Battle Lines Behind the Camera


| Arts Extra Special

CINEMA HAS BECOME the medium of choice for more and more young storytellers. While there is no lack of first-time novelists today, there's also no doubt that many who might have gone the literary route a generation ago find the moving image more compelling. And the arrival of digital video (DV) technology has meant that the old downsides of moviemaking--cumbersome equipment, expensive film stock--no longer apply. Cheap and lightweight, the pint-sized digital camera is revolutionizing the moviemaking process; wielding a video camera is becoming as flexible and direct a method of expression as writing in a notebook or a laptop computer. The advent of digital video represents no less than 'the democratization of the moving image,' according to Cis Bierinckx, curator of film and video at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.Perhaps most significantly of all, these little cameras can turn out beautiful images. The once grainy, somehow cheap look of digital video has evolved (and continues to evolve) into pictures that are nearly as sharp, vibrant, and lustrous as celluloid. DV looks so good, in short, that it's not easy to distinguish between a low-budget student film and a sky's-the-limit commercial one. (And more and more Hollywood films are being done on video before being transferred to celluloid for exhibition--like George Lucas' blockbuster Star Wars: Episode II and Steven Soderbergh's Full Frontal, with Julia Roberts.)No wonder, then, that a slew of relatively low-budget, well-received independent films have used the technology, including Nicole Holofcener's Lovely and Amazing, Miguel Arteta's Chuck and Buck, and Zacharias Kunuk's sublime The Fast Runner, an epic set in a small Inuit community north of the Arctic Circle. (It may seem odd to record one of the world's oldest oral cultures using new technology, but, as Kunuk told the Minneapolis weekly City Pages, digital filmmaking, with its casual adaptability, moderate technical demands, and openness to improvisation, is a revival of the communal storytelling tradition.)But not everyone is delighted at the prospect of this new moviemaking technology. A recent Film Quarterly article on digital video, full of subheads like 'Nihilistic Tendencies' and 'Back from the Abyss,' warns of 'the demise of film.' According to Jean-Pierre Geuens, professor of film at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, 'the very difficulty of shooting a film . . . is what demarcates film work: the sense of magic that permeates the shoot and the sense of accomplishment that comes from working out miracles in the face of incredible odds.' Critic Roger Ebert cites a perceptual psychology theory that celluloid images create a 'reverent' state of consciousness, while projected video creates a 'hypnotic' one--presumably turning viewers into digital zombies instead of film worshippers.Even legendary French director Jean-Luc Godard, whose use of the then-new handheld camera for the 1959 classic Breathless ushered in a whole new style of independent filmmaking, is upset. In a New Yorker profile, he manages to turn DV's ability to instantly replay scenes just shot into an almost apocalyptic evil. 'With digital,' Godard says, 'there is no past. If you want to see the previous shot, OK, you do this [taps his finger], and . . . you're there right away. So there's an entire time that no longer exists, that has been suppressed. And that's why films are much more mediocre, because time no longer exists.'The debate is, in many ways, archetypal: old versus new, insiders versus outsiders, traditionalists versus insurgents--young, brash upstarts who don't know (or care to learn) how to pay respects to the craft traditions of the old guard.'It's war,' says Rob Nelson, film editor of City Pages. 'This is a very contentious issue, and it really revolves, as most things do in the industry, around money and power. The people with money and power have a vested interest in keeping control of [digital] technology to themselves.' Ira Deutchman, founder of Cinecom and Fine Line Features, thinks the studios are purposely trying to slow down the shift to digital to maintain their monopoly on exhibition. 'Once a theater can show anything,' Deutchman recently told The Village Voice, 'it's not dependent on 35 mm, and the barrier of entry is not as difficult. The studios no longer have a stranglehold.'(Currently, most digital video filmmakers still have to transfer their movie to celluloid--an expensive process--if their goal is theatrical release. But, as the price of studio-acceptable digital projectors, which currently start at roughly $150,000, comes down, the path to a digital future will be clearer.) Besides democratizing access, digital video just might democratize aesthetics too. DV can capture everyday beauty far more easily than film, weighed down as it is by prohibitive costs, heavy equipment, and expansive crews. And everyday people increasingly will be the ones behind the camera. 'Francis Ford Coppola says that the real hope for the future is that the next masterpiece is not going to be by a D.W. Griffith or an Alfred Hitchcock or people working in the industry,' City Pages' Nelson says, 'but, as he put it, some little fat girl in Ohio with her father's camcorder who swings it around and creates something that's totally unique and beautiful.'