(Thanks to Laura Webb for introducing me to this important new journal!)
Film--Is There a Future in Our Past? (The Afterlife of Latent Images)*
by Rick Hancox
Incite!: Journal of Experimental Media & Radical Aesthetics
Is film dead, or are rumours of its death–as in Mark Twain’s response to the gaffe about his own demise–“greatly exaggerated”? Rumours of film kicking the bucket are nothing new–“FILM IS DEAD” was a banner headline in Daily Variety in 1956 when videotape was invented. Maybe I should have called this talk “A Fleeting Filibuster on the Future of Film,” but it seemed that a title relating to the past was appropriate, thus “Film – Is There a Future in Our Past? (The Afterlife of Latent Images).” The idea of the latent image–exposed film waiting for development–is one of the key differences between film, and its bond with the past, and video, with its virtual window on the present. Of course once the latent image is developed, and comes to life on the screen, it only knows the present tense. Thus, the notion that film’s future as a medium is in its past, is one of the ironies I want to explore.
“There’s a Future in Our Past” was actually the 1978 motto of a Main Street renovation project in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, the city where I spent my childhood. That was the year I started the long shooting process for my experimental documentary, Moose Jaw: There’s a Future in Our Past (1992). By the end of the film, after mocking Moose Jaw’s commodification of its past in museums and other tourist attractions, I wind up myself in the Museum of Western Development as a virtual wax figure, frozen in the act of filming a Model ‘T’ Ford with my 16mm Bolex camera (a museum piece itself in the video “revolution”).
Taking obsolescence a step further, in 2000 I started taking pictures exclusively with disposable, one-time use (non-digital) cameras. With the limitations this presented–fixed-focus, wide angle lenses that distort at the edges, no control over exposure or shutter speed, automatic flashes, parallax error, and of course, latent images–I found myself experiencing a certain freedom: less technical options meant the photographic act became one of concentration solely on composition, colour, form and light, and the effect of these on picture content. Eventually I found myself documenting disposability itself–many of the pictures reveal some kind of deterioration or other transitory state, while others display veneers, reflections, and dubious likenesses. With the entire photochemical process threatened by digitization, disposable cameras have taken on an extra significance. Disposabilities reveals how contradictions of material and immaterial, of things lasting and temporary, become impregnated with each other–how all that is solid melts into air.
The museumization of film reminds me of Mary Anne Doane’s recent book, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, and the Archive (2002). In this book she addresses the condition of cinephilia–something she defines as a love of marginal details in cinema, which she links to its photographic indexicality and predilection for contingency. Doane says film theorists have become interested in cinephilia “as though the aim of theory were to delineate more precisely the contours of an object at the moment of its historical demise.” This is just like Minerva’s owl in Roman mythology. Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, was accompanied by an owl, which Hegel said spread its wings only with the falling of the dusk–meaning philosophy comes to understand things just as they pass away. And as Harold Innis pointed out, Minerva’s owl takes flight when civilisations are in decline. We could debate extensively the presumption of the cinema’s decline, but this symposium has asked a more specific question: is film dead? One frequently hears the terms cinema, film, movies, and video used interchangeably. For example: “I used the latest DVCPRO HD video camera to shoot my film,” or the more generic “I just finished filming my video.” Thankfully the symposium has defined filmmaking as emulsion-based practice, or image-making on celluloid, and while consumers today probably don’t care about these distinctions, it is nevertheless important for producers to know the difference.
The debate about which medium is better, cheaper, or less “dead,” really started heating up in the 1970s. In a 1981 article entitled “Is There Film After Video?” B. Ruby Rich wrote that for more than a decade, despite “proclaiming the end of film-as-we-know-it, and trumpeting the arrival of a brave new world of video… the world hasn’t crashed down around our heads… no sinners have plunged into hell, nor dead souls risen from their graves… and yet the dogma marches onward.” As she pointed out, incumbent forms of expression survived previous media revolutions. Theatre, newspapers and magazines, radio–film too, with the advent of television–all had to re-invent themselves. Film may be constantly in a state of dying, but, to borrow from Kierkegaard, it’s also in a state of becoming.
Almost as long ago as Rich’s article, American Cinematographer Magazine recognized professional video practices in an issue (March 1982) focusing on the new concept of “electronic cinematography,” a term designating video techniques modelled after filmmaking (in contrast to live television). The difference was largely the degree of control which could be exercised over each aspect of production. Shooting video “film-style,” with a single camera, permitted greater control over lighting, staging, and composition. Editing sound and picture separately during post-production also offered improved possibilities for control. Yet important differences were still noted by the magazine: “film is similar to drawing each frame on a new slate, while video makes use of the same slate over and over again, nearly erasing each image with a less than ideal eraser before each subsequent frame.” The most limited aspect of video was seen as its comparatively narrow luminance range, giving a latitude of only 4 or 5 f-stops. Anton Wilson said in the same issue, “film negative has a far broader luminance ratio of over 128:1, or more than 7 stops.” That was 25 years ago, and there has been no reason for Kodak or Fuji to stand still. Advances in film emulsions have evolved to the point where those seven stops have become twelve, and films with speeds of 500 ASA–with no noticeable grain–are routinely shot. Here the new technology is built into the film itself, not the equipment. Producers don’t have to re-equip every time the rules of the game are changed. The information in a 35mm negative, or even a well-scanned 16mm negative, already exceeds the resolution required for HDTV. (And 16mm filmmakers can still use the same reliable, inexpensive Bolex cameras the Swiss built like watches years ago).
With videotape a change in format means re-equipping. Now the buzzword is digital, and even though we’re still talking about video recording on a chip, we’re told the newest format is “revolutionary.” Despite promises that the latest technology is as “good” as film, today’s top-of-the-line High-Definition camera will eventually wind up in a garage sale. Obsolescence guarantees a steady revenue stream for Sony, Panasonic, and all the rest, supported by consumers who assume all Hollywood has switched. Protested one cinematographer, “I’ve been shooting Hi-Def for over thirty years–it’s called film.”
The notion that the forward direction of time guarantees technological progress (and social advancement) is one of the great myths of the modern era. It’s true in many instances, but what is also happening is simply the creation of markets for new gizmos and the production of obsolescence. Imagine for a moment that the advent of film and video was historically reversed. Someone shows up on a feature video set with a “new media” film camera. This new device has variable speeds, twelve stops of exposure latitude, subtle detail in highlights and shadows, a sharp colour viewfinder, hundreds of lens choices, and a beautiful, high-res image which can be held up to light and seen with the naked eye. If the name on the side says “Bolex,” this new camera is not affected by power outages or dead batteries, since it can also be wound by hand.
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