Battle Lines Behind the Camera

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.’

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