Digital Technology and Cinema
For the most part, film-makers have welcomed digital technology into their practice of making films for many different reasons. One of the most basic reasons, is its a relatively cheap alternative to actual film stock, meaning that practically anyone interested in making a film can do so, using, even, consumer market digital camcorders with arguably a lot of success. The zombie film Colin (Price, 2008) for example was shot for £45, making it something of a cult product.
Perhaps, most evidently, digital technology has allowed film-makers to create whole new worlds, simply out of pixels and a lot of time to spare. Avatar (Cameron, 2009) is perhaps the most realised film of this kind, which used green-screen technology and various other digital tools to create the world we see before us on the screen. Of more interest, perhaps, is the film Russian Ark (Donstov, 2002) which simply could not have been made without digital technology.
As demonstrated, digital technology has in many cases been extremely beneficial for cinema. However, like most art forms, many protect and call for a ‘purist’ approach to cinema, as it was in its first instance: an analog technology, created by exposing film stock to light.
Phillip Rossen, in his Change Mummified, highlights that with the use of digital technology, as opposed to analog (which ‘depends on physical contact between different substances’), the indexicality of filmic representation i.e. the object being shown on screen, becomes displaced. Because digital film is a matter of 1s and 0s rather than film stock, the fidelity of its representation is lost, due to (1) the fact that there is no longer any physical (analog) contact with the subject; and (2) the inscription of 1s and 0s can be so easily altered, replaced or even destroyed.
This then begs the question – is digital film ‘pure’ photography/cinematography or is it just manipulation? In the Star Wars prequel The Phantom Menace, for example, does our engagement with the film change once we know that 90% of all shots have some form of digital manipulation, some of which changing the given performances of the actors. Moreover, how much value can we attribute to Zoe Saldana’s performance in Avatar, when it is being filtered through and highly manipulated by the digital technology used to construct the alien beings it presents?
Rather than celebrating the physical work put into actual designs and sets in a pre-digital cinematic era (think the shark in Jaws or the sets of fantasy and sci-fi films like Alien or the original Star Wars films), digital technology has meant anything can be created (and I exaggerate here) at the push of the button. Is this not a threat to cinema, when the fact anything can be created removes any sense of reality from the art form even if it does convincingly imitate it?
The general trend in economics since c.1500 has been towards the division of labour – work has become further specialised, with (in theory) everyone contributing and everyone exchanging their own output for the purchase of goods and services in the free market. The production of goods has been systematically disassociated from consumption – and, therefore, from the ethical conditions of production. This is the foundation of consumerism as a distinct phenomenon, which has been kicked into overdrive over the last few decades with the rise of what is commonly known as ‘neoliberalism’.
Though there are a number of notable figures we associate with neoliberalism – Milton Friedman in economics, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in politics – the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand is probably its most over proponent. Her most famous novel is Atlas Shrugged (more notable for its ideology than for literary merit) which espouses individual self-interest above all else. It’s this ideology which is famously satirised in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. Alan Kaufman, in the article we read for this week, sums it up as “twenty first century, late-stage hypercapitalist imperatives predicated entirely upon ceaseless expansion, the inherent belief in Darwinian obsolescence and succession as the lifeblood of successful economics and societal advance”.
So what’s all this got to with digital technology? The novelist D. J. Taylor, when speaking here earlier this year, applied the description of Goldman Sachs as a “vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity” to Amazon – the online mega-corporation is thought to be stifling local and independent stores. More importantly, internet shopping is a further state of removal from the production of the goods we buy. Our purchases, even more than previously, appear out of some atemporal ether, with no sense of where they have come from or the sort of practices that have allowed their production.
So, in short, digitalisation in some respects exacerbates the most problematic aspects of neoliberalism: the primacy of the consumer, the immediate gratification of wants, the masking of conditions of production. This is something that the Canadian investigative journalist Naomi Klein looks at in her book No Logo (READ IT IF YOU HAVEN’T ALREADY!!!). Production is hidden because, whilst we’re getting what we want, we don’t want to think about Taiwanese factory conditions