Neo talks digital cinema

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.☕


About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

5 responses to “Neo talks digital cinema

  • jubilare

    Caught a couple typos (feel free to delete this part of my comment ;)

    ” It’s the one form of cinema in which you can get away with not telling an ambiguous story with an ambiguous viewpoint, and not have the majority of the audience revolt.” I think the first “not” ought not to be there.

    “unlike anything every before achieved” an extra “y” found its way in!

    This sounds very interesting. Being a librarian, as I am, I wonder about presents us with many opportunities, but there are a few pitfalls as well. What of the information haves and have-nots?

    • mjschneider

      I thank you for pointing out those typos! The “not” is especially valuable, since that one word rather alters the meaning of the sentence.

      Regarding the haves/have-nots of information, I think that digitization will continue to get much cheaper and much more accessible. Democritization is one of the things that digital technology supposedly makes more real, and to a large extent, I think that’s true, at least in the developed world. One of the pitfalls that concerns me, though, is storage. Paper-based records and literature take up a ton of space, but apart from fire, they’re pretty durable. Digital storage is much more vulnerable (at least, it seems so to me), and subject to the vagaries of the rapid changes in technology, requiring constant maintenance and upgrades. So even assuming that the vast majority of people eventually have access to technology that, in theory, gives them access to all the digital information they might need, who’s to say that it’ll be there in a format they can afford to access? I don’t know. Print doesn’t really go obsolete. We still have copies of the Gutenberg two-line. Will books published in e-format last five hundred years?

      Libraries may become increasingly important as hubs through which people can access digital information, and it may even be that the very infrastructure of library services undergoes a radical shift as more and more people get laptops, smartphones, etc. I don’t know what they might look like, but hopefully our culture will be flexible enough to roll with it.

  • jubilare

    You are welcome. :)

    I get to see a lot of the information have-nots because they turn to libraries for access to the technology they need to gain information. The access we can provide is sadly limited, and as libraries come more and more under attack, we are less and less able to provide for these needs. I am sure you know all of this. It’s something very close to my heart. I hope that libraries are permitted to exist long enough to evolve into the information and technology hubs that they want to be. I worry about the fact that, in an age where the war over intellectual property is becoming draconian (for understandable reasons), libraries are actually seen as a threat to profits. If libraries shut down, I worry about those people who cannot, on their own, afford the cost of information access. …but I realize this is a bunny-trail. Sorry!

    Oh, long-term preservation worries me too. The problems in that quarter are a lot bigger than most people seem to realize. I am glad you recognize that there is an issue. There are movements to try and mitigate the dangers, but it is doubtful whether or not they will be able to keep up with the technology. And of course, in the case of catastrophe, even if the information itself survives, we might find ourselves incapable of using it. I don’t need a computer to open a book, and the technology to watch a film that is on actual film is relatively simple. Very simple, when compared to a computer!

    As we get closer to Halloween I am thinking about the Ghosts of Formats Past. Wow, talk about librarian-nerd costumes! :D

    • mjschneider

      Libraries are close to my heart as well, and I also hope that they are allowed to evolve to suit the changing needs of society. What those needs are, I’m not entirely sure, because we’re constantly evolving, and thus so must our institutions. So must our technology and storage technology, I suppose, but I’m (ironically) less skeptical toward the former than the latter.

      Oh, and you should totally go as a codex. Codices are awesome.

  • jubilare

    Codices are, indeed, awesome, but I would say that they fall into the category of “not quite dead yet!” See, we can still use them! Punch cards, as far as I know, are pretty darn dead now.

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