Film–Is There a Future in Our Past? (The Afterlife of Latent Images)

By Rick Hancox


Is film dead, or are rumours of its death–as in Mark Twain’s response to the gaffe about his own demise–“greatly exaggerated”? Rumours of film kicking the bucket are nothing new – “FILM IS DEAD” was a banner headline in Daily Variety in 1956 when videotape was invented. Maybe I should have called this talk “A Fleeting Filibuster on the Future of Film,” but it seemed that a title relating to the past was appropriate, thus “Film – Is There a Future in Our Past? (The Afterlife of Latent Images).” The idea of the latent image–exposed film waiting for development–is one of the key differences between film, and its bond with the past, and video, with its virtual window on the present. Of course once the latent image is developed, and comes to life on the screen, it only knows the present tense. Thus, the notion that film’s future as a medium is in its past, is one of the ironies I want to explore.

“There’s a Future in Our Past” was actually the 1978 motto of a Main Street renovation project in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, the city where I spent my childhood. That was the year I started the long shooting process for my experimental documentary, Moose Jaw: There’s a Future in Our Past (1992). By the end of the film, after mocking Moose Jaw’s commodification of its past in museums and other tourist attractions, I wind up myself in the Museum of Western Development as a virtual wax figure, frozen in the act of filming a Model ‘T’ Ford with my 16mm Bolex camera (a museum piece itself in the video “revolution”).

Taking obsolescence a step further, in 2000 I started taking pictures exclusively with disposable, one-time use (non-digital) cameras. With the limitations this presented–fixed-focus, wide angle lenses that distort at the edges, no control over exposure or shutter speed, automatic flashes, parallax error, and of course, latent images–I found myself experiencing a certain freedom: less technical options meant the photographic act became one of concentration solely on composition, colour, form and light, and the effect of these on picture content. Eventually I found myself documenting disposability itself–many of the pictures reveal some kind of deterioration or other transitory state, while others display veneers, reflections, and dubious likenesses. With the entire photochemical process threatened by digitization, disposable cameras have taken on an extra significance. Disposabilities reveals how contradictions of material and immaterial, of things lasting and temporary, become impregnated with each other–how all that is solid melts into air.

The museumization of film reminds me of Mary Anne Doane’s recent book, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, and the Archive (2002). In this book she addresses the condition of cinephilia–something she defines as a love of marginal details in cinema, which she links to its photographic indexicality and predilection for contingency. Doane says film theorists have become interested in cinephilia “as though the aim of theory were to delineate more precisely the contours of an object at the moment of its historical demise.” This is just like Minerva’s owl in Roman mythology. Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, was accompanied by an owl, which Hegel said spread its wings only with the falling of the dusk–meaning philosophy comes to understand things just as they pass away. And as Harold Innis pointed out, Minerva’s owl takes flight when civilisations are in decline. We could debate extensively the presumption of the cinema’s decline, but this symposium has asked a more specific question: is film dead? One frequently hears the terms cinema, film, movies, and video used interchangeably. For example: “I used the latest DVCPRO HD video camera to shoot my film,” or the more generic “I just finished filming my video.” Thankfully the symposium has defined filmmaking as emulsion-based practice, or image-making on celluloid, and while consumers today probably don’t care about these distinctions, it is nevertheless important for producers to know the difference.

The debate about which medium is better, cheaper, or less “dead,” really started heating up in the 1970s. In a 1981 article entitled “Is There Film After Video?” B. Ruby Rich wrote that for more than a decade, despite “proclaiming the end of film-as-we-know-it, and trumpeting the arrival of a brave new world of video… the world hasn’t crashed down around our heads… no sinners have plunged into hell, nor dead souls risen from their graves… and yet the dogma marches onward.” As she pointed out, incumbent forms of expression survived previous media revolutions. Theatre, newspapers and magazines, radio–film too, with the advent of television–all had to re-invent themselves. Film may be constantly in a state of dying, but, to borrow from Kierkegaard, it’s also in a state of becoming.

Almost as long ago as Rich’s article, American Cinematographer Magazine recognized professional video practices in an issue (March 1982) focusing on the new concept of “electronic cinematography,” a term designating video techniques modelled after filmmaking (in contrast to live television). The difference was largely the degree of control which could be exercised over each aspect of production. Shooting video “film-style,” with a single camera, permitted greater control over lighting, staging, and composition. Editing sound and picture separately during post-production also offered improved possibilities for control. Yet important differences were still noted by the magazine: “film is similar to drawing each frame on a new slate, while video makes use of the same slate over and over again, nearly erasing each image with a less than ideal eraser before each subsequent frame.” The most limited aspect of video was seen as its comparatively narrow luminance range, giving a latitude of only 4 or 5 f-stops. Anton Wilson said in the same issue, “film negative has a far broader luminance ratio of over 128:1, or more than 7 stops.” That was 25 years ago, and there has been no reason for Kodak or Fuji to stand still. Advances in film emulsions have evolved to the point where those seven stops have become twelve, and films with speeds of 500 ASA–with no noticeable grain–are routinely shot. Here the new technology is built into the film itself, not the equipment. Producers don’t have to re-equip every time the rules of the game are changed. The information in a 35mm negative, or even a well-scanned 16mm negative, already exceeds the resolution required for HDTV. (And 16mm filmmakers can still use the same reliable, inexpensive Bolex cameras the Swiss built like watches years ago).[1]

With videotape a change in format means re-equipping. Now the buzzword is digital, and even though we’re still talking about video recording on a chip, we’re told the newest format is “revolutionary.” Despite promises that the latest technology is as “good” as film, today’s top-of-the-line High-Definition camera will eventually wind up in a garage sale. Obsolescence guarantees a steady revenue stream for Sony, Panasonic, and all the rest, supported by consumers who assume all Hollywood has switched. Protested one cinematographer, “I’ve been shooting Hi-Def for over thirty years–it’s called film.”

The notion that the forward direction of time guarantees technological progress (and social advancement) is one of the great myths of the modern era. It’s true in many instances, but what is also happening is simply the creation of markets for new gizmos and the production of obsolescence. Imagine for a moment that the advent of film and video was historically reversed. Someone shows up on a feature video set with a “new media” film camera. This new device has variable speeds, twelve stops of exposure latitude, subtle detail in highlights and shadows, a sharp colour viewfinder, hundreds of lens choices, and a beautiful, high-res image which can be held up to light and seen with the naked eye. If the name on the side says “Bolex,” this new camera is not affected by power outages or dead batteries, since it can also be wound by hand.[2]


APPARATUS

Editing is one way in which the increased efficiency of digitization is not without loss. In an essay comparing the apparatus of film and video, entitled “A Matter of Time” (2002), Babette Mangolte speculates as to why it is difficult for a digital image to communicate duration, and for young editors to find a sense of tempo. Grain in film “constantly trades spaces and places from one frame to the next… reinforcing the demonstration of time passing.” In video, time is fixed as a map and is repeatable, while “silver-based film is structured by time as entropy.” Mangolte concludes, “The unpredictability of time passing and time past, the slippage between one and the other, and the pathos of their… difference” is largely lost in video. In my view “that film look” has much to do with Mangolte’s ontology, which also assumes the latent image. Thus, since film inherently privileges themes of time and/or memory–attracting film people thus inspired–the content is equally responsible for the “look” of film.

Cinematic duration is something the Austrian experimental filmmaker Martin Arnold exploits when he takes old Hollywood movies and slows down brief passages to excruciating lengths. Innocuous glances between Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, for example, in Arnold’s film Alone: Life Wastes Andy Hardy (1998), take on deeply disturbing undertones, as he exposes “the dreams, hopes, and taboos of the epoch and society that created it.” Essentially Arnold takes cinephilia to its logical conclusion. Christian Keathley, in his 2006 book Cinephilia and History, or the Wind in the Trees, observes “Whether it is the gesture of a hand, the odd rhythm of a horse’s gait, or the sudden change in expression on a face, these moments are experienced by the cinephile who beholds them as nothing less than an epiphany…” While he says today’s films, thanks to the influence of television and video, have reached a point of simplicity in their thorough cultural coding, Catherine Russell would no doubt see Arnold’s techniques as a redemption of film’s complexity. In Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video (1999), Russell claims her book is not about video, but rather the way video enables us to see film differently. “It cannot be true that video is replacing cinema, when digital technologies are enabling us to see so much more cinema. I would prefer to argue that video is an extension of cinema, often functioning as an allegory of cinema’s vanishing aura.” She explains how if ethnography can be understood as discursive, then “its affinities with filmic ontologies of memorialization, redemption and loss become a rich source of allegorical possibility.”

Like Martin Arnold, these possibilities are being explored by other contemporary artists using appropriated images from popular culture, transforming the original into cultural commentary, criticism, and parody. Last year, a coalition of art professionals in Canada wrote an open letter to the Stephen Harper government expressing their deep concern over the proposed Canadian Copyright reform, which they fear will compound the problems of appropriation artists under the law. They say the time has come for the Canadian government to consider replacing “fair dealing” with a broader defence, such as “fair use” that will offer artists the certainty they require to create.[3] Obviously, as the Coalition points out, contemporary culture (which I take to include the digital imperative) should not be immune to critical commentary.


RESIDUAL THEORY

Film artists who recycle found footage, and others re-thinking the cinematic apparatus as an oppositional strategy, are working in a domain that the cultural theorist Raymond Williams referred to as “residual” (as opposed to “dominant” or “emergent”). The residual has nothing to do with what is archaic; while the residual may have emerged from or been formed in the past, it is “still active in the cultural process… not at all as an element of the past, but as an effective element of the present.” And while we could assume “emergent” must be then associated with everything digital, Williams warned it is hard to tell whether emergent practices represent something really new, alternative or oppositional, or are just some aspect of the dominant culture. In my colleague Charles Acland’s recent book Residual Media (2007), Michelle Henning writes on how emergent and residual practices, once they become too threatening–i.e. popular–are quickly incorporated into the dominant culture. The business of nostalgia, for example, is one way of subsuming the residual and defusing its political potential. Henning says that, “Today not only do objects (and practices) become obsolescent increasingly quickly, they remain obsolescent for less time before being seized on as collectibles, renewed as commodities, revived, replayed, and repeated.”

Such appropriation by dominant culture still gets disguised under the sign of “new media.” But new media isn’t what it used to be. It no longer simply means digital as opposed to analog, it just means new in relation to last year’s digital revolution. And video is no longer new either, as it was when Tom Sherman was writing in the 1970s about how culture could be “engineered” to undermine film’s supposed hegemony. He saw a “take over” by video as an advantage and called it the best medium to critique cinema. Then, we must ask, what is the best medium to critique video? Or is the digital dynamo beyond criticism? In what was once hailed as a new, environmentally friendly industry, outdated “new media” electronic–and now digital–devices are quickly becoming a major source of environmental waste. Just in Quebec alone, 158,000 metric tonnes of this stuff is trashed annually–the equivalent in weight of 20,000 elephants (which are at least biodegradable)–with no province-wide plan to handle it.


ARCHIVES

Ironically, the disposal of analog film is not a problem for those whose job it is to preserve film and photographic images. Archives ideally make an attempt to preserve films in the same medium in which they were intended to be seen, and so prints are struck from old negatives, or in some cases from the only existing print (now the new master positive.) But in many instances, film originals are digitized over to a video medium, which will break down and need to be replaced. This prospect of constant image migration is at best inefficient compared to the superior dye-keeping stability of colour negative film, now able to last well over 100 years.

If motion picture film or photographic originals survive the dustbin after being digitized, they can in any case still remain inaccessible. “Analog is having a burial and digital is dancing on its grave,” said Sarah Boxer in the New York Times regarding the Bettmann Archives’ move from New York City in 2001. This enormous archive of the 20th century, consisting of 17 million photographs, was purchased by Bill Gates’ company, Corbis, and buried 220 feet down a limestone mine north of Pittsburgh. The idea was to create a sub-zero archival stash immune from everything from vandals to nuclear war. Researchers can only access a catalogue in New York where a small part of the collection, considered worthy by Corbis, has been digitized. This inspired Arthur Kroker to coin the term “image-matrix” in his online publication CTheory. He described the buried Bettman Archive as “photography in a bubble. Memory in cold storage. Images fast-frozen… A psychoanalytics of digital repression.” Kroker says it is our future as humans to disappear into images, by which he means not just television and consumer video, but also “those images-matrices that harvest human flesh: MRI/CT scans, thermography.”

In Paolo Usai’s The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory and the Digital Dark Age (2001), a book which Martin Scorsese hailed as “an elegy to the thousands of copies of films being destroyed everyday all over the world,” Usai writes, “the much touted benefits of the Digital Revolution have quickly shifted towards a subtle, yet pervasive ideology. There’s something inherently reactionary in how worldwide consensus has been gathered around this new myth of scientific progress. What’s worse, denouncing its excesses will make you feel like the latest anti-technologist on the block.” Usai and Kroker both wrote their observations in 2001. Years later, nothing much seems to have changed. Heather Hendershot edited a series of articles for a 2006 special issue of Cinema Journal on the state of 16mm film. The hype around new media still beckons: “Our classrooms are increasingly filled with digital projectors,” she says, “in part, because even in a strapped budgetary environment ‘going digital’ is seen as a worthwhile innovation. It’s easier to write a sexier proposal for a ‘smart classroom’ than to advocate that the same money should be spent on higher salaries, more hires, better healthcare benefits, or even more books for the library.”

That said, other contributors to the issue are surprisingly optimistic. Jan-Christopher Horak reports substantial sales increases of 16mm negative film stock over the last few years. According to Kodak, this resurgence can be attributed to several factors, including the release of an inexpensive, lightweight Super 16 camera by Aaton, and new lenses for Super 16 being manufactured by Arriflex, Canon, and Cooke. It is ironic that digital innovation is actually extending the life of celluloid. Digital transfer of film to video is now so improved that the amount of information scanned from a Super 16 negative is equivalent to what was possible with 35mm just a few years ago (with subsequent budget savings of almost 30% versus shooting on 35mm). Fotokem Labs on the west coast is developing up to 300,000 feet per week of Super 16, much of it for television shows like Law and Order. Fotokem is also processing thousands of feet of Super 16 a week for USC’s film school and double that for the Los Angeles-based New York Film Academy.

Many independent and avant-garde filmmakers continue to shoot 16mm for aesthetic rather than economic reasons. Improvements in digital video scanning, not to mention post-production on desktop computers, have even had a trickle-down effect to Super 8mm film. While Kodak may have phased out Super 8 Kodachrome (not so 16mm Kodachrome) they have actually introduced a saturated, fine-grain Super 8 colour reversal stock, and even 200 and 500 ASA colour negative stocks for professionals on low budgets who like the look of film.

In this same Cinema Journal, Scott MacDonald, in a piece entitled “16mm: Reports of Its Death are Greatly Exaggerated,” speculates that, before long, 16mm projection will even undergo something of a revival. “The fundamental issue here,” he writes, “is not which projection technology is theoretically ‘better’ either in practical or aesthetic terms, but the compelling nature of the films that have been made on 16mm… and the remarkable accomplishments of alternative filmmakers, including those working in 8mm.” He notes that it is in fact because educational institutions and libraries divested themselves of 16mm for a generation that any surviving prints and negatives will increase in value. According to MacDonald, “Any institution with the sense to maintain its capacity for good 16mm projection during the coming years will increasingly be recognized as… ahead of its time, and all those… in a hurry to believe that each new exhibition technology must replace the previous will, in retrospect, look foolish.”


RESIDUAL PRACTICES AND POST-CINEMA

While I suggested earlier that Minerva’s Owl may be set to take flight, it is now, in this moment when film seems most threatened, that things have been getting interesting. Tess Takahashi, in a 2005 essay on direct, film surface animation, notes “over the past ten years, there has been an explosion of avant-garde film and media exhibition, increased scholarly work, and the revitalization of long-abandoned avant-garde filmmaking practices.” In these films, the visible presence of artists exploiting the indexicality of the medium, literally with their own physical imprints–or in some cases, bodily fluids–emerges as a new kind of authorial guarantee, as opposed to the no-name, remote enhancements of pre-programmed digital filters.

During my career, despite using what is often seen as an expensive, somehow “undemocratic,” or “elitist” medium, my 16mm films have always been on the fringes of dominant culture. Why? Maybe they’re too opposed to traditional film techniques. I was accused in the 1978 Grierson Documentary Film Seminar (along with others, like James Blue), of deliberately ignoring 80 years of film tradition with my film Home for Christmas (1978). That is why I bristle when I’m tarred with the same brush as cigar-chewing movie moguls simply because I use the same medium. In my case the medium affects content significantly, and while it may all wind up on a screen of some kind, the tools with which both film and video artists choose to work are no less important than the choice other artists make among media. Nobody would think of telling a painter that since it all winds up on a canvas it doesn’t matter whether he or she uses oils, acrylics, pastels, or watercolours. (Or should all painters be using acrylics, seeing as how they’re newer than oils, or dry faster?)

Of increasing concern to film artists is the degree to which we are dependent on large corporations to manufacture the film stock, sophisticated laboratories to process it, and how they in turn are affected by the economics of digital hegemony. Partly for this reason a degree of healthy self-preservation has emerged in alternative film practice, in which artists are hand processing their own film stock–and even, in the case of my colleague Roy Cross–making their own film emulsions. As well, there is Phil Hoffman’s famous “Film Farm” in southwestern Ontario, which made the cover of POV magazine in 2006, to which even industry professionals return, to the earth as it were, getting their hands dirty (or more precisely, wet) learning how to hand process and creatively manipulate their own film.

These kinds of alternative and oppositional film practices are undertaken not just for economic reasons, but often for the sheer pleasure of contact derived from hand-crafted art. Anyone who consults the late Helen Hill’s Recipes for Disaster: A Handcrafted Film Cookbooklet (2001), or ever had the good fortune to know her (I didn’t), realizes that all filmmaking doesn’t have to give in to the dominant culture, digital or otherwise. If, as Ruby Rich said in 1981, film will need to reinvent itself to survive, the process has already begun. There are new possibilities for alternative film production and dissemination many of us could never have dreamed of years ago.[4] Look for example at the March/April 2007 issue of Filmprint, the magazine of the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto (LIFT)–the same people who sponsored the highly successful film event Film is Dead – Long Live Film! 25 Manifestos for the Rebirth of Film as an Art Form. Attached to the centrefold of each Filmprint issue is a return envelope containing 24 frames of 16mm clear leader and 24 frames of black, with tips on how to scratch and colour the footage by hand. Readers are invited to mail back their finished, cameraless film for splicing in with the others, helping LIFT make the “World’s First Direct Mail Movie.”

After all this, it makes me sad when I hear definitive statements like, “Film is finally dying for real… cinematographers are shooting in digital format rather than the more expensive 16mm or 35mm.” Video is finding its place as a professional industry medium, but it doesn’t mean that since some cinematographers use HD for some productions they’re all doing it! Or that since still photography has “gone digital,” so has cinematography. I’d like to say to the general public, when you’re watching all those exciting movies on the big screen and munching popcorn, what do you think they were shot on? As one bumper sticker seen in California reads, “You can have my film camera when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.” Instead of bumper stickers and death certificates, instead of cringing around all those film cans and scary steel Bolexes, we should encourage the kind of creative environment where all photographic media are allowed to coexist simply as a set of artistic tools, each with their own merits, from which we as artists and analog human beings are free to choose.



An earlier version of this text was originally presented as a Keynote Speech at “Is Film Dead? A Symposium on the State of Celluloid,” part of the inaugural Halifax Independent Filmmakers Festival, on March 23, 2007. The symposium, organized by the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative, brought together artists, media arts presenters and representatives from artist-run centres from across Canada for two days of discussions on the evolution of film.

 


NOTES

1. In the Communication Studies Department at Concordia University, we are retrofitting our Bolexes to handle Super 16mm, which approximates the 16:9 aspect ratio of HD video. It involves widening the camera’s aperture to expose the side of the 16mm negative formerly reserved for sound, and re-centering the lens mount–all at nominal expense. Students can still use the latest, regular 16mm stocks, but a significantly larger negative with a wider aspect ratio results.

2. Our students actually get the best of both worlds–analog and digital. The superior Super 16 negative, once developed by the lab, is then scanned directly to DVCAM or Digi-Beta, digitally edited using Final Cut Pro HD, and “printed” to video. The students show their work and send it to festivals on DVD. But before that, they have an exercise where they select from reels of 16mm “found” footage we have lying around the Department, and edit it into a collage film with sound on a 16mm Steenbeck. It’s a creative way to experience traditional film editing, which served as the model for the non-linear, digital editing programs we know today.

3. In Canada the Copyright Act provides that any “fair dealing” with a work for purposes of private study or research, or for criticism, review or news reporting is not infringement. But the line between fair dealing and infringement is a thin one. There are no guidelines that define the number of words or passages that can be used without permission from the author, and no broader concept of “fair use,” such as in the United States. In the U.S. fair use, codified in section 107 of the copyright law, includes four factors to be considered in determining whether or not a particular use is fair: (1) The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Of interest to collage filmmakers and other appropriation artists might be the 1961 Report of the Register of Copyrights on the General Revision of the U.S. Copyright Law, which cites examples of activities that courts have regarded as fair use, including “use in a parody of some of the content of the work parodied.” For more information see http://strategis.ic.gc.ca/sc_mrksv/cipo/cp/copy_gd_protect-e.html#6 See also http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl102.htm

4. Josh Bonnetta, an MFA student whose thesis I’m supervising, is producing a series of direct animation films using a variety of radical exposure and hand-developing techniques. In one film he stretched out raw film stock on his front lawn, placing tiny shards of coloured glass on top and exposing it to the light of the moon. The results were exquisite.

 



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rick Hancox teaches film in the Communications Department of Concordia University in Montreal, and studied film and photography at NYU and Ohio University, where he earned his MFA. He is known as an aritistic innovator of experimental and personal documnetary films. Hancox taught for twelve years at Sheridan College near Toronto, where he influenced some of Canada's foremost experimental filmmakers, including Mike Hoolboom, Richard Kerr, and Philip Hoffman.


 

 

INCITE Journal of Experimental Media
Issue Number One (Fall 2008-Spring 2009)


 

 

 

 

 


 

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