What’s going to happen to all the digital material that we create? How can it be stored? Because that question really hasn’t been answered. We talk about the democratization of film, the fact that these tools are becoming cheaper, faster and lighter. Anyone can do it now. And I think the filmmakers we talk to have mixed feelings about that: Who’s going to be the tastemaker? Does that mean there will be less good and more bad?
But, yeah, to answer your question — I mean, it’s not as groundbreaking as when film went from silents to talkies. Let’s say that. Or from black-and-white to color. This doesn’t have that feeling of sea change to it. But there are many implications that come out of it. Especially in the early days, there was the question of the quality of the product you’re looking at, the quality of the image. For certain artists whose vision is to make the best possible image, they felt digital wasn’t there.
The above quote is from an interview conducted by Andrew O’Hehir with Keanu Reeves, who has produced a new documentary that I’m quite pumped to see, called Side by Side. In it, Reeves chats with filmmakers about the practical, aesthetic, and philosophical considerations involved in the industry-wide transition from film to digital. The interview has only made me more excited to see the film, because rather than pontificate, Reeves poses question after question, even though the film has been finished. To me, that’s one of the strengths of documentary features: real life doesn’t necessarily conform to tidy narratives or clear answers to hypotheticals. It’s the one form of cinema in which you can get away with telling an ambiguous story with an ambiguous viewpoint, and not have the majority of the audience revolt. Even so, Reeves refers to the stories inherent in the films he likes to make, suggesting that if he does perceive a definite arc to this quest, it’s an arc whose trajectory he is still in the process of charting.
What would be nice is if this film achieves one of its key goals, which is to communicate the significance of the shift to digital to a mainstream audience. Having Reeves as the anchor might help. He’s well-known, he’s charismatic, and he is very obviously keen to sink his teeth into this aesthetic issue, and has the knowledge to do it quite capably, without losing that sense of wonder. I was struck by his elegiac mindset toward the transition, in contrast with the film’s director, Chris Kenneally, who is apparently more enthusiastically looking toward digital cinema’s future. Another thing that struck me was the way he phrased the philosophical problem posed by digital technology.
Well, it’s when you start thinking about the fact that people will never again enjoy a projected film image, which is so beautiful when it’s done right. And what does that shift mean? Does that force us into a permanent present? Does this kind of subtextual, subconscious element force us into — how does it deal with memory? How does it deal with culture? If we’re being forced into the permanent present, with a hungry eye, who does that benefit?
There is a myriad of issues wrapped up in digital versus analog, but this is one that I find especially intriguing. I doubt that Reeves is close-minded to the possibilities of digital cinema (he clearly indicates otherwise in the interview), but the words he uses here suggest a suspicious disposition toward its implications. Leaving aside for a moment the idea that digital technology can disseminate images, sounds, and words on a mass scale unlike anything ever before achieved by the human race, the idea of a permanent present calls immediately to mind three concepts with which I’ve only wrestled in a cursory fashion. The first is the idea of the “present” as a unit of time versus a way of perception. The way we experience time is, in a way, always present. But the way our brains function simultaneously, weaving our memories, experiences, and conditioned impulses into our everyday experience of this present makes it part of a contextual whole. Is digital really that much different from the way we perceive our experiences? What about its nature as a code, as opposed to analogous image? Are we introducing an additional element of mediation between us, reality, and its artistic representation?
The second idea is one of ease. Altering digital data is easier than altering analog data. This is obvious from the proliferation of digital filmmaking technology and the access people have to it. If we do live in a “permanent present,” then does this mean that our perceptions can be artificially altered in real time? Philosophers have speculated on this for a long time, especially in regard to propaganda, advertising, social pressures, and the like. But digital filmmaking literalizes this concept in a unique way. The speed at which digital cinema can be made and disseminated is concurrently matched by the speed at which it can be manipulated by others. When Reeves asks who benefits by that, I think it’s only fair to share in his skeptical stance.
The third idea is one of spiritual immanence. I’m not well-versed in this particular theological idea, but the way I understand it is that God’s immanence pervades and sustains all of existence at the same time. It is present in a manifold way we can barely grasp or understand, existing within and around all the things we can see and touch, but also existing in a much more mysterious way. What I wonder is if the intersection of digital technology with our filmmaking — and that includes everything from Hollywood blockbusters to YouTube clips shot on iPhones — is consonant with this spiritual concept. If our technology of artistic representation is, in itself, much closer to a “permanent present,” what does the nature of digital cinema say about our relationship to God as we watch or interact with it?
I’ve no idea what the answer is or in which direction the discourse should be pushed. I’m just glad that The One seems to take these issues to heart and is equipped with the passion and knowledge to grapple with them.☕