Digital cinema

Digital cinema attracts wildly divergent interpretations (NUblog passim). This week, our theme is boosterism. Henry Jenkins:

We can’t have great cinema if there isn’t someplace where beginners can make damn awful cinema; meanwhile, some digital movies are more bold and original than anything to hit the big screen in ages.... As Francis Ford Coppola explained in the documentary Hearts of Darkness, “For me the great hope is now that 8-millimeter video recorders are coming out, people who normally wouldn’t make movies are going to be making them. And that one day a little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart and make a beautiful film with her father’s camcorder. For once the so-called professionalism about movies will be destroyed and it will really become an art form.”

Actually, no. It will become craft, save for the exceptional natural talents, who would produce Art if given the tools irrespective of who else has them. All we’ll end up with, thanks to cheap digital cameras, is an East German talent-identification scheme, where virtually everyone with any detectable aptitude is screened, ensuring that the real gems don’t stay hidden. (Will Hunting, anyone?)

Anyway, we covered this already: “In effect, then, to produce Shakespeare, you must equip thousands of monkeys with typewriters.” And fat girls with camcorders? We already covered RickiLake(.com), didn’t we?

However, we reiterate the objection that video does not equal cinema. Video is ugly and tends to equal television. Cinéastes (vidéastes?) want us to believe that the cinematographic qualities of video will spawn new visual forms – in other words, that people will find a way to shine shit and make the appearance of digital video stink a bit less. (We suppose that typewriting is better than handwriting, but why settle for either?) Digital video is blurry yet overprecise and dull yet tending to flare. Worked great for Rodney King, but is that about it?

Wilde told us there is no such thing as high art and low art, only good and bad. He said nothing about good artistic media versus bad. Only a fool would claim that vaguely-related media with vastly different production values were actually equivalent. Nonetheless, that’s what they’re doing: Intellectuals, with their dramatic rectangular eyeglasses, or, worse, geeks in their Austin mamas’ houses, are trying to snow us under, promoting a technically inferior medium as the full and glorious equal of its superior predecessor. Or they’re telling us it’ll get better someday and hoping we will believe it’s good enough already.

They said that about jet airplanes, too. (With digitally-remastered wardrobe and haircuts, Airport ’77 could be believably re-released today.) It’s romantic, idealistic, even admirable, but dishonest.

What they’re trying to do, in effect, is analogous to the tarting-up of “comix” that took place in the wake of Raw and Maus (both of which, it must be noted, were productions of a single auteur, Art Spiegelman). Try as you might, most comic books are simply comic books (even Sandman). Most video footage will look as ugly as all other video footage.

We’ve seen only one example of the vapourware phenomenon of Video Deemed Artistique by Virtue of Being Unimaginable If Shot in Another Format: The Roni Size & Reprazent music video “Who Told You?” with its delirious mismash of individually unfathomable high-contrast edits (vague around the edges, like a dream) and staccato drum-n-bass–hiphop vocals. Digital-video apologists claim the best work plays to the medium’s strengths, which is another way of saying the medium has almost nothing but weaknesses. But “Who Told You?” don’t play dat. It ignores the PR and boosterism, aims straight for the medium’s weaknesses, and gooses them for 300 edits in three minutes. (We counted.) It looks crummy in all the right ways; a gestalt was achieved. But music video, let alone a single music video, does not equal cinema, either.

What we will end up with is a range of instruments: Harpsichord, organ, accordion, xylophone... and toy piano, even if it is the kind Schroeder plays. Everybody can afford a toy piano, but let’s not pretend that even Schroeder can make it sound any good.

Posted on 2001-03-13