By Kyle Henrichs
“When they ask how you, feeling you, tell em you, feeling like, something important died screaming” – Aesop Rock, “ZZZ Top”
Is the digital turn in twenty-first century cinema “beyond good and evil” as J. Hoberman says it is? Or are we replacing something special with a close-but-not-the-same, cheaper, generic-brand cinema? In his recent talk at the Downer Theatre on Sunday afternoon, “The State of 21st Century Cinema: Film After Film,” Hoberman characterized the digital turn in contemporary cinema as something that has happened (and is still happening) whether we like it or not, and he’s not pessimistic about it. Still, Hoberman seemed at least a little disappointed when he introduced Sans Soleil at the Oriental Theatre the night before, mentioning that Milwaukee’s beloved movie palace will be switching to digital projection after the festival. He also said, during Sunday’s talk, that he recently re-watched a movie he had seen on film as a child that was digitally projected and noticed a slight difference. He was quick to insist that the difference made the experience of watching the movie neither better nor worse, just . . . different.
Can we believe him? I agree that these changes are happening and will continue to happen against the wills of the most militant cinephiles, so maybe it’s just best to put on a resolute face and not bemoan the loss of something so fated to go. But if we notice the change—as Hoberman did—how can our enjoyment stay the same? Doesn’t it have to be either better or worse?
In terms of production, I remember knowing before I saw David Lynch’s Inland Empire in its original theatrical run and Michael Mann’s Public Enemies that the films had been (at least partially) shot with digital video cameras. The quality of the picture disappointed me in both cases. Maybe I imagined the deficiency. Even if I imagined the difference, however, the experience of watching the movie was stunted, if only slightly.
Is this why Paul Thomas Anderson and others like him insist on shooting on film, to avoid the potential, slight diminishment of the viewer’s experience? If so, then it seems to me that shooting on film (if it hasn’t already) will become an endeavor that only the most elite, uncompromising filmmakers will insist is worth the extra cost and effort. I think Hoberman’s slight disappointment parallels a slight depreciation of one of our shared popular art forms. The digital turn offers us so much, and the shift is both necessary and also good, but we shouldn’t pretend as if something isn’t dying in front of us.
[Kyle Henrichs is a first-year doctoral candidate in English at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee who studies aesthetics after postmodernism. He received his master’s degree in English Studies at Illinois State University and has presented his research on ecocritical film theory and irony in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections at various academic conferences.]