Cinema Against the Grain

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On digital vs. film

Why return to the discourse surrounding digital and film now? Walter Benjamin wrote, “In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.” Today digital sensors have largely erased the aesthetic discrepancies between digital and film, and it’s difficult to talk about them as different mediums at all. An ‘innocent’ image reigns, one paradoxically filmlike. 

OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer) Haywood in Jordan Peele’s Nope (2022) embody the dominant attitudes toward digital and film. Digital is the smartphone in your pocket, a friend who’s apparently always around, but never when you really need it, like the dozen cameras in the movie tasked with surveilling the skies for an alien aircraft but easily disarmed by its anti-electrical field. Even if they managed to get the shot, who would believe a dishonest (digital) friend? 

The two siblings recruit Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), a celluloid cinematographer with a reputation for getting the impossible shot; a priest-like figure who has taken a vow of analogic celibacy. He swears by a hand-cranked camera that requires not a volt of electricity. Introduced at his flatbed editor, he mainlines truth straight into his pupils: images of wildlife, but especially scenes of predation, such as an octopus strangling a crab. Nature is no friend and neither is Antlers (he proposes baiting a trap with a horse). Like any junkee, he longs to return to the oblivion of the womb. After placing himself in harm’s way he is sucked into the alien hole, cranking his truth machine in a mixture of ecstacy and terror. 

Antlers is first obsessed, then defeated by cinema’s hard kernel, or what André Bazin called the myth of Total Cinema: the impossibility of a total imitation of nature. It serves as the idealistic compulsion behind motion pictures, a spiritual drive propelled not by science nor industry. Antlers’ impossible shot of the alien is made possible only as it is destroyed, suggesting the human desire for truth may be linked to the death drive.  

When cinema turned away from its indexical relationship to the outside world and toward virtuality, the nearness of the holy grail became paradoxically palpable: free from the need to capture unpredictable reality, filmmakers could re-create an image of it at their own pace and in all the detail they desired. A godlike power over nature allowed us to see a 50-year-old Will Smith battle the 20-year-old Fresh Prince of Bel Air in Gemini Man (2019), although critics and audiences dismissed its 120fps (‘5x more truthful!’ read a Paramount ad) as unnatural — what happened? 

The Frankenstein complex is what film theorist Noël Burch called humanity’s desire to play god. It turns out Frankenstein’s monster is digital, neither alive nor dead, and it has an undead complex. It wears artificial masks of grain and scratches, and looks through antique lenses, concealing its unreality with a masquerade of death. 1985 introduced the first computer-generated character in Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes, and in 2022, Barry’s son Sam pushed the digital aesthetic which strives for the texture of film further than ever, shooting Euphoria season 2 on a long extinct colour reversal film stock, Kodak Ektachrome — itself popularised in the past few years by photo editing apps. It is therefore thanks to the digital era that this otherwise outmoded film stock is prized for its distinct features (HBO revived Kodak’s factories in the process).  Perhaps cinema, having attained a measure of power over nature with the digital, finds the myth of Total Cinema not so mythical. And so, it desires a new impossible, which it finds in a film stock unaffordable except by the highest budgeted productions. Film as a medium for capture demands smaller shooting ratios and additional technicians. As a medium for editing, distribution, and exhibition, it has been entirely phased out in favour of a digital pipeline. Film is harder: its fetishisation has replaced the myth of Total Cinema with a Partial Cinema, one concerned not with the idealised origins of cinema, the dream of man to recreate nature, but with its material origins, in celluloid. 

If desire is wanting what you don’t have, motion picture mediums must be lacking subjects indeed. The early sound period of cinema, staged in a velvety fog, wanted to increase its depth of field; the early digital cinema, naked and embarrassed in a focal plain, desperately wanted to decrease it. By the late 1930s, thanks to more sensitive panchromatic stocks, filmmakers were able to shrink the aperture of the lens, resulting in deep-focus cinematography. By 1941, Orson Welles had dug as deep as possible, and further yet, artificially increasing depth of field with mattes and rear projections in Citizen Kane; conversely, in the early 2000s, prosumer digital cameras decreased depth with the aid of lens adapters. Rear projection and lens adaptations had similar degrading effects on image detail — perhaps because lacking subjects are ultimately self-destructive.

If celluloid yearned for deep and digital for shallow, then what are motion pictures as such looking for? Bazin thought deep-focus announced the maturation of film language because the viewer related to deep-focus images as freely as they related to reality. In short, ambiguity entered the image. Therefore Citizen Kane’s theme, the inability to summarise or interpret a person’s life on the basis of any one event or signifier (rosebud), can only be realised in depth. “The uncertainty in which we find ourselves… is built into the very design of the image,” Bazin wrote. 

2020’s Shiva Baby (director Emma Seligman, cinematographer Maria Rusche), with its modern digital sensor and fast lenses, fulfils the dream of early digital with an anti-Wellesian, shallow-focus rigour. In the foreground of the opening shot is a table with an iPhone; in the background a couple has sex on a couch. The focal plane is slim and forward, barely encompassing the phone, and the couple are vague fish swimming in an ocean of bokeh. Later, at the shiva, protagonist Danielle is harassed by her parents and sugar daddy — not to mention his wife and infant — while isolated by handheld shallow-focus. 

Guests loom in and out of focus, remaining indistinct. The anamorphic frame is a surprising choice; the CinemaScope 2.35, classically associated with clear vistas and calm camerawork, does not add more information horizontally. It adds more nothing, more out of focus. Bazin’s uncertainty is no less built into this image. 

Critics, along with the filmmakers themselves, highlighted Shiva Baby’s claustrophobic, anxious tone. Anxiety, as Freud tells us, is fear without an object. It is ambiguous. A certain ambiguity, even meaninglessness, was the goal of digital’s shallow-focus, but as Bazin has suggested, it was also driving the deep-focus of film. Cinema is the rosebud upon which language founders.  

A digital sensor does not passively imprint light on its surface, like the emulsion of film, but is an active agent in the world. Unlike Bazin’s shroud of Turin, it is closer to a God. It consumes data about the world with pixels, little sucking mouths, which regurgitate an image. The mission is synthesis, combining the tonal values of pixels into something startlingly lifelike, Tom Cruise’s smile for instance. Its surface is already a movie, the pixels akin to millions of discrete shots (32 million in an 8K sensor). The digital image, the collision of pixels, is already montage. 

A montage not unlike Eisenstein’s dialectical montage. He theorised that shots, or montage cells, once adjoined through editing can create ideas or associations in the mind of the viewer. A man in prison + soaring bird = freedom, for instance. The idea arrived at, freedom, is purely virtual and metaphorical. The digital image arrived at through the adjoining of pixels — montage cells, a prison of them — is likewise closer to metaphor than image, the ‘image’ a virtual reconstruction of a real image through an arbitrary code. 

Eisenstein admired the blushing bunny Thumper in Bambi, the way it slowly suffused with red. The hand-drawn frame, able to change form or colour, was without constraint, “an ability I would call ‘plasmaticity,’” he wrote. It represented the montage principle taken to its logical conclusion, a mise en scene able to concretise language. Though Eisenstein experimented with mixing black and white and isolated instances of colour in Ivan the Terrible Part Ⅱ, film would never have the plasmaticity of hand-drawn animation. 

But the cinema would. Plasmaticity, a portmanteau of plasticity and plasma, a matter state best visualised as electricity’s odd aura, perfectly describes the digital. It is mutable, promiscuous. In Schindler’s List, Spielberg made the dialectical move of digitally highlighting the jacket of a small girl wandering the ghetto, colouring it Thumper red in an otherwise grayscale film. Schindler later recognises the red jacket amongst a pile of corpses, which is intended to signal his dawning consciousness; one may recall the critic V.F. Perkins’ complaint that watching an Eisenstein film is like reading hieroglyphics, leaving no room for interpretation, and that Bazin denigrated dialectical montage’s tendency to analyse the scene on behalf of the audience.

Returning to Walt Disney an insurgent, 2013’s Escape from Tomorrow (director Randy Moore), shot on the sly in Disney World on digital cameras which could belong to any of the quarter million daily visitors, used plasmaticity to alter what Disney’s website describes as a “jubilant chorus of children” by giving the dolls of the “It’s a Small World” attraction bulging eyes and fangs. 

At the degree zero of digital video technology stands Michael Almereyda’s black and white film Nadja (1994), a New York-set vampire movie which mixes 35mm film stock — cinema’s gold standard — with a Fisher-Price Pixelvision camera — a child’s toy. The mechanics of digital are laid bare; you feel like you could reverse engineer the image with enough squares of grey in varying opacities. The most disconcerting thing about seeing a digital image so nakedly, as it purports to be a thing in the world, is that it spits in the eye of the notion that there are no straight lines in nature, only curves. When a character slips off a robe in Pixelvision, you’re startled to find a network of cubes, pixels, montage cells instead of curving musculature, the human body as a patchwork of precariously teetering Jenga towers. In one scene, a sparkler sheds little white squares instead of sparks — like an elegant solution to a difficult maths problem. 

In 1929, Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera placed the camera everywhere — on a streetcar speeding through the city — and nowhere — under a hurtling train. Philosopher Gilles Deleuze called Vertov’s flux of vision without a centre gaseous perception, signalling the twilight of the silent era. Dormant during the intervening sound years, this gaseous perception presaged the dawn of the digital age (as a state of matter, gas occurs between liquid and plasma). I know no better example of gaseous perception than Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s masterpiece Leviathan (2012), shot on a battery of GoPros aboard a commercial fishing vessel in the Atlantic. The fist-sized action cams cover everything but reveal nothing. By treating the rugged cameras as disposable, the images are contingent, charged with destruction. 

The small exposure latitude of the sensor turns the vast sea black as oil, over which are stretched veins of bright white seafoam. The short focal length lenses (8mm) give the already abstract images a slick curve, as though they were projected onto the eye of a whale. The ever-present seagulls, seeking stray fish and crustaceans churned up by the nets, look like Giotto’s gliding angels one moment, and insects scavenging a picnic the next. In an ironic bird’s eye view, a gull is stranded on the deck and the tiny camera finds itself underneath the bird, its webbed feet slipping in the dross and against the lens, the sea a dark aperture in the background ejecting a regular spray of crystalline beads. In the same year that Hollywood gave us The Avengers, a digitally-aided monument to intentionality, cams initially designed to be strapped to the heads of surfers or cyclists gave us the impossible. Castaing-Taylor/Paravel’s latest movie, De Humani Corporis Fabrica (2022), inserts still smaller digital cameras into the human body. 

The surrealists of the early 20th century prized cinema for cleaving everyday objects, places, and people from their utilitarian use value, the frame and the alchemy of motion turning the cliché strange. But after 100-odd years of codification, the cinema is normal. Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane, shot on an iPhone, submits cinema itself to a process of estrangement. Pace certain critics, who were perhaps mystified by the format, Unsane is not formally audacious; on the contrary, it’s classically constructed. It could be studied for the staples of film grammar — shot-reverse, continuity cutting, logically shifting shot scales, etc. Conversely, Sean Baker’s Tangerine is typical for being atypical, exploiting the iPhone’s small size by flying it on a gimbal. Unsane is radical for being old fashioned; the cinematic institution, a stodgy ‘film grammar,’ is made strange thanks to an iPhone. Instead of the famous surrealist formula, the encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table, we have the encounter of a shot and a reverse shot on a telephone. 

The familiar beats of commercial narrative cinema are present, but compromised, made fascinating, because of the format. In an office setting, Claire Foy talks on the phone in the foreground. In the midground neighbouring cubicle, a woman reacts to the conversation; where we might expect a focus-pull to her eye roll, the iPhone’s almost infinite depth of field renders it unnecessary. It looks like a rehearsal — the cinema still in its trailer waiting on call time. According to cognitive scientists, we alight on things that look like human faces when scanning an environment. The depth of field of Unsane turns everything into a face; the beer mugs on the bar in the extreme foreground, helped by the short focal length of the lens (28mm), are glaring, winking heads of foam that muscle Foy out of her close-up. 

The small exposure latitude also becomes uniquely expressive. When Foy expresses suicidal ideations she is shot from above; because the sensor is unable to delineate the dark carpet, she is suspended over an abyss. Later, when Foy is unlawfully held in a mental institution, the daytime windows become white voids — there’s nothing to escape to. 

Soderbergh’s iPhone followup to Unsane, High Flying Bird (2019), already looks more banal, with wide exposure latitude and a shallow depth of field, while Michael Mann’s most recent digital features lack the hallucinatory, sui generis video voodoo of Miami Vice (2006), Collateral (2004), and Public Enemies (2009). Even David Lynch has returned to Inland Empire, fixing the chunky facture of standard definition video, which so fascinated him in 2006, by using artificial intelligence to invent more information in each individual frame. He added a layer of grain too.  

The dream of early cinema was to become a language. Digital is already a language (code). Early cinema proceeded from the photographic thing to the art. Digital proceeds from the art to the photographic thing. Bresson wrote, “The soundtrack invented silence.” Because silent films were set in relief with the advent of talkies, we were able to grasp them. And as the English essayist Walter Pater said that “all art constantly aspires to the condition of music,” the talkies — earthbound in heavy soundproof cameras — dreamed of the fluidity of silent cinema. Finally, we can say that digital invented film, which it aspires to be. In doing so, it reveals cinema’s kinship with the fluidity of music. 

Alexander Farmer

Alexander Farmer is a filmmaker and writer living in New Orleans, Louisiana.