain time and space.

The film/cinema relationship operates similarly to the square/rectangle relationship. Film is cinema, but cinema (in my view) is not necesarily film. The term "film" supposes that the means through which a moving image is presented is on film, meaning that the images were photographically captured by a camera from some moment in actual lived space and time. But now that cinema has technology evolved technologically over the last century, technological media have made it possible for cinema to return to the digital, as some films now aren't photographing something real, but are in a sense creating it. Herein lies the problems of definition. The logic of this definition of cinema "as film" doesn't hold up very well for a number of reasons. First, consider the home entertainment market of DVDs, movie downloads, and various other media for experiencing "films" outside the theater. Even if a film isn't shot digitally or employs digital effects, it is transfered digitally into other media so that it may be experienced outside the theater and on a television screen on a computer. "Film" leaves out the digital in many ways, whether that's digital effects or digital video.

Manovich argues that digital media will alter film/cinema significantly and that it may soon enter the realm of animation, which itself is something entirely different from the realm of film, because film requires that something be captured in "reality," after which it is manipulated to suit the means of a narrative. While Manovich's pinpointing of the cyclical track of cinema is fascinating, I find his understanding of digital cinema and film somewhat off the mark. Film/cinema, by its nature, is a manipulation. While digital cinema puts that manipulation into a different realm, one made up of graphics and pixels, I do not believe it compromises the integrity of the medium. But the medium is understood differently based on how it's defined. If one believes that film/cinema depends on capturing real movement and lived reality essentially, than digital cinema is a bastardization, no doubt. But I adopt the view that since cinema creates its own world rather than representing it (a Deleuzian idea, as mentioned in my previous post), therefore, the means by which its images are forged is not limited to what is captured photographically. Nevertheless, this debate is becoming more relevant as we push into the digital realm of cinema, which is why terms like "film" and "cinema" are utterly crucial, despite being seemingly arbitrary terms. However, what something is - in this case a medium - largely depends on how we understand it. How we term its principles and its categories to a large extent determines what that medium actually is. That is why I prefer to employ "cinema" as the term for describing this medium.

As I develop these ideas further for the purpose of one of my research projects, I will continue to work from these concepts and arguments over the course of the next month. This post only scratches the surface of the digital debate within cinema studies.

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