Film vs. Digital: Why the “vs.”?

Malcolm Le Grice, "Berlin Horse" (1970), still from a multi-projection film

A lively, critic-to-critic dialogue published recently in The New York Times[i] left me pondering over the persistently blinkered nature of so much “digital age” discourse on film.  Moving imagery has long been implicated and explored in and across myriad cultural and creative contexts, yet the breadth, depth, and diversity of filmic practice has been, and continues to be, belied by a narrow focus on commercial trends and big-budget studio tendencies.  The result is a (mis)conception of film and digital media—two distinct yet deeply intertwined creative conduits—as somehow mutually exclusive, and of film itself as a technologically primitive and increasingly obsolete medium.

Clearly, if one measures film’s vitality by its presence at (or absence from) the multiplex, the medium appears to be rushing toward an imminent and inevitable demise.  Major studios have already indicated that they plan to phase out 35mm film, and movie theaters are now scrambling to acquire the equipment necessary for digital projection.  Yet prognostications of film’s death are predicated on an assumption that the relevance and viability of film as a medium is entirely contingent on its embrace (or rejection) by commercial movie producers and distributors.  In fact, though film may be vanishing from theaters large and small (an issue that bears its own, complex set of implications), film has since its inception been a fluid, porous medium, one whose life extends far beyond the bounds of traditional narrative moviemaking.

Absent from much popular discussion is an attunement to issues of artistic imperative and intent and, further, an acknowledgment of film’s dynamic, very-much-alive presence in the larger realm of contemporary art.  Commenting in The New York Times[ii], film critic A.O. Scott observes:

Throughout history artists have used whatever tools served their purposes and have adapted new technologies to their own creative ends [….] Long before digital seemed like a viable delivery system for theatrical exhibition, it was an alluring paintbox for adventurous and impecunious cinéastes.

This is certainly true, as from the 1960s onward, artists as diverse as Nam June Paik, Vito Acconci, and Joan Jonas deliberately explored and exploited the raw visual quality of early video, doing so in the context and service of wide-ranging aesthetic, conceptual, and political endeavors and ends.  Conversely, today, as Hollywood studios and multiplexes rapidly adopt digital-exclusive processes of production and delivery, “cinéastes” and other artists continue to excavate, manipulate, and—often unconsciously—reaffirm film’s unique aesthetic properties.

Vito Acconci, "Claim Excerpts" (1971), still from a black and white video

In a 2001 interview[iii], avant-garde luminary Nathaniel Dorsky mused:

I don’t know what it would be like to be 20-years-old now–would I buy a Bolex and start shooting film, or would I buy Final Cut Pro and a DV camera?  I don’t know.  I know that I like the alchemy of this thing that you have to load in the dark, expose to light, and process.  [With video] you can just tape and erase. With a roll of film, you know, it’s so expensive, that when you’re going push the button, it’s an existential decision.

Predictions of film’s demise–and compelling evidence to the contrary–are hardly new, and current arguments over film and digital media echo, particularly in their “either/or” tone, many earlier debates regarding film and video.  However, as A.L. Rees maintains in his book A History of Experimental Film and Video[iv], the “1970s disputes between experimental film-makers and the then new video-art movement have long abated for most artists,” and he notes that many early filmmakers of the “first underground,” among them Malcolm Le Grice and David Larcher, now actively incorporate video into their creative practice.

Similarly, many younger artists today are continuing to explore the singular materiality of film while integrating film and digital media in ways both overt and subtle.  Filmmaker Jennifer Reeves, whose hand-painted film Landfill 16 screened at the 2011 New York Film Festival, works primarily with 16mm to produce films whose richly tactile, hand-wrought quality speak to a deep sensory awareness and visually underscore her personal, political, and environmental themes.  Likewise filmmaker and animator Stephanie Maxwell, in works such as All That Remains (2006), combines techniques such as direct-on-film etching and animation with digital post-production to visually intense, psychedelic effect.

Jennifer Reeves, "Landfill 16" (2011), still from a hand-painted 16mm film

A heady sense of artistic freedom and cross-disciplinary possibility is perhaps the most salient link between and among these (and many other) artists.  Given the unprecedented porosity and fluidity of the current cultural moment, any attempt to map the recent history of film and digital art reveals not a linear progression of technological adaptation/replacement but, rather, a zigzagging backward, forward, and sideways within and across periods, techniques, and media.  Interviewed alongside Dorsky in 2001[v], the late Stan Brakhage remarked:

Here’s the miracle–despite the closing of film labs all over the country, despite the fact that many people think film almost doesn’t exist anymore except ‘in the movies’ […] there are more young people who are more purely dedicated to film as an art many times over than in the ’60s at its height.

In a sense, the fascinating, shape-shifting nature of contemporary creative activity subverts the very notion of obsolescence.  New materials and means supplement rather than supplant older media, and collisions between past and present, between formal and conceptual, yield fresh insights into the possibilities of creative form and the implications of aesthetic experience.

Film?  Digital?  Revelations await in both.

[i] “Film is Dead?  Long Live Movies” The New York Times, September 9, 2012 <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/09/movies/how-digital-is-changing-the-nature-of-movies.html?smid=pl-share>.

[ii] “Film is Dead?” The New York Times.

[iii] “True Independents; Brakhage and Dorsky Hash Out the Realities of Poetic Cinema,” Interview by Ed Halter, Indiewire, April 30, 2001 <http://www.indiewire.com/article/interview_true_independents_ brakhage_and_dorsky_hash_out_the_realities_of_p

[iv] Rees, A.L.  A History of Experimental Film and Video.  London: British Film Institute, 2007, pp. 112-113.

[v]  “True Independents,” Indiewire.