Cinema on the iPhone

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

posted under , , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Robert Rushing, Comparative Literature and Italian

Michael keeps sending me pieces from the Chronicle of Higher Education, and a recent one by Thomas Doherty, entitled "Celluloid Under Siege" (April 18, 2008), makes two claims about what's happening to cinema. The first claim is almost beyond question, but the second is almost certainly wrong. The first claim is that celluloid or analog film is poised to disappear. While initial experiments in high-definition digital video seemed esoteric (or in the case of the most recent trilogy of Star Wars films, motivated more by a fetish for technology than any real necessity), it does seem clear that there is a move toward digital currently underway. It is cheaper, easier to edit, picks up a wider range of contrast in low light, and so on. Some films, like Haneke's Caché (2005), actually depend on being shot in high-definition video for their effects (in the case of Haneke's film, a persistent doubt in the viewer's mind about whether you're watching events that are "live" or "taped"). Doherty's second claim, however, is a little more surprising, and as one might guess from his title (and subtitle: "The future of film studies after the digital deluge"), somewhat alarmist: cinema studies in the American academy is in crisis, "scrambling" as the filmic substrate itself crumbles under our feet.

While celluloid may indeed be disappearing (although it remains an open question whether it will vanish entirely, as it nearly has in still photography, or become one tool among many at the director's disposal), the faculty I know who work on cinema aren't "scrambling" to deal with the changes. I would think it would be obvious, but massive shifts in reception practices on the part of ordinary viewers (who are watching films in more ways and in more venues than ever before, including YouTube and iPhones), are of course very, very good for scholars--to put it bluntly, they give us something to write about. At the same time, "Leave Britney Alone!," "The Landlord" and the practice of Rickrolling aren't exactly replacing Casablanca, Blade Runner or The Bicycle Thief in cinema courses or for ordinary viewers, because they fulfill a radically different function for viewers. Who, exactly, is picking up a date for dinner and a romantic online viral video?

Despite the claim that this a "generational divide" between "graybeards" and "Young Turks," I haven't seen much indication that the older generation of cinema studies scholars is uninterested in—let alone threatened by—the shift from analog to digital. Cinema people in general tend to be pretty technically savvy, and many simply like technology. It's self-selecting: would you go into cinema studies if you didn't have an interest in technology? And while Doherty suggests that the shift is "ironic" because it's happening just as cinema studies is acquiring some actual prestige in the academy, it's not like those same battles will have to be fought all over again. New Media studies, for example, might have to do some further work in terms of legitimizing itself, but most of the resistance to the study of new media forms has already been overcome. Cinema Journal—which Doherty sees as symptomatic of the 'crisis'—will probably have to change its name eventually, but it's already changed its content. Recent issues have covered South Koran time travel films, tourism in The L Word, professionalism in soft-core TV productions like Girls Gone Wild, and "the Shifting Representation of the Penis on the Internet with User-Generated Content" (Summer 2007, since I know you'll want to look that up, along with a great piece by my colleague J.B. Capino in the same issue on the advantages and disadvantages of using the still frame in studying pornography), in addition to more traditional film topics. This doesn't sound like a crisis to me.

Perhaps I know the wrong people (or rather more likely, the right ones), but most of the faculty I know think this is a great time to be doing work on cinema—more material is more accessible and a higher quality, and with a greater variety of moving image formats going out to more viewers in more venues than ever before. More is good. (In the interest of balance, however, I will point out what Doherty would no doubt—and rightly—point out if he were here: it is an embarrassment that we have superb, state-of-the-art facilities here at Illinois, but cannot get secure funding for a projectionist to actually show our impressive archive of films on celluloid to students, scholars, or the public. And it will become harder and harder to convince the administration to do so in a digital age. Still, on the whole, I find there is more good than bad here.)

Doherty invokes Rodowick's book Virtual Life of Film to support his claims, but we're treated to choicely nonsensical, but apocalyptic-sounding pronouncements such as: "Forget the threat to Hollywood cinema; digital crashes the hard drives of Newtonian physics." Doherty is somewhat, but only somewhat, tongue-in-cheek throughout his article, but I'm not sure how else to read this: evidently because digital cinema can so easily create special effects that seem to deny the laws of physics, those laws themselves are somehow thrown into crisis. Sound familiar? My impression—although it's only an impression—is that the viewers who are watching Lawrence of Arabia (or more likely, Superbad) on their iPhone are not staying home from the theater to do so. Rather, in addition to watching the latest releases in the theaters, people are now also catching a flick while they're standing in line at the DMV, or watching a film of their own choice rather than what the airline has selected for them while flying across the country. And who can blame them? Would they rather see those same films on a 40 foot screen? Of course. Is it a good thing that they can watch them anyway, even on a small screen? I think so. I'll admit it: I watch movies on my iPod Touch when I fly. I'd watch them on the larger laptop screen, but usually my son manages to get dibs on it first. Anything is better than watching the execrable Yours, Mine and Ours (2005) and the scattering of infomercials and Everybody Loves Raymond that you're lucky to get on an airplane these days. Not only would I rather watch Snakes on a Plane, I'd rather have actual snakes on my plane. Anyway, the quality on the Touch isn't bad, and I'll catch a new release in the theaters after we land. It might be shot on digital, but it also might be good.


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Anonymous said...

this reminded me of David Lynch's remarks on the iphone:

Rob Rushing said...

The title of the piece is indeed a reference to David Lynch's much circulated (and humorous) rant about the evils of watching movies on the iPhone. After I saw that, with proper Dostoevskian perversity, I immediately loaded Eraserhead and Lost Highway onto my iPod Touch (I'm guessing the three hours of Inland Empire, however, will defeat my tiny screen).

Also, recent issues of Cinema Journal have featured articles on South Korean time travel films, not "South Koran time travel films" What a difference an e makes. If anyone in Hollywood would like to option my idea for Islamic time travel travel films set in the American antebellum South (rich in tradition), however, I am willing to discuss payment options. Call my agent.

Chuck said...

Nice comments here. I'm writing about many of these issues in my book, and the "cinema studies in crisis" narrative has bothered me for some time.

There is an analogous "Hollywood in crisis" narrative that you also mention through the allusion to Lynch's comments about the iPod that I find equally troubling (and a number of stodgy film critics such as David Denby have similarly lamented watching "Lawrence of Arabia" on an iPod). Both Denby and Lynch (and many others for that matter) assume that watching movies on portable media players will be seen as a substitute for moviegoing when in fact watching movies on portable media players usually happens in spaces of enforced waiting (doctor's offices, airport terminals, etc).

Like you, I am excited about these shifts and think it is an incredibly exciting moment to be studying cinema and, in fact, studying the new (and old) ways in which audiences are encountering motion picture entertainment.

In other news, I wish I had a dollar for every time a critic used "Lawrence of Arabia" as his or her (usually his) primary example of why we can't watch movies on portable media players. I could probably retire my student loan debt by now if somebody made that offer.