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Chances are, your children will not know what a film negative is. “Disposable cameras” will be as primeval a concept as the Yellow Pages. Library card catalogues? Forget about it. And why not? Paper, film—these are material resources that consume money, space, and time. The cell phone camera produces a drastically lower quality image than a film one, but hey, you can talk on it. The debate on the use of film vs. digital technologies in cinema has stewed since the turn of the century. Up to this point, in Hollywood, quality has always taken precedence over convenience. That means shooting with expensive film stock, not cheaper digital alternatives. The reasons are not ethical so much as financial: film is slick, conventional, and sells better. Fifteen years ago, suggesting the use of digital cameras to shoot a big budget feature film would get you laughed out of the studio lot. It just didn’t compare visually—not in color, depth, or commercial integrity.

Recently, that has changed. George Lucas’s Star Wars: Attack of the Clones was the first blockbuster “film” shot entirely without the photochemical material from which the motion picture medium derives its name; in other words, it was an entirely film-less film. Sony and Panavision literally had to invent a new camera to shoot it—the HDW-F900. It looks like film, to the point where only cinephiles cry foul. “What’s the big deal?” you might ask. As long as it’s playing in a theater, a movie is a movie, right? Not so fast.

A Bolex 16 mm film camera.

Why, for example, haven’t you caved in and bought that Kindle? A book is a book, right? Is it your nostalgia for a tangible spine and dog-eared pages, or could it be something else—something less histrionic? There’s a reason why diehard photographers choose physical film over digital cameras, why high-art buyers don’t adorn their walls with Photoshop printouts, and why filmmakers (until now) have largely chosen film cameras over cheaper digital alternatives. Anything digital is essentially a reduction of information into 1’s and 0’s. That means that information received through the lens of digital video apparatus (for example: a golden retriever) is translated as a code—much like a connect-the-dots puzzle. In the end, you get an image of a golden retriever, but it’s not quite the same as the original. So much information is lost in that translation. By virtue of this loss, some argue that digital technology will never have the same quality as analog technology. One technology is ethically better for society than the other.

A cheap picture is worth less because it took less effort to make. That reasoning makes sense in terms of quantitative differences (high resolution big budget film vs. low resolution YouTube camera phone video), but it’s not that simple. A cheap picture that considers its cheapness critical (The Blair Witch Project home-video style for example) can be quite meaningful. In this case, the digital compression—the lack of information—actually adds to the sincerity of the artwork. There are two different categories of quality—physical quality (quantitative and objectively measurable) and conceptual quality (qualitative and measured by intuition). So, let’s relate this to the Kindle example, i.e. how does a person reading a physical book have a different experience than the person reading the Kindle? As long as the words are the same, a book is a book, right? Not necessarily. There is what a book is (physically), and then there is what a book means (conceptually). The book (or the film) is a both an object and figure of the concept that transcends it.

Take the human fist. Physically, it has an objective appearance, yet it can have a number a number of socio-cultural significances. The football player shakes his fist to symbolize of victory; an angry man lifts his fist to communicate his readiness to fight; a African-American raises his fist in the air as a sign of ethnic pride. The fist “object” remains the same, but its subtext contains its subjective, conceptual meaning. That concept may be malleable or socially constructed, but the fact is that it has consequence and must be reckoned with. If anyone doubts the conceptual power of an object, try painting a swastika in Germany or waving a green flag in the streets of Tehran or touching Michelangelo’s David at Florence’s Galleria dell'Accademia. In 2008, the BBC reported that plans were proposed to insulate the famous statue from the vibration of tourists' footsteps to prevent damage to the marble. Damage to the marble? Or damage to the concept that the marble represents? Inevitably, cultural artifacts—including books, films, songs—have a tremendous impact on societal behavior.

How does this relate to our inquiry into digital versus film? Objects have social effects because of their conceptual quality. These effects can be positive or negative. Therefore, if an object has a negative effect on society, that effect is a result of the object’s conceptual nature—a nature tethered to its physical one. A postcard of the Mona Lisa has a much different aura than the painting itself. In short, the recent digitization of film is a vital clue into modern society’s priorities. We prefer a faster, synthetic world over an organic one in which we must wait, delay gratification, and commit. The digital era glorifies content over form. This era is partly characterized by a democratized environment of user-generated content, in which all forms are tolerated. This is often considered cause for celebration (everyone with a camera phone is a filmmaker!). But could it actually be a symptom of social illness? An important question to ask, since the digital world is fast outgrowing the analog one.

Any twenty-something with GarageBand loaded on the MacBook in her backpack will immediately reply “no.” Popular art is both created and distributed digitally via Myspace and YouTube. These days, a classical orchestra can be imitated without the hassle of a theater, instruments, musicians, etc. The puerile destructive urge is just as satiable as the creative one: ranks of ready-to-die marines pack the latest video games. In a world where dead soldiers regenerate and phony synthetic orchestras perk up at the click of a button, this digital economy has diminished an entire generation’s concept of “loss.” Having a digital orchestra or pack of soldiers at one’s beck and call is a symptom of post-modernity. It’s the “green screen” mentality: the ability to have without having. In other words, post-modern digital objects exploit the past while also distancing themselves from the inconvenient or undesired ramifications of that past. This active distancing is coupled with a bizarre nostalgia for that undesired past. For instance, digital filmmakers mimicking the dust and scratches or short depth of field characteristic to analog film.

If we ponder our situation historically, our era’s post-modernity arises from the political and religious maladies that characterized twentieth century modernity—militarization and cultural bigotry. Twenty-first century globalization has encouraged in the new Western generation a general tolerance for other cultures. No more blind nationalism and xenophobia. I would argue, however, that the digital age has not made those proclivities evaporate; it’s only expropriated them into new in-groups, e.g. corporate brands. Nationalism has been usurped by brand-identity. Corporate brands (Nike, McDonalds, Viacom) have mastered the branding of international demographics, incorporating hundreds of different cultures and reaping the consumers thereof. This social relativism, although progressive, is still intimately connected with the past (recall the bizarre nostalgia). No one can simply “do away” with what happened in the twentieth century. Instead, digitalization allows us to exploit it. In a sense, the modern culture is acutely skeptical of twentieth century cultural traditions, but, having no real tradition of its own, defiles and overcomes the past by mocking, manipulating, or appropriating it for its own purposes.

The contemporary distrust of classical traditions and grand ideologies results in a diluted, often ironic mixing of genres—a trend which hip-hop (arguably the rock and roll of this generation) embodies most perfectly. In hip-hop, any cultural artifact (say, a motif from one of Wagner’s symphonies) is codified into a “sample.” An approximation. Recall the 1’s and 0’s. Although that particular motif might have been blasted during the national socialist rallies of 1935, it means little more than a catchy melody to listeners who hear it for the first time on the radio or the dance floor. Similarly, the anti-capitalist revolutionary slogans of the late 1960s have today been turned into t-shirts donned by American youth firmly entrenched in the latest pop-cultural fads. People are settling for the connect-the-dots versions of cultural history. This détournement methodology, entirely subversive, simultaneously acknowledges the cultural history of the last century while emancipating the consumer from the ideologies of that history. As a matter of fact, by the rampant digitalization of our culture—from virtual porn to WWII video games to the Kindle—society has more or less reached the verdict that digital media is no less legitimate than physical media. But are they really equal?

T.S. Eliot writes, “it is a function of all art to give us some perception of an order in life, by imposing an order upon it.” He means that art is essentially a figure of human consciousness. Art is not the way the world is, but a way in which the mind organizes the world. Although digitalization allows for a unique cultural situation (in which film-less films, partner-less sex, and page-less books prevail), one might argue that it organizes the world in a negative way. It renders one “unconscious” because its mode of organization refuses certain central aspects of reality. That is, the digital is an algorithm that invents a skewed, inappropriately “compressed” world. To believe in that world is to be in danger of retreating to an existentially vapid, kitsch reality. As Milan Kundera writes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “[in] a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist […] kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.”

I am neither a futurist nor am I a reactionary in my view of cultural technology or progress. I believe in what Baudelaire says in The Painter of Modern Life: that however much we may love general beauty, as it is expressed by classical poets and artists, we are no less wrong to neglect particular beauty, the beauty of circumstance and the sketch of manners. The second quality of something, outside of its beauty, is its temporal quality—historical or present value. Therefore, there are two components of beauty. The first is the eternal invariable element. The second is the relative, circumstantial element—the age, its fashions, its morals, its emotion. Baudelaire believes this duality of art to be the fatal consequence of the duality of man (soul and body). In our particular situation, we have the traditional 35mm film cinema, standardized over a century. And now we have the circumstantial element—digitalization, and its attendant fashion, morals, and implicit emotions.

The recent film Public Enemies, shot in digital high-definition, offers us a unique example to explore digitization because it does not seek to “hide” its digitalism. Film theoreticians Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet say that “the tools [of cinema] always presuppose a machine, and the machine is always social before it is technical. There is always a social machine which selects or assigns the technical elements used. A tool, an instrument, remains marginal or little used for as long as the social machine or the collective arrangement-combination capable of taking it in its phylum does not exist.”1 In other words, the use of the high-definition digital camera (a non-photochemical apparatus that operates by converting information into discrete values—ones and zeros—to approximate what it sees) in Public Enemies was not an inconsequential or accidental one, but instead an unavoidable and historically pertinent phenomenon which could only have occurred when it met its social prerequisite. In short, society is ready for a new era of cinema (or, at least, they’ve opened an ear). But just because it’s new, doesn’t mean it’s good. The post-modern social machine driving this digital movement is remarkable and deserves review.

Why do we see, in digitized media, an effort to mimic traditional forms? Since the emergence of digital technology, artists—particularly digital filmmakers—have labored (successfully) to pull the wool over the public’s eyes by making digital cinema look and “feel” like film. And why not? For starters, it’s much, much cheaper to fake the film look than to use actual film. Only now, in a bold and offbeat move, are digitally equipped technocrats deliberately challenging the official “filmic” culture of mass cinema. On the vanguard of this movement, filmmakers are making films that embrace the digital look rather than disguising it to look like film. The prolific Italian cinematographer of Public Enemies, Dante Spinotti (Heat, L.A. Confidential, The Insider) and director Michael Mann decided that the digital aesthetic, though sharper and less traditional, gives a more immediate feel to the period film. A few of the adjectives I’ve heard from everyday filmgoers are that it looked “cheaper, more real, like documentary” or “like television.” This artwork, like any other pivot in the aesthetic history of a medium, calls on us to evaluate our cultural position. When we ask (as we must now) “what is film now?”, what we are really asking is, “what is art now?” We are looking at a real revision of the medium.

The economy of digital cinema threatens the clunky, nostalgic, and antiquated (some might say beautiful) technology of celluloid film. Is this threat a figure for a broader sea change in the spirit or mood of our socio-cultural history? The digitalization of film shows that post-modernity is concretizing in even the most traditional, resilient medias. From the perspective of someone educated in the cinematography, I found it hard to concentrate on the story of Public Enemies, a gangster bio-pic on the life of the criminal John Dillinger. The main reason I purchased the ticket was not the wild Johnny Depp or the seductive Marion Cotillard, but instead to inspect what the picture would look like projected on a large screen. In the financial, economic, social, and cultural interregnum of our time, these artifacts clue us into society’s values.

Will the digital overtake the analog antique of the last century? Will you buy that 1,500-book Kindle and leave the cumbersome novel at home? Time will tell. Under the right preservative conditions, physical film stock can last for a hundred years. Digital technology has only been around for less than half a century. It’s like we just invented a new food, and we don’t know how long it keeps. Formats change frequently; they become obsolete the moment they saturate the public market. My prediction: we will embrace the provocative digital cinema because the tools of cinema always presuppose a powerful social mechanism that has long been in place. The digital market will overtake the filmic one. However, it’s arguable that the most important, controversial art arises from the subversion of official culture. The vanguards of digital cinema may not be the ones ushering it in with open arms, but the ones subverting it, exposing it, and weaponizing it to confront the contemporary social machine from which it sprung.

Jason Harper is the film editor for Wunderkammer.


A rather interesting essay. Unfortunately it suffers from the author's need to muddle a perfectly compelling existential tension between progress and history with qualitative judgments about the transition from one technology (film) to another (digital). It seems to me that privileging any one technology as "ethically better for society" than another technology essentially undercuts the overall strength of the piece. It drips with a sentimentality and nostalgia that drown out some very promising glimpses of intellectual insight.

Author's note:

Thanks for reading.

I would agree that no one physical technology is "ethically better" for society. Objects are objects. If you look more carefully, though, you'll see you've overlooked a very important qualifier --

There's a reason why I took a categorical approach to the digital and analog cultural artifacts in question. By arguing that each artifact has a (socially manufactured) conceptual quality tethered to its physical one, it becomes possible to assign certain ethical judgments to those artifacts (within their societal environment). If normative ethics are a standard of societal behavior, and an object is invented that contests, modifies, or otherwise changes that standard, we may call that object "ethical" or "ethically charged". Rather than remaining a mere tool, it becomes a figure of whatever change it incurs.

In other words -- you're right: A hammer is a hammer, no matter how one dissects it. It's wood and metal. A Hammer and Sickle, however, carries a connotation wholly "other" than its physical quality alone lets on. This conceptual "otherness" of an object, as I said, is a social construct, and as such, ethical in nature. People rally under its symbol and make decisions based upon its conceptual signals (eg. an army retreating or advancing -- orienting their behavior -- based upon whatever banner they see flown).

I quoted Deleuze and Parnet for a reason. "The tools [of cinema] always presuppose a machine, and the machine is always social before it is technical." Technologies grow from behavior, then in turn are used to govern that behavior. What springs freely from society always eventually ends up being used to weaken and control it in some form, eg. Rock and roll, monarchy, fast food, heroin. The digital is no different; I'm merely pointing it out as it happens. The same thing happened with film! And McCluhan, Adorno, Horkheimer, and Neil Postman gave their (heavily ethical) arguments against its American cultural effects as early as 1944.

My appreciation for 35mm filmic cinema, I won't deny, certainly has in its sinews that bizarre nostalgia I spoke of in the article. However, I do not hesitate to embrace conventional digital video technology, so long as I've got one hand behind my back ready to manipulate, subvert, and (dare I say) "better" its use in society.


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