Monday, May 3, 2010

The Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall and Rise of Video, Alejandro Adams



Preface

With the following collage of professional, journalistic, and scholarly remarks concerning the role of video in cinema, I will try to establish the more serious implications and ramifications of video's on-going "arrival," an accession to power more than fifty years in the coming.

However, this is a selective history: its scope is narrowed by certain tendentious emphases. It calls attention to seemingly overlooked phenomena, attempting to give credit where credit is due, and occasionally dignifies the persecution mania of underground filmmakers.

If you are interested in the circumstances through which video has continually failed to make good on its promises to Hollywood and network television in particular, I advise you to read Russ Alsobrook's "Back to the Future: Reflections on the Brief History of Video Moviemaking". This is a light-hearted and immensely informative survey of the employment of video technology in commercial filmmaking in the United States since the 1950s.




And in This Corner...Michelangelo Antonioni

Il mistero di Oberwald is the first full-length cinema film in video format, and this allowed its author to investigate the new expressive possibilities of image manipulation which it offers to cinema narrative. — Núria Bou [1]


Prior to the 1990s, there had been few attempts by renowned, "serious" filmmakers to explore video technology in a way that indicated true solidarity with the medium. One prominent and noteworthy example of such an exploration—exhibiting a cartographer's diligence in marking its meticulously explored territory—was Antonioni's infamous The Mystery of Oberwald (Il Mistero di Oberwald), a "feature film" which originated on video.

In his monograph The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni, Peter Brunette describes the film as

a weird experiment in color...that was based on a play by Jean Cocteau and starred Monica Vitti. Set in an unspecified Mitteleuropa country in the nineteenth century, the film tells the melodramatic story of a reclusive widowed queen and a young assassin who becomes her lover and, finally, her murderer as well. Antonioni seems to have agreed to the emotional, somewhat silly project in large part because he had not made a film in five years and because it allowed him to play creatively with the television equipment, changing colors, improbably but expressively, for each character, through purely electronic means. [2]


The above synopsis is one of two single-paragraph references to The Mystery of Oberwald to be found in the book.

Film critic Gerald Peary, who first saw Oberwald at the Venice Film Festival, writes: "And why (this was 1980, remember) would anyone shoot this already off-putting tale, as Antonioni opted to do, on lowly videotape? [3]"

Keywords: "why," "1980," "off-putting," "lowly," "videotape." These fuse into a blur of incredulity, perhaps even disgust. Peary pointedly apprises us of the production year, indicating that video may have a time and place but it most certainly was not "1980."

On the Web site Senses of Cinema, James Brown blames the discordant anomaly of Oberwald for the rapid decline in Antonioni's popularity.

The height of such artistry explains the relative disappointment, to most, of the rest of Antonioni's films. Il Mistero di Oberwald (1980) is an abrupt swing away from epistemological preoccupation. Made on video for television, it provided Antonioni relief from high budget production burdens. Excited by the potential of new filmmaking technologies, he experiments with post-production colour manipulation to produce unusual effects. In other respects the film is less daring, perhaps a signal of Antonioni's desire to move in a different direction but not quite knowing where. [4]


Here we have a more languid response, though a considerably more invested one. Brown mentions that television was the intended receptacle for this aberrant project, failing to indicate that Oberwald was transferred to 35mm film and exhibited in that state, as a "film." Production funds seem to be an issue from Brown's vantage point, and Antonioni's "experimentation" is made to sound like nothing more than a means to disrupt the monotony of his career and perhaps even his life (incidentally, he would suffer a debilitating stroke a few years later).

Peter Reiher, an articulate if conventional amateur critic, is more agitated than curious:

Antonioni might simply be ahead of his time in the use of videotape...The special effects Antonioni incorporates through the use of special video processing machines are no great shakes. Selective tinting of scenes has been around since the silents. It wasn't a very effective technique then, being the poor man's color film, and it shows little potential for ever being any more effective. Superposition of images is a well-developed technology for film, and the video version shown off in The Oberwald Mystery is not nearly as good as mediocre film work in this area. And that's about it for Antonioni's bag of video tricks...Antonioni has put all his efforts into playing with one variable, leaving the rest untouched. It's a pity that he didn't set those other variables to more interesting values. [5]


Some historically correct hindsight, positioned at the beginning of this vaguely scholarly rant like a reluctant disclaimer, does nothing to mute the ensuing ire. Though the tone of this first remark is refreshingly neutral, its utter dissociation from what follows renders it perfunctory and dismissive. Like Peary, Reiher seems to suggest that Antonioni played out of turn, that his interest in video was incorrigibly anachronistic. Again, the emphasis on "effects" and "tricks" seems to imply that the eminently grown-up filmmaker had little artistic stake in the project and was interested merely in pushing buttons and dialing knobs, a characterization which is often still applied to those who approach video technology with any degree of enthusiasm. In some cases, prominent film schools are doing their best to suppress this sort of enthusiasm, and perhaps advisably so—but more of that in another essay.

In his comprehensive study of Antonioni, Seymour Chatman expresses his concerns about Oberwald somewhat more affectionately. Meanwhile, his brief, clinical analysis of alternative technologies in cinema seems delightfully antiquated (it was written in 1985).

The trouble is that this is a field in which the public has been over stimulated for years. Television colors are neither as strong nor as varied as what is offered by Technicolor, Eastmancolor, Deluxe, and other processes. ... Further, they are familiar as television colors, and so they set up certain unwanted associations—one knows that lavender only too well from tedious nights spent in front of the tube. Certain other undesirable artifacts also arise. For example, the outlines of moving objects tend to smear, especially against a light background. A ghost moves ahead of the image itself, which is etched for a split second as the image races to catch up. Within the area of color blending, it is true that Oberwald does things that have never before been seen on the screen: landscape and buildings convincingly brighten with the arriving morning, or blood from a decapitated chicken darkens from red to black before our very eyes... Doubtless other subtle changes occur elsewhere in the film that a concerted search could identify. But audiences used to bravura color effects may well feel frustrated, especially if they are led to expect something unusual. [6]

Here the technical and aesthetic limitations of video are described in a fair amount of detail. Such were the concerns at the time of critics, scholars, and less courageous filmmakers (i.e., everyone but Antonioni, Godard, and a handful of lesser-knowns): that the methods and, even more despicably, the flavor of television had permeated cinema to an ineradicable extent.

But Antonioni had already proven amenable to the evolution of cinema in the direction of television. In 1966, he was already preparing to shoot Tecnicamente dolce (Technically Sweet) with "color-mixing television cameras" [7]. After significant delays, Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider had agreed to star in the film. But Carlo Ponti, who had financed so many of Antonioni's films, suddenly and inexplicably withdrew his offer to fund the production. The Passenger was made instead.

For Antonioni, adapting to this "new" electronic technology was by no means a matter of adopting a new system of aesthetics but merely of refining or even completing his existing aesthetic. With this versatile hardware literally at his fingertips, he was able to riff on certain formal obsessions, most notably following through on the elaborate color-play of Il Deserto rosso (Red Desert) and Blow-Up. Video proved to be a strange nutrient capable of nourishing the growth of Antonioni's vision and restoring some of its former hardiness (the five years which had elapsed since the release of The Passenger had been the longest creative drought in his career).

Núria Bou writes:

The exuberant plastic elements which Antonioni puts into play lead to an excess of fullness which, although in several aspects is far from his usual world and his discourse on void—in feelings, in space—finds its articulation in basic elements which are present in other films: mirrors, reflexes, colour, music, the dialectics between characters and the space around them, the amorous relationships, the protagonism of the feminine figure, are all elements which Antonioni has used constantly during his career to build a personal discourse on appearances, and an exploration of the "disease of feelings." [8]

There could be no better explanation of Antonioni's purpose in Oberwald. He was expanding his "discourse on appearances" in a completely logical direction. The technology utilized in this expansion was, in and of itself, incidental. From this perspective, the spirit of innovation exemplified by Antonioni's interest in video is merely the native equipment of the authentic artist. This quality is not only distinct from but is quite hostile to the technocratic spirit of innovation, which is infinitely less discriminating and wholly impersonal.

As if to explain it a little more obliquely on his own behalf, Antonioni said that

some scientific notions have set in motion a transformational process that will end up changing us too—that will lead us to act in a certain way and not in another, and consequently will change our whole psychology, the mechanisms which regulate our lives...If what I say is true, I must look at the world with different eyes, I must try to get to the heart of it by routes other than the usual ones. This changes everything—the narrative material I have at hand, the stories, their endings—and it cannot be otherwise if I want to bring out, to express, what I think is happening. [9]


Even Chatman concedes that Antonioni's

interest in making [Oberwald] seems to have had a lot to do with the opportunity to shoot in video and thus to complete the experiments in manipulation of color that he had long meditated. [10]

He had been meditating these exact "experiments in manipulation of color" since the late sixties—nearly fifteen years prior to the completion of Oberwald—and once he had undertaken them, he was thrilled with the result.

In 1980, Antonioni said,

The electronic system is very stimulating. At first, it seems like a game. They put you in front of a console full of knobs, and by moving them, you can add or take away color, meddle with its quality and with the relationships between various tonalities... In short, you realize quickly that it isn't a game, but rather a new world of cinema... using color as a narrative, poetic means...with absolute faithfulness, or, if so desired, with absolute falseness. [11]

Antonioni was an immediate and unambiguous convert. But he did not actively advocate the use of video in the work of other serious filmmakers; he did not care about a "video revolution." He was instead content to pursue his own vision and achieve his own ends in whatever manner he pleased, a maverick deaf to the peevish incredulity which suddenly surrounded his work.

Chatman claims that Antonioni even expressed

a desire to use video to add color to L'Avventura—not by reshooting the film but by recording it on videotape and electronically superimposing colors on the images. [12]

Those who have set themselves the task of defending the honor of celluloid—in most cases by engineering some sort of crippling chastity belt—understandably find this desire purely inflammatory. Even the moderate academics who sensibly oppose the colorization of black-and-white classics (of which L'Avventura is a benchmark, despite its late arrival) must be shocked at such politically incorrect audacity.

We are accustomed, even now, to celluloid's function as a dignifying mechanism for video, as a sort of benefactor. At the time of the above remark, however, the film industry was even less prepared to entertain the idea that video, with all its consumer-end shortcomings, could in any way improve the look of film.

Antonioni was out on a very narrow limb.

In Bou's estimation, this resolute departure should not have come as a surprise.

Antonioni, who had already worked the symbolic and psychological slant of colour in films like Il deserto rosso, where he literally painted reality—the vegetation, the objects—or Blow-up (Antonioni, 1966), undeniably a debtor from the plastic and chromatic point of view to pop-art, and especially to Hockney's work, abandoned the strictly pictorial point of view with Il mistero di Oberwald. His experiments with the chromatic possibilities of video format (electronic addition of colours, selective colouring of the image, among others) decidedly leans toward the dramatic and passionate in the story he tells, while not forgetting the expressive restlessness which has set its seal on the development of his career: the search for "beyond" the image, the "behind" the image, is set up by a chromatic brush-stroke which overflows the strict limits of the figures and objects represented, somehow becoming a "stain" which is perfectly integrated into the plastic discourse of an author obsessed with the inquiry into the surface of the real. [13]

Antonioni had consistently relied on delicate, studied compositions in a wide aspect ratio to illustrate his characters' isolation, alienation, corruption—among other internal conditions which interested him. With video he was able to externalize such emotional and spiritual dispositions through the manipulation of color, thereby supplementing the spatial arrangement of people and objects within the frame. Antonioni is one of very few filmmakers who bear out William Carlos Williams's dictum: "No ideas except in things." In the same spirit, Paul Virilio has said, "Images don't have to be descriptive; they can be concepts." [14]

Finally it seems that Oberwald's period melodrama was the ideal canvas for Antonioni's color-play, which would have yielded melodramatic overtones in any case. If the post-production alteration of hues was a completely superficial preoccupation, that was nothing new: composition, pantomime, and other self-consciously superficial modes of expression—color included—had held Antonioni's attention exclusively. A thorough exploitation of the potential of video was a natural and legitimate direction for his considerable creative energies. However, he returned to celluloid with his subsequent film, Identificazione di una donna (Identification of a Woman), the last film he would make before suffering a stroke which would leave him virtually unable to speak.

While promoting Identificazione di una donna at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, Antonioni expressed unequivocal hope for the future of cinema while his "peers" fretted and fumed about the encroaching global television aesthetic.

The effect of television on attitudes and ways of seeing—children's especially—is undeniable. On the other hand, we should admit that the situation may seem particularly precarious to us because we come from a different generation. So what we should really do is adapt ourselves to the future world and its modes of representation...I'm really quite optimistic. I've always tried to bring the latest expressive forms into my films. I've used video in one of them...I'd like to try further experiments in that direction because I'm sure that the possibilities of video will teach us different ways of thinking about ourselves. [15]




Digital

Mr. Lee Garmes was the ultimate "film-guy," a "cameraman's cameraman" who began his career hand cranking black-and-white nitrate film before movies learned how to talk. Yet [in the early 1970s], he was passionately advocating videotape as an "acquisition" medium for feature motion picture production. – Russ Alsobrook [16]

Throughout his article, Alsobrook maintains a pleasantly unfazed historical perspective and is not nearly as aghast at his own revelations as he expects his readers to be. He wants to shock us. He wants to take the wind out of our sails. Not in a bad way, mind you—he simply wants to temper our naïve expectations with a cold dose of recent history. You see, Alsobrook has a somewhat skeptical view of the "arrival" of video because video has been arriving year after year, in format after format, each new breakthrough rendering its predecessor obsolete.

Alsobrook tells of the noble but rather predictably thwarted attempts to shoot a Hollywood western on Ampex video recorders in the early seventies. Santee starred Glenn Ford and Jay Silverheels and was filmed in New Mexico by cinematographer Donald Morgan. Image quality aside, there were tribulations previously unknown to a celluloid-oriented production crew.

When the company needed shots of horsemen galloping across a rushing river, Morgan didn't hesitate to mount the video cameras in a 4x4 truck and track with the cowboys through the swollen waters of the Rio Grande . Cable pullers became soaked as they struggled to drag the coaxial umbilical cord that connected cameras to land-locked video tape recorders...Morgan remembers that most of Santee was actually shot on film with less than one minute of the final picture transferred from the videotape original. [17]

Andrew Dunn, the cinematographer on Robert Altman's The Company, described his experience with filmless methods of image-acquisition in eerily similar terms:

HD is a little bit cumbersome. If we wanted to shoot in a corridor and then move upstairs with a film camera, you just lift up the camera and the tripod, grab a couple of batteries, go upstairs, and you're ready. With the HD system, there is all the cabling and the sound issues and monitoring. It seemed inordinately complicated. If I were to move upstairs with HD, it would probably take an hour and a half. I don't think it always has to be quite like that. But it's pretty cumbersome.

On the same occasion, Altman himself quipped, "I certainly wouldn't shoot a road picture with HD." [18]

These remarks were made in July of 2003, thirty years after Donald Morgan did his best to make Santee come together on video for ambitious director Gary Nelson.

I can picture Alsobrook nodding contentedly when he writes, "As the philosopher said, 'the more things change, the more they stay the same'." [19]

But what we have on our hands now is not a 1950s Ampex recorder or Electronovision or a Norelco PCP-90 or an Ikegami EC-35 or a Panacam Reflex or a Bosch Quartercam or a Panasonic Recam or even venerable Beta equipment. [20]

In his speech at the 1999 Rotterdam Film Festival, proto-independent filmmaker Jon Jost said,

Digital video is a quantum jump beyond previous video—so much so that one might well think of dumping the word "video" with all its blurred reds, scuzzy scan lines, jaggies, and other signifiers, and finding a new name: maybe electronic cinema, or digital film, or...or anything but the awful word "video" and all its historical baggage. [21]

Video is, in a sense, already more "dead" than celluloid.

Jost pointed out that "a Beta SP camera costs from $40,000 to $70,000, depending on which, where, and when. A VHS or Hi8 camera costs $800 to $1500." He explained in detail the difference in quality between consumer and professional video formats and described the inevitable generational loss of picture quality. He was heralding the arrival of a format which bridged the chasm between consumer and professional, a format in which generational loss was not a concern, a format which neutralized the "high costs,...priestlike mumbo-jumbo obscurantism around lots of electronically based acronyms..." Jost credited these undesirable characteristics of video production with "a certain snobbism in which video was and for most still is a secondary, lesser, inferior format unworthy of their most serious creative selves." [22]

Technically speaking, digital video converts data from a camera's CCDs (light sensors) into strings of ones and zeroes (bytes) rather than into the magnetic signal of analog video. While magnetically recorded information was subject to interference and generational degradation, the digital signal can be transferred from tape to computer and back to tape without loss in quality. Since the information written to the two tapes is so vastly different, many have made the case that DV is an entirely new medium. In some instances, digital video technology has done away with the utilization of tape altogether: certain digital cameras record directly onto DVD or memory stick—or in at least one case, directly onto a portable firewire hard drive.

For many at this point, digital video—though not "video" in the former sense of the term—is superior to celluloid; moreover, it is a medium which is arguably the terminal advancement in favor of low-budget filmmakers, the first and last opportunity for them to compete, however subversively, with traditional avenues of production, distribution, and exhibition. Accordingly, Jost warned that

the media industry is scrambling fast to make sure that it overwhelms whatever distribution system might exist that just might be amenable to those making those no cost films with casts of nobodies and no exploding buildings, just in case some nobodies might be interested in seeing such things. [23]

In the August, 2002 issue of Videomaker, Charles Bloodworth contended that the playing field had been leveled for consumers and professionals.

Digital video for consumers encompasses all of the 25Mbps DV formats. So, If you have a DV camcorder, be it MiniDV or Digital8, it uses the same recording scheme that professional DCAM (Sony) and DVCPRO (Panasonic) camcorders employ. That means your $600 MiniDV camcorder records the same image data as a $10,000-plus DVCAM or DVCPRO model that the pros use. [24]

Elsewhere in his article Bloodworth clarifies that there are various differences in the optical systems in these cameras, and that more expensive cameras—his Sony VX-1000, for example—yield noticeably superior images. But the image-recording technology employed by cameras across the spectrum of digital formats is the same (DVCPRO50 notwithstanding).

"Video" emerged from its chrysalis overnight and sprouted wings strong enough to keep itself aloft in the typhoon-force winds of feature filmmaking—something it had been unable to do for decades in its analog incarnations. Suddenly video had more advantages than drawbacks. Because of this probably terminal advancement in favor of the relatively penniless, many filmmakers in the late 1990s, understandably blinded by their infatuation, rushed to begin working in DV. Lars von Trier and a few less well-known but equally fickle Danes, under the rubric Dogme 95, exploited the peculiarities of the new equipment with no discernible restraint. Though the original five members of the group have unanimously turned their backs on their original manifesto, young filmmakers with few resources—from Argentina to Korea—continue to adhere to its anarchic and mostly smirk-inducing tenets. Despite a glut of certified Dogme features and a healthy cadre of multinational imitators, the Dogme 95 project, now with no helmsman to speak of, has miraculously—knock on wood—not yet triggered a flavor-aversion to DV in the marketplace. (Incidentally, the Dogme 95 "Vow of Chastity" stipulated that films be made on Academy 35 in natural light, a challenge which only Soren Kragh-Jacobsen accepted.)

Susan Boyer, covering the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, reveals that "Nearly all of the documentaries and more than a third of the features were shot in either MiniDV or 24PHD (24 frames per second, high definition)." [25]

Boyer says Miramax's Tadpole performed poorly at the box office the previous year due to what she calls "its amateur look and feel." Of Cry Funny Happy she confesses, "I found the poor lighting and grainy print distracting." She feels, as do many journalistic governors of taste, that features originating on DV look like "glorified home movies." [26]

In the other direction, the introduction of a far more palatable, polished look has been coyly offered by The Anniversary Party, which did its best—and a remarkable effort it was—to conceal its wrong-side-of-the-tracks medium of origin. The print was tenaciously processed and color-corrected so that all the refinement of cinematographic technique (of which videographic technique is a sub-category, not a rival) would seem justified. It would be hard to accept the gentle, fluid camera movement applied to the consumerized, too-accessible, and finally chintzy-looking medium of digital video were the characteristics of the medium not so heavily diluted with such minute suffusions of celluloid affectation.

Alan Cumming, who co-directed the film with Jennifer Jason Leigh, says, "I think the rules of Dogme are stupid and were made up by men who were drunk at a pub one night as a joke." [27]

Cumming's friend and partner in the project adds:

We didn't want that shaky, ugly digital thing. A lot of movies that are shot digitally aren't lit. [John] Bailey lit this movie and we shot in a very classical way. The great thing you get from video—that does enhance this movie—is a kind of immediacy and a feeling of really being in the room with those people. [28]

Leigh is right: the technological "superiority" of video does not override or jeopardize its intimate qualities—of course it does not automatically enhance them, either. For a spell in the nineties, prime-time television dramas were filmed primarily with hand-held cameras, a technique which originally conveyed candor and intimacy (two of the most effective and durable examples of this were Law & Order and Homicide: Life on the Street). If noticeably intrusive camerawork—which is tantamount to camera-consciousness or an emphasis of the medium—were taken to its extreme, the result would be devices along the lines of intermittent focus imperfections, unseemly depth-of-field, and prominent debris on the lens. But the amateurish techniques through which intimacy and candor are contrived by industry professionals have not been encouraged to mutate in these obscene directions. Such stylistic eventualities are undermined by the implicit cosmic law of "polish," a governing principle which even the founders of Dogme 95 would not violate. Ultimately, whether passively or actively, this is the very law which has impeded the mainstream commercial use of video since the 1960s.

For similar reasons, obscured as they may be by drowsy nostalgia and gruff self-righteousness, Wim Wenders has over the years been one of the most vocal opponents of video technology in the sphere of serious filmmaking. The themes of his often heavy-handed films and his pouty away-from-the-camera remarks range from reasonable artistic concern to unadulterated paranoia.

As early as 1974, in Alice in the Cities, Wenders portrayed his on-screen alter-ego (Rudiger Vogler, as usual) as unable to escape the inexorable commerce of images which cloyingly seasons the contemporary American experience. At the peak of his frustration, the film's protagonist smashes a motel television, pulling it to the floor with overtones of political revolt.

Throughout the essays and reflections collected in The Logic of Images, Wenders speaks reverently of traditional cinema—that of Ozu, Bergman, and a few sacred others who resisted—or, conveniently, pre-dated—the defilement of the moving image which was perpetrated by the inimical institution of television with a capital T (leave it to a German to convert every noun into the cradle of a Weltanschauung).

In Wenders' 1996 film Lisbon Story, video is represented by a pack of anarchic, visually indiscriminate kids who are uncleverly labeled "vidiots." Patrick Bauchau, in the role of Friedrich, a lunatic film director, laments, "the projection room: that's memory, too. Images are no longer what they used to be." For Wenders, too, this is lamentable—the monopolization of the image by the electronic age. Friedrich wants to film "pretending that the whole history of cinema hadn't happened and that [he] could just start from scratch one hundred years later." Philip Winter (Vogler again), Friedrich's sound technician, poses the presumably inspiring question: "Why waste your life on disposable junk images when you can make indispensable ones with your heart on magic celluloid?"

Ironically but not surprisingly, Wenders acquiesced to the mounting pressure of things digital when making the aloof and literal-minded Buena Vista Social Club a mere two years later. Fortunately, the infectious joie de vivre of his subjects rescued the documentary from its director's poorly concealed disenchantment with filmmaking in general. [Editor's note: Wenders has since made a narrative feature, Land of Plenty, on consumer-grade DV.]




Making Room for Digital Video in Art History

Parker Tyler once called attention to a sort of reverse feed in the arts: a case in which a newer art form (or medium) influences the expressive capabilities of an older one, imposing incongruous limitations and facilitating unlikely expansions which have been ratified—for better or worse—by the ever-increasing sensory acumen of the presiding culture.

In one of his family portraits, Degas showed a woman in the act of rising from her chair. Of course, many of Degas' ballet girls are shown at moments of dancing or bowing which are not climaxes of a step or a gesture, but show the step or gesture in as it were the middle. All this meant the growth of a cinematic sensibility. [33]

The motion picture had infiltrated serious painting.

I am reminded of a similar remark relating to another medium. Stephen Spender, in the introduction to Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, suggests a bit defensively that someone should write about the influence of cinema on the "serious novel." The movies have a significant physical presence in the book—a particular Peter Lorre thriller seems ominously to follow the protagonist from town to town and chapter to chapter—as do the techniques of the cinema to a much less specific degree.

Whereas it may have seemed impossible even five years ago, digital video technology is beginning to influence celluloid cinema in a similar reverse feed.

In his essay "Of Time and the Artist," Arthur Danto writes,

Or might Modernism itself have been a nineteenth-century phenomenon, which lived on for about two-thirds of the twentieth century? So that, artistically, we have been in the twenty-first century since perhaps 1964? [34]

Clearly video could be considered in these terms if we look at the evidence so genially compiled by Alsobrook. The decade also translates: 1960s. Video ushered in the twenty-first century of filmmaking a full four decades before the turn of the century. It simply idled in utero for forty years, awaiting its cue to tumble out of the birth canal along with a sleek and menacing new millennium. Its inordinately long gestation period is, of course, responsible for its mostly refined features—it was adolescent by the time it became fashionable. Considering that celluloid never overcame its infancy, a stable and stalwart infancy though it was, video technology has already proven itself more versatile and more sensible, even if not "superior" in any de facto sense (how could it, since arguments which aim to establish the superiority of a particular medium over another are contrary to the spirit of artistic production?).

Virilio reminds us that

video was created after the Second World War in order to radio-control planes and aircraft carriers. Thus video came with war. It took twenty years before it became a means of expression for artists. Similarly, television was first conceived to be used as some kind of telescope, not for broadcasting. Originally, Sworkin, the inventor of television, wanted to settle cameras on rockets so that it would be possible to watch the sky. [35]

Admittedly, the origins of video are far less elegant than those of celluloid cinema. But most of that inelegance relates to its try-try-again electronic pliability. Whereas celluloid was a fixed form, the perennially malleable nature of electronic media such as video and television has facilitated their being mutilated and hybridized in the name of "improvement" by every Frankenstein who could afford to assemble a makeshift laboratory in his basement.

Lev Manovich, in discussing computer interfaces as he is wont to do, often makes remarks which relate analogously to the state of digital video.

We don't know what the "final" result will be, or even if it will ever completely stabilize. Both the printed word and cinema eventually achieved stable forms which underwent little changes for long periods of time, in part because of the material investments in their means of production and distribution. [36]


Perhaps stable forms have met their obsolescence. Perhaps history will see the stability of forms as nothing more than a by-product of an unimaginative culture; as a left-brained, masculist conceit (after all, our narrative sensibilities regardless of medium are directly attributable to Hebrew, Greek, and Chinese patriarchies). In fact, Jean-Pierre Geuens has referred to the "dumb opacity and brute materiality" of celluloid [38], suggesting we may already be on the cusp of straight-faced, convicted revisionism on the part of academics and historians, the two demographics best known for issuing skeptical, conservative responses when presented with new technologies, new directions (significant, even controversial opinions evolve so rapidly now, it feels futile to cite an essay written in 1997—it feels a century old).

The irremediable infancy of celluloid is proven in its absolute stasis over a hundred years: "Finally," wrote Geuens in 2002, "despite all precautions, a hair on the gate, a light leak in the magazine, or inexplicable mishaps at the lab can still destroy hours and hours of hard work." [38]

Just like a hundred years ago.

Of course celluloid was physically incapable of undergoing the sorts of enhancements that have made the electronic image so pathetically unstable over the years. Perhaps the term "adolescent" with all its associations of hormonal fluctuation and self-perpetuated identity crises is more suitably descriptive than I could have hoped: there is no chance in hell that video has finished mutating. It may not in fact be capable of sitting still.

Walter Murch has made a crisp analogy which serves to illustrate how the delicate, docile, and ultimately insurmountable infancy of a medium can enthrall its practitioners and pundits to the extent that they are uninterested in more workable alternatives, uninterested in a natural course of evolution. He says,

Gutenberg's first Bible was printed on vellum, a beautiful and tactile organic substance; but printing only really took off with the invention of paper, which was cheaper and easier to manufacture. [39]


I have no doubt that from a historical perspective celluloid will eventually be regarded along with vellum as a medium which was perfect but not prudent.

Murch makes another graceful analogy between video and celluloid—by far the most graceful yet.


We need to find some analogous development in the past, and the one that seems closest, to me, is the transformation in painting that took place in the 15th century, when the old technique of pigments on fresco was largely replaced by oil paint on canvas.

Some of the greatest, if not the greatest triumphs of European pictorial art were done in fresco, the painstaking process whereby damp plaster is stained with pigments that bond chemically with the plaster and change color as they dry...

A great deal of planning needs to be done with fresco, and the variables—like the consistency and drying time of the plaster—have to be controlled exactly. Artists needed a precise knowledge of the pigments and how they would change color as they dried. Once the pigment had been applied, no revisions were possible. Only so much work could be done in a day before the plaster applied that morning became too dry. Inevitably, cracks would form at the joins between subsequent applications of plaster, so the arrangement of each day's subject matter had to be chosen carefully to minimize the damage from this cracking....

The invention of oil paint changed all this. The artist was freed to paint wherever and whenever he wanted. He did not have to create the work in its final location. The paint was the same color wet as it would be dried. He did not have to worry unduly about cracking surfaces. And the artist could paint over areas he didn't like, even to the point of re-using canvases for completely different purposes.

Although painting in oils remained collaborative for awhile, the innate logic of the new medium allowed the artist more and more control of every aspect of the work, intensifying his personal vision. [40]

Less incisive minds tend to propose more recent—and less precise—historical equivalents for the digital video phenomenon. George Lucas, for instance, suggests that

[w]hat we are going through, with this shift to digital, is on the same level and just as significant as the change from silent to sound films, or the shift from black-and-white to color. [41]


In order to maximize the fertility of this "shift," we must enrich its soil by cultivating its kinship with previous shifts, thereby preparing ourselves for certain foreseeable effects on the artist and on his recipient culture, thereby entering the new era with a sense of responsibility to human history, as well as to contemporary humanity.




If one is to discuss the being of a piece of art and not just its method of production, one must at some point refer—implicitly if not explicitly—to its means of exhibition; that is, to the circumstances under which it is encountered and experienced; to the influence of those circumstances on the experience; and to the potential improvement of those circumstances over time, as the intended recipient culture continues to evolve and to demand the degree of accessibility to which it is accustomed.

Danto, referring to a twentieth-century retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, observed:

But an exhibition is something more than a collection of objects, however expansive, and it seems to me that critical attention might better focus on the larger exhibitional structure here, rather than attempt the object-by-object scrutiny with which art criticism is most comfortable. How is one to experience the exhibition on its own terms, whatever objects may catch one's aesthetic attention or evoke one's historical memories? [42]

Likewise, this will be an indispensable component of any discussion about the art of DV. Theoretically speaking, its exhibition will be its most recalcitrant and mutable element by far.

Manovich, again examining computer media through a theoretical prism which easily applies to DV:

Just as film historians traced the development of film language during cinema's first decades, I want to...speculate whether today this new language is already getting closer to acquiring its final and stable form, just as film language acquired its "classical" form during the 1910s. [43]

While ostensibly interested in the manageability of these new forms, Manovich in practice encourages and congratulates all manner of shape-shifting. His manic planning for the visual media of the future is self-defeatingly intertwined with a youthful interest in relentless experimentation and innovation.

Elsewhere in the same essay Manovich recounts:

In his 1927 Napoleon Abel Gance uses a multiscreen system which shows three images side by side. Two years later, in A Man with a Movie Camera (1929) we watch Dziga Vertov speeding up the temporal montage of individual shots, more and more, until he seems to realize: why not simply superimpose them in one frame? Vertov overlaps the shots together, achieving temporal efficiency—but he also pushes the limits of a viewer's cognitive capacities. His super-imposed images are hard to read—information becomes noise. Here cinema reaches one of its limits imposed on it by human psychology: from that moment on, cinema retreats, relying on temporal montage or deep focus, and reserving superimpositions for infrequent cross-dissolves. [44]

Like Gance and Vertov in their medium, Mike Figgis attempts to stretch digital video beyond fully metabolizable implementation in Time Code with his thorough exploration of what Manovich refers to as "'spatial montage' between simultaneously co-existing images." [45]

In his review of the film for Film Comment, Gregory Solman writes,

Time Code renders the effect of watching four movies in a single gestalt from a broadcast control room or production truck—or, perhaps closer to the director's intent, from the vaguely voyeuristic catbird's seat of a security guard's throne. [46]

But the outcome is "fixed"—in the gambling sense—due to rather wooden manipulations of the viewer's attention: squelching of each of the four soundtracks in succession; care not to overlap dialogue in each quadrant of the screen; care not to overlap the "most" pertinent action.

If there's a story-meeting discussion in one corner with sound, but the other three silent quads contain [Salma] Hayek putting on her makeup, a closeup of [Jeanne] Tripplehorn's lovely cocoa-brown eyes, and an empty office lobby, one might as well be seeing only one movie, edited in parallel montage. [47]

The four narratives in Time Code—let me construe them as independent of one another only for the sake of argument—are intertwined in a way that guarantees the viewer is always drawn to a particular camera's "reportage" and not that of another. Thus, the viewer does not possess the ability to participate as interactively as he is led to believe he can—that is, the film was conceived and posted in such a way that the viewer cannot fully govern his own experience, cannot truly determine for himself which of the four quadrants most interests him at any given moment because he is, in a manner of speaking, predestined to be engaged by only one quadrant at a time. Of course the viewer is able to "cut" to another quadrant any time he likes, but even this highly limited participatory act is a reference to standard sequential montage: the viewer is shrewdly providing himself with the equivalent of a reaction shot.

In relying on such deliberate manipulation, Figgis was treading rather lightly, perhaps honoring that antiquated law of "polish" that seems to bridle so many experiments in this new medium, or perhaps simply due to an awareness that, as Geuens says of early cinematic experiments,

consciousness was not capable of ordering that much new information in a short amount of time. To avoid a total breakdown, the perceptual system responded by underplaying the incoming stimuli. [48]

The fact is that if given four distinctly separate narratives with concurrent action and dialogue and without a tailored soundtrack, the viewer would find himself as overstimulated as his 1929 counterpart had been when faced with Vertov's superimpositional experiment. Figgis' original plan for Time Code was far less a hybrid of traditional and progressive techniques than what resulted (he wanted to show it on four mammoth monitors, accompanied by live music, on the very day of its production), but the finished film wallows in a purgatory of theoretical identity, trapped between old but intelligible modes of expression and other modes which, while historically new, are also potentially inutile. It is important to remember, however, in the cases of both Vertov and Figgis, that such experiments eventually would have been conducted by others had these men not acted on their inspirations, and such undertakings always have inestimable historical value, even when unsuccessful by aesthetic standards—that is, even when unpleasant.

Digital video—like celluloid cinema, like any medium—will indubitably hit its stride when it transcends the juvenile impulse to do everything it can do and learns to be satisfied doing what is sensible for it to do.




Where Do We Go from Here?

The hypnotic Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro has said,

Whether we are using paint or light, we are using a form of technology to translate our ideas to some type of a canvas. Because of the advances that have been made, we have a lot more freedom to express ourselves today with modern cameras, lenses and films...Of course, technology will continue to change and it will give us more freedom. It doesn't matter whether it will be film, tape or some other media that we use to record images. It is all part of our life's journey. The unknown isn't our enemy. It is our friend. What counts are our ideas. Cinematography will always have a future as long as we make a contribution and help to tell the stories. We just need to push technology in the direction that we love the best. [49]

Like Antonioni in the early eighties, Storaro is unthreatened by the various directions in which his art may evolve. Furthermore, he seems willing to encourage its evolution personally.

Once a spirit of innovation overtakes us, however, we must be careful to retain the ballast of theory and history, the two very things which, if disregarded, will contrive a way to mock us before we have proceeded any considerable distance into whichever terra incognita we have chosen as our quarry.

We must consider every dimension, implication, and potential ramification of digital video. We must not neglect to understand the medium on its own terms, as well as in relation to other narrative and visual art forms. We must accept its limitations. We must accept our own limitations. We must be conscientious, like any responsible artist, for art is the externalization of conscience. Andrei Tarkovsky wrote,

You have to have your own hypothesis about what it is you are called to do, and follow it, not giving in to circumstances or complying with them. But that sort of freedom demands powerful inner resources, a high degree of self-awareness, a consciousness of your responsibility to yourself and therefore to other people. [50]

We must remember that arbitrariness is not an authentic element of artistic vision, nor is codification of aesthetic principles conducive to meaningful creative expression.

We must be open to new developments, to permutations on what has already been welcomed, on what has already, irrevocably, been set in motion.

For breadth, we must develop an aesthetic genealogy which includes other media—music, fiction, dance, the Internet. For depth, we must cultivate a firm faith in the past, especially in the efficacy of celluloid and the permanent value of its discoveries, whether major or minor, whether currently applicable or not. We must be sure to have on hand the words and images of a few twentieth-century trailblazers and consult them when we become discouraged by the implacable momentum of the coming technocracy.

Finally, we must remember that art—creation—is a primary function of humanity and that as such it is capable of flourishing even in a technological vacuum.

The new media and all its advantages will result in something new. It will not however alter the basic element, the human psyche and how it works. It will generate many new things in a world in which there is never really anything new under the sun.
— Jon Jost [51]






1. Bou, Núria. "The Conversion of a Tragedy by Cocteau into a Cinema Melodrama: A Reading of Il mistero di Oberwald."

2. Brunette, Peter. The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

3. Peary, Gerald. The Mystery of Oberwald online review

4. Brown, James. "Great Directors: Michelangelo Antonioni," Senses of Cinema Web site.

5. Reiher, Peter. The Oberwald Mystery online review

6. Chatman, Seymour. Antonioni, Or, the Surface of the World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

7. Ibid.

8. Bou, Núria.

9. Brunette.

10. Chatman.

11. Peary.

12. Chatman.

13. Bou.

14. Wilson, Louise. "Cyberwar, God and Television: Interview with Paul Virilio."

15. Wenders, Wim. "Chambre 666," The Logic of Images: Essays and Conversations. London: Faber and Faber, 1991.

16. Alsobrook, Russ. "Back to the Future: Reflections on the Brief History of Video Moviemaking."

17. Ibid.

18. Online interview with Robert Altman.

19. Alsobrook.

20. Alsobrook discusses each of these cameras and formats.

21. Jost, Jon. Rotterdam Film Festival Speech, 1999.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. Bloodworth, Charles. "Digital Video Details," Videomaker Magazine August 2002.

25. Boyer, Susan. "Sundance Gets in the Digital Groove"

26. Ibid.

27. Phillips, Tony. "Cumming Attraction: An Interview with the Anniversary Party's Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh"

28. Ibid.

29. Tarkovsky, Andrei. "After Nostalgia," Sculpting in Time. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.

30. Bahr, Fax and George Hickenlooper. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. 1991.

31. Hall, Francis Lee. "Francis Ford Coppola's Virtual Studio"

32. Ibid.

33. Tyler, Parker. "Film as a Force in Visual Education," Sex, Psyche, Etc. in the Film. New York: Horizon Press, 1969.

34. Danto, Arthur. "Of Time and the Artist"

35. Wilson.

36. Manovich, Lev. "Cinema as Cultural Interface"

37. Geuens, Jean-Pierre. "The Digital World Picture," Film Quarterly. Vol. 55, Issue 4, Summer, 2002.

38. Ibid.

39. Murch, Walter. "A Digital Cinema of the Mind? Could Be"

40. Ibid.

41. Lyman, Rick. "A Monument to the Filmless Future"

42. Danto.

43. Manovich.

44. Ibid.

45. Manovich, Lev. "What Is Digital Cinema?"

46. Solman, Gregory. Time Code film review, Film Comment, May, 2000.

47. Ibid.

48. Geuens, Jean-Pierre. "Far from the Bengal Lights: the Fate of the Film Artist at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century," Quarterly Review of Film & Video Vol. 19, Issue 4, Oct/Nov 2002.

49. Daviau, Allen and Bob Fisher. "A Conversation with Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC"

50. Tarkovsky, Andrei. "The Artist's Responsibility," Sculpting in Time. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.

51. Jost.

above copied from: http://www.braintrustdv.com/essays/video-history.html


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