Sunday, 10 February 2013

The Ontology of Digital Cinematography

I’ve been reading reports in Senses of Cinema* on recent international film festivals and came upon this comment on the film Leviathan by Daniel Fairfax and Joshua Sperling during their review of the New York Film Festival:
By contrast, Leviathan is pure cinema. The fact that it, too, was shot on digital does not detract from such a status. Rather, it demonstrates that there are really two digital aesthetics: the fantasy digital practiced by the likes of Ang Lee, and the “ontological digital” at work in this film. Or rather, it demonstrates that the digital/analogue dichotomy is more a question of aesthetic principles, of philosophies towards filmmaking, than of technology – and in this case, Castaing-Taylor/Paravel’s work falls squarely on the analogue side of the divide.
‘The analogue side of the divide’ is the metaphor used to describe that which entrances by lack of guile – whereas the digital side of the divide is all guile. It used to be that the metaphor for the digital was ‘clinical ‘and in some senses the ‘fantasy digital’ has helped move the clinical into the mythic. But here, a documentary helps create another line of division, where the poetic and the clinical can mix and transmute the medium into what the authors describe as the ‘ontological digital’:
The waterproof prosumer cameras used to extract the extraordinary imagery of Leviathan are tasked simply with recording the real. They do so to such a visceral extent that at certain moments – when the masses of dead fish squirm about as they pile up before the camera – Leviathan can feel like a horror film, an effect which the Gothic writing on the film’s title card would suggest is intentional. In a way, it possesses a more truly three-dimensional quality than the tawdry gimmicks of Pi could ever hope to attain.
This associative thinking is reminiscent of much film theory of the French style where over elaborate and poetic descriptions are used to massage the reader into the belief that they are reading ‘truth’. But you can’t really blame the French for trying their best – after all they have a lifestyle to maintain and the rest of the world should celebrate their largesse, their joie de vivre. Any country that has such a surfeit of bakeries deserves respect even if it requires agricultural support way beyond others. The Anglo-Saxon critic owes a great debt to French theory with its twin polarities of articulation and obfuscation in pursuit of poetic truth.
This last comment really allows the digital through into cinema as it invokes one of the mythic gods of French theory to authenticate its position:
Our absorption in the film’s unrelenting diegesis is enhanced not only by the immersive camerawork, but also by the unsettling surround-sound audio, which I felt was reminiscent of Philippe Grandrieux’s Un Lac. And, lo! Grandrieux himself was in the audience for Leviathan’s press screening, having just embarked on a road-trip with the filmmaking duo, where, as Castaing-Taylor related, they whiled away the hours by discussing Deleuze.
The fantasy digital’ is actually a symbolic reference to what is in truth a combined commercial and technical description. What the digital has enabled in surpassing the capabilities of film, whilst at the same time finally imitating its ability to invoke ‘cinema’, is a set of economic benefits. If you wanted to shoot 35mm film at 48 frames per second – you would need a massive stock budget. With digital you simply dial up 48fps. Yes it has data ‘costs’ – that is management issues around the production of large amounts of data, which also has cost implications for storage – but due to the much-abused Moore’s Law, computational storage becomes cheaper over time. The issue is that one can dial in a specific enhancement, 3D, higher frame rate, uncompressed recording, higher dynamic range etc, without the pain of late Victorian industrial style costs.
Film grew out of sewing machines and fake teeth. Stop-start machinery could enable proper exposure and shifting film in the gate to move on without fogging. Material developed for Victorian dentists for replacement teeth could be stretched, flattened and made clear – a medium fit for holding virtual images (until they were developed). Even with Henry Ford’s intervention, it would still be expensive late into the twentieth century. The masses would not take up such a clunky modernist medium. With the advent of analogue, then its chimera digital video, the last gasp of the struggle for democratic production of images was to be heard, but the ‘industry’, the protective mechanism of ‘quality’ would see that Digital Cinematography, raw, progressive imaging, was sufficiently expensive to deter the great mass of untalented or rather, derivative creativity - as exhibited by user generated content. Until the great mass receives the education of the intelligentsia the end product would always be the accidents of a 1000 chimpanzees typing away, with the odd surprise on Utube.
Beneath this piece of blogging (unsubstantiated opinionating) is a conviction derived from many years of being at several ‘coal faces’. These are professional production in the UK TV and film industries, artistic practice, theorizing as an academic and lastly and tellingly,  as a socialist. This latter is about youthful conviction where I believed that the means of production should be placed in the hands of the populace so that its more varied stories and perspectives could be spoken aloud. I had that belief whilst being enabled as a speaker for that demographic – that is, I was a specialist who could ‘help’ the masses. As defined by Buckminster Fuller, E F Schumaker, Edmund Carpenter, Stafford Beer and their like I could be a ‘competent man’ (this term coined prior to the advent of feminism really means competent person). This competence began its like as a specialism, such as drawing, which when abstracted from the practice could be made universal in creative terms: if you were good at radio, you could be good at anything if you simply kept your wits about you and exported a set of taste functions (in most circumstances, ‘this’ is better than ‘that’, but in specific circumstances remember ‘this’ juxtaposition). But there was a high romanticism about this which included a belief in ‘great art’ -  that is some art was better than other art – and in that belief the socialist ideal fell. And it stands with me now that I do not believe everyone is as talented as everyone else – and the training of everyone to be excellent must also mean that everyone has to have a value system of excellence – which is both tautological and self-defeating.
Just look at Ang Lee for instance. He can certainly make movies, but frankly with his resources (and I include talent) so can anyone. The Life of Pi in movie form to me is trite and soporific. It has a confused message which advocates embracing symbolism over ‘reality’. I’m not sure about the book because I haven’t read it – but I suspect it as a piece of modern fiction as most modern fiction is victim of ‘cut and paste’. But that’s a different argument.
But back to ‘the fantasy digital’ and ‘the ontological digital’. These are consumerist descriptions as they can be applied to different cinematic experience on a consumer level. I like the idea of an ontological digital because I’ve been operating it since I first took up making experimental motion images – even in analogue form when it was equally a form of ontological video – and was appropriate in the naming because video is latin for ‘to see’. And ‘to see’ is important if understood from the vantage point of cognitive neuroscience where when one speaks of ‘seeing’ one is speaking of the combined eye/brain pathway. In these terms perceiving and understanding are a combined activity, the left eye being governed by right brain and vice versa…. And in this narrative, left-brain is the site of focused attention which is highly ratiocinatory in nature – or so the neuro-scientific community would currently have it.
Whilst looking through or within the electronic terms provided by video, I have seen a description of the world that has been reflective of my internal state. I have made works in this electronic as opposed to photo-chemical medium that have added meaning to the world I see in biological terms. Biology here means ontological in a certain sense – that sense if added to, is more full when combined with the extra viewpoint enabled by video.
Max Hastings once wrote ‘film is a long-distance telephone call whereas video is a call from the box round the corner’. This comment was made at a time when there was a qualitative difference in the two kinds of call. The distant one sounded so due to interference on the line, the inferior sound quality, the clicks and bumps and atmospherics. Hastings wasn’t saying that film was inferior; he was talking of the romanticism of distance – distant, unknowable lands where information had been brought back by a Marco Polo, as an ambassador that brought back tales of the unknown. Interestingly there are questions about the authenticity of Polo’s stories – but again, that’s another article.
It was in fact Hastings intent to describe something other than the lesser quality of video – that though the displayed image was lesser in quality it had a greater quality: video was live, it was here and it was now. Remember that video came along a long time after television, the parent medium with its ability to disseminate. So the currency of television was of presenting the world as it is NOW. Video inherited the connection of representing NOW. The feel of it was and is immediate and Digital Cinematography, when it became progressively based, shed the sense of the immediate and became THEN, elsewhen and  elsewhere. With Digital Cinematography came a greater possibility of the electronic capture of video as having a developed capacity for ontological use.
So our two authors bring up a definition of immediacy as if it were a Gothic artefact additional to the medium that has been introduced successfully as a medium of fantasy. I think there’s more to it than that description, that delineation of two levels. I think it has many more levels than two and this current description is unaware of the width of the medium. My evidence for this the developed plasticity of past media, which, when they go past the necessary period of remediation, always disclose their true nature outside of their ability to chameleon-like imitate the behaviour of other media. For a description of what that true nature is, watch this space.
Note to self, see 'Leviathan'.