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‘From Méliès to New Media’: the problem of the facsimiles in the digital age.

Posted by keith1942 on August 17, 2020

Al in ‘Detour’

Detour (Producer Releasing Corporation, 1945 ) was directed Edgar Ulmer and is generally labelled a film noir though it is also in some sense a road movie. The basic plot offers us Al ( Tom Neal) who is hitch-hiking to California to join his girl-friend Sue (Claudia Drake). Along the way he first meets Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald) who gives him a lift  and then Vera (Ann Savage), who turns out to be the femme fatale. He is also drawn into a world of chaos and criminality from which, as a ‘victim hero” he fails to emerge in safety. As is common in film noirs Al recounts this story in flashback and in the confessional mode.  The film has an excellent discussion in an analysis by Andrew Britton in ‘The Movie Book of Film Noir’, edited by Ian Cameron (Studio Vista 1992). There is also an excellent discussion of the genre in the Introduction by Michael Walker, including defining the ‘victim hero’.

Detour is one of the titles discussed in ’From Méliès to New Media’ by Wendy Haslem, published by Intellect 2019. I reviewed this book for the Media Education Journal and found it challenging. At times I felt like Al who, in his narration, constantly asks why this is happening in this way; why are his assumptions so frequently frustrated? I felt rather in that situation after struggling through this volume page by page. Finally I had figured out who had said or written what and, importantly, what I thought this signified. Signifiers are important here as this is a book informed by ‘signs’.

I did complete a review for MEJ but at just over a 1,000 words there was not the space to address in detail all the theory and analysis in the book. But by the end I was convinced that there was some misconstruction in the critical discussion. Hence this longer article where I wish to subject some of the assumptions and arguments made to detailed criticism.

This is an academic work replete with uncommon terms and concepts and with frequent references to authors who have a reputation for difficulty. Predominantly those quoted can be categorised as proposing THEORY; the upper case letters denote a particular emphasis on the theoretical. The author  relies on the discipline called semiotics. I have had earlier occasions to grapple with the discourse of this, notably in the pages of the journal ‘Screen’. I have a working  understanding of the language and concepts involved but since I do not use them in my criticism I frequently have to revisit sources of explanation.

The central concept that informs the book is a term from Semiotics.

“[film] has been understood to have a direct relationship to the concept of indexicality. To understand the index …we need to return to the literary origin of this concept. Writing on semiotics in 1931, Charles Sanders Pierce described the associative power of the index as, ‘like  a pronoun demonstrative or relative, [it] forces the attention to a particular object intended without describing it’.” (Pages 14 and 15).

This tricky passage does not quite give the sense of the index. The author uses  the index as a sign that does which points to or offers evidence of the intended object. One example in a quotation from Pierce offers;

“the pole star … to show us which way is north.” (page 15).

This demonstrates for me the limitation of the uses of index. You need to know the function of the pole star in order to realise that it gives evidence of the direction of north and this itself assumes some knowledge of astronomy. When we come to examples offered of the indexical in certain films I will point out such limitations.

The book uses a number of examples of 35mm film prints transferred to digital. The author raises the question as to whether the indexical characteristics of a film transfer to a digital version. The complication is that film is ‘material’ whilst digital is ‘immaterial’. This distinction offers a problematic usage of ‘material’. I can see that photo-chemical film is tangible in a way that digital images are not. But both forms rely on light and sound which are actually also material. They involved either radiation or waves which have material properties though they are not tangible to human senses.  From the audience point  of view both film and digital files would seem to be immaterial. What they present is a stream of light projected onto a screen where it forms  moving images and the sound is projected into the auditorium seemingly invisibly. This is part of the mainstream film industry presentations which seeks to avoid drawing the attention of viewers to the paraphernalia of presentation; just as film-makers in the mainstream avoid drawing attention to the techniques that present plot and character. Occasionally in the latter case  a technique is empathized for effect. And there have been infrequent attempts by  non-mainstream film workers to subvert the dominant mode, but with little impact.

One of my major problems with the author’s approach is that there is a tendency to downplay the distinction between photo-chemical film and digital files. This is fairly common in film writing and comment. The industry has tended to obfuscate the differences for commercial reasons. When the subject is addressed the hype tends to overstate the quality of digital in relation to film. The author does actually detail the differences between photo-chemical film’s random silver halide grains and digital uniform non-random pixels. But much of the book assumes a fair equivalence between the two median. At one point  digital versions are described as ‘spectral simulations’. There are a number of quotations from Paulo Cherchi Usai but not the argument in ‘Silent Cinema’, [Third edition, 2019] that digitized versions of photo-chemical films are not copies but facsimiles. Usai does recognise that digital versions provided a site for investigation but bearing in mind that the two are separate and distinct. For me photochemical film and digital moving images are incommensurable.

The Introduction Chapter 1 bears the title; ‘Cigarette Burns and Bullet Holes; Celluloid Cues in Digital Cinema’. This title follows on from a description of watching  Detour. The writer opens with

“Not so long ago whilst on the tram on my way home from work I began watching the 1945 celluloid print of Edgar G. Ulmer’s B film noir Detour downloaded and configured for my mobile screen.” [page 5].  Then adds,” I watched the chemical, celluloid material form of Detour on a tiny digital screen that was rotated so that it measured eleven centimetres in width and almost six centimetres in height.” [page 6}.

The writer does not specify the source format or the viewing equipment.  The writer does acknowledge differences quoting Thomas Elsaesser that this is

“doing the same thing with different means.” (page 6)

But such a comment does not really address the problem. The pixels [of what quality?] compressed into a small electronic display are somewhat removed from a large projected image composed of the random halide grains. An oddity is the description is that

“the original screen ratio of 1.37:1 was unfurled using an anamorphic lens in theatrical exhibition.” [page 6}.

Anamorphic lens were not in use in mainstream production or exhibition in the 1940s. They came into use with the advent of wide-screen processes like CinemaScope in the 1950s. The sentence seems confused; perhaps, given the dimensions of the screen, the version is not in academy but some other ratio? The term ‘anamorphic’ appears in descriptions of digital technology but the process varies from format to format and in many cases is an electronic as opposed to a lens process.

Al and Vera in ‘Detour’

A little further on there is a comment and quotation from Laura Mulvey; [see critique of her theorizing].

“The intersection of different historical moments and the illusion of oppositional contemporaneities is outlined by Laura\ Mulvey who writes, ‘[i]n this dialogue between old and new, past and present, the opposition between film and new technologies begins to break down and the new modes of spectator illuminate aspects of cinema that, like the still frame, have been hidden from view’.” [page 16].

I would query how a screen 11 centimetres by 6 centimetres relates to a theatrical space upwards of 4 by 6 meters. And just how this opposition breaks down is unclear. The author’s example for this development are the cue marks that appear at each reel change in a 35mm projection; [hence the chapter title]. Apparently these were visible whilst viewing the 11 by 6 centimetres screen; impressive eye sight. And, if using wide-screen FHA then the image was not in 1.37:1. If cropped , presumably the cue marks would be missing as they sit in the top left hand corner of the frame. But most people watching a small screen, even if they spot the cure marks, are unlikely to know their function. Audiences may well presume they are signs of the damaged condition of old films. And there is a problem with the supposition that using modern digital techniques, including stopping, winding or rewinding the moving image tells us about the linear projection  of 35mm film in its theatrical setting.

Later in the chapter the author discusses different responses to the question of the differences between film and digital files; returning to the issues of indexical and immaterial. Whilst maintaining the sense of these medium as indexical they are  both termed ‘ material’. The presentation is complex, and I thought, complicated. The writing uses the term ‘spectral’ to describe traces of original film in new digital files. These spectral traces are the basis, it is opined, for a new history of film through digital versions. I still find this argument fails to recognise just how different are the differences; and it is a matter of investigation whether the digital does indeed offer ‘new histories’.

The first section in the book is titled ‘Early Cinema: Colour and Spectrality’ with Chapter 2 on ‘Applied Colour: Chromatic Frankenstein’s Monster’; more on the ‘monster’ later. The text for study in this chapter is an early and seminal film, Le Voyage dans la Lune / A Trip to the Moon, produced by a key pioneer in film history George Méliès . In fact, the author is discussing just one version of this much produced film; that created by the French company Lobster Films, This version was constructed using different materials, but the key source was print found in 1993 in the Filmoteca de Catalunya. Using modern digital technology the team produced a colour version. The original would have been hand-painted but most surviving version are in black and white, and do differ in the ‘cut‘ on offer. The author saw this version, at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2011. It was screened from a digital version with an added soundtrack of musical accompaniment. The author was both amazed and thrilled with this version.

I was also at the Festival but skipped the screening in the Piazza Maggiore because I always prioritize 35mm prints at the Festival. I did see the same version later at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto where we had separate screenings from digital files and from a 35mm print. The latter was copied from the digital version. I did prefer the latter, mainly because it had  a piano accompaniment. I was not happy about the visual sheen of the versions though the colour recreation was impressive. I thought the music on digital files was anachronistic. I was not amazed or thrilled. Whilst the techniques used are impressive it does feel exactly like a facsimile of the original. Because of the state of the source material traces of damage over time and use remain in the digital version. The author sees these as traces of the original and therefore indexical signs of that in the digital files. What is not discussed here are the additions not in the original or the source material. Because of the limitations of digital specifications most digital projectors do not project at a lower frame rate than 24 fps. But the Méliès  would have [on average as screening varied] projected at 14 fps. This means inserting extra frames, in this case probably 10 a second; the technique  is called step-printing. And even the 35mm print was copied from the digital master and projected at 24 fps. When I attended my early silent festivals in the 1990s frame rates, along with aspect ratios and colouring  were common topics of debates. Now one rarely hears discussion of frame rates. In addition, frame rates could vary in screenings for effect; this is not possible in digital projection though a dedicated projectionist could do so on 35mm. [A pleasure one can experience in some of the screening presented by Kevin Brownlow]. So of what are these frames an indexical sign of? Presumably digital techniques, though they re only occasionally visible to viewers with effects like ‘ghosting’, caused by the additional frames. This is not a topic seriously discussed in the book.

‘Le Voyage dans la Lune’

The author is right to be impressed with the project and result; which has been accompanied by a volume with many illustrations and information from Lobster Films. The work in producing this title is impressive and involves state-of-the art digital technology. But it remains a facsimile. And the book is curiously opaque on at least one aspect: the achievement of 24 fps is described as ‘time-converted’. Something I find like a mystification.

The author offers a long discussion on both the celluloid original and copies of the Méliès  title and the new digital version. The latter provides much technical information on the process of handling, reworking and transferring the frames of the 1998 film. As the chapter title suggests there is particular attention to the process involving colour; which is one of the aspects that the Lobster version offers. The writer concedes that this is a simulation rather than a copy. And it is in part a recreation, which is where the sense of a ‘Frankenstein monster’ appears.

One aside in a discussion of the famous argument by Walter Benjamin that ‘originals; have an aura lacking in reproductions. I have never really been convinced by this argument. It strikes me that the ;’aura’ [like beauty] is in the mind of the beholder. And John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ (1972) critiqued some of the impositions on art works caused by ideas in the minds of beholders. Because the author sees the indexical working from the celluloid to the digital version we are offered quotations arguing that both the original mechanical reproduction’ and its transfer in digital files both retain such an ‘aura’.

There is much close reading and research apparent in this chapter but what escapes my eye is why a digital version should be seen as ‘forcing’ new readings. The chapter seems to merge the reading of the celluloid original and the digital transfer; as a facsimile I think that they remain separate.

With Chapter 3 we encounter ‘The Serpentine Dance Films: ‘Dream Visions that change ten thousand times a minute’. You might call the ‘serpentine dance’ a genre. The Edison company produced Annabelle’s Dance in 1895. It caught the public fancy  and innumerable short films, usually a single camera shot, were made of dancers, often in voluminous garments that waved over the screen. What made these dancers a particular experience was the use of colour which went though transformations as the dancer and her veils moved. The author provides extensive  information on the invention and development of this ‘international rage’ and its creator, Loie Fuller. The author, as with the Méliès , is especially interested in the use of colour. The chapter concludes with a discussion of music videos inspired by the early cinematic versions. This exploration is fascinating but, as with the Méliès , the celluloid and digital seem to remain distinct.

Section II commences with ‘Luminescence, Montage and frame ratios’ Within this Chapter 4 deals with Memory and Noir: Neon Contrasts’. The opening title discussed is Blade Runner: 2049 (2017), a production that originated not on photo-chemical film but on the digital codex format. So the issues here are different from those relating to the earlier study texts. We then get Memento (2000) which did originate on 35mm, produced in 2.39:1. In The Mood for Love  (2000) follows, also in 35mm but in the much narrower ratio of 1.66:1. Then Drive (2011), another digital wide screen title using the SXS Pro format. So the discussion is dealing with differing formats. This ends with ‘Fifth Night’ which is a gallery presentation where 35mm has been transferred to a digital format.

The author discusses how these titles inform understanding of earlier noir films including what are commonly seen as ‘classic noir’. I do think the inclusion of In the Mood for Love is problematic. The film does use some techniques common to the noir cycles, including chiaroscuro. But in other senses this sort of ‘Brief Encounter’ story is far removed from the criminality which is endemic in noir. People do endlessly debate what constitutes film noir; I think the opening chapter of the ‘The Movie Book of Film Noir’ is a model to follow.

The chapter is fairly dense, including quoting from Gilles Deleuze, an intellectual who comes only second to Jacques Lacan in the use of complicated language. On the interaction between memory and the noir experience:

“Taken more broadly as an approach to historical mapping, memory allows for a consideration of the influences and various iterations of noir, its presence and absence across time in a Deleuzian rhizomatic network rather than as an evolutionary teology.” (page 83)

Thankfully I was able to look up ‘rhizomatic’ on Wikipedia.

“theory and research that allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation.”

So this complicated sentence seems to opine that the genre of noir should be viewed not just in a linear fashion over time but as a toing and froing between films and film-makings and audiences. This treats the noir titles as texts rather than events. It also seems to suppose that a study in a linear form presupposes and defines end; which is not necessarily the case.  This complex arguments centre on the idea that the ‘indexicality’ of titles in a digital format evidence titles originally in 35mm. This leads to some interest research and discussion of film noir from its origins to the present. But this latter aspect does not seem to need to prompt of the digital; it could equally be prompted by 35mm, 16mm copies and analogue video facsimile of film noir.

Chapter five is titled ‘Cutting: Shock and Endurance.’ Here the writing addresses ‘montage, opening with a quotation from Sergei Eisenstein. The two key  titles discussed are Man With a Movie Camera and Eyes Without a Face. This makes the opening quotation from Eisenstein slightly odd because the former film was made by the ‘Factory of Facts’, convened by Dziga Vertov. Vertov had rather different ideas from Eisenstein on what constituted montage and they engaged [as was common in the Soviet art world] in fairly forceful argument. Equally the two titles are oddly chosen. The term montage has a range of meanings; referring to rather different formal strategies in Soviet or [for example] Surrealist film-making and in mainstream film production; and Un Chien Andalu (1929) does get a mention . You can describe the operating sequence in Eyes Without a Face as montage, but apart from fast editing, it bears little relationship to the montage used by Vertov and his comrades. The author opines that the most famous example of montage is the shower sequence in Psycho. But if you read Alfred Hitchcock discussing montage in comparison to Dziga Vertov discussing montage, differences are immediately apparent.

The chapter goes on to discuss work by the media artist Christian Marclay. He constructs ‘new films from old’. His use of film footage offers counterpoint to bring out new associations. Whilst this might seem to parallel in some sense the work of Vertov: the descriptions of his pieces suggests little political or social intent: something that is essential in the work of the’ Factory of Facts’.

Chapter 6 bears the title ‘Screens, Scale Ratio: Verticality celluloid in the Digital Age’. This chapter discusses the work of gallery artists using photo-chemical film and digital forms , notably Tacita Dean. One of her works, Film (2011) is discussed in detail. On this occasion the presentation is correctly described as using an anamorphic lens, that used in the CinemaScope format. One aspect of this presentation in the Tate Modern gallery was the ability of spectators to choose their position and standpoint and vary it; something that is far more difficult in a cinema. The author explores this as another aspect of indexicality; viewers reconsidering their viewing strategy. This is fair comment but seems to me of a different order to that repositioning that may occur with digital facsimile. The writer goes on to discuss parallel issues regarding another gallery artist, Christian Boltanski, whose work I have not seen.

Tacita dean’s ‘Film’ at the Tate Modern

Section 1211 opens with ‘Cinema Beyond the Frame’ and Chapter 7 ‘Haluucinatory Framing and Kaleidescopic Vision’. Here we read about an early film  series of genre, ‘The Phantom Ride’. Then the discussion movers on to more gallery presentations including the ‘24 hour Psycho’ and some other exhibitions which I have not seen.

With Chapter 8 we reach ‘Ephemeral Screens: The Muybridgizer’ which h is an on line digital version of the work of the early pioneer Eadweard Muybridge. All of these contain well conducted research and interesting discussion. But the author constantly returns to the key point, regarding indexicality. We have a quote from the well-known film scholar Thomas Elsaesser who asks regarding digital media:

“did it bring about  a rupture in the history of cinema that some critics have experienced as traumatic and terminal, or have we merely misunderstand the meaning of ‘index’. For those in the former camp, digitization quite literally means the end c cinema, so that there cannot possibly be a convergence. Instead in this light, an era of post-cinema has begun , with its own characteristics and certainty based on a different ontology.” (page 176)

The author then comments:

“The argument about the loss of indexicality in digital film imagines a coherent, formal evolutionary history, a dominant narrative that has framed  cinema for more than one hundred years. Such historical mapping according to a traditional understanding of indexicality and cinematic specificity reduces the definition  of films to its potential to a capture the ‘real’.” [page 176].

This is problematic in all sort of ways and demonstrates why focusing on the term ‘index’ does not address the full issue. For a start film and cinema are not synonymous, though often treated as so. Cinema is a particular forum for moving images; traditionally this has been 35mm film but it now theatrical DCPs. One has to add  the innovation of non-theatrical screenings in what are termed cinemas.

More importantly the assumption that film in cinema is accessing the real or evidencing the actual world is really dubious. Vertov and his comrades had to use montage in order for film to address the world of the spectators; Soviet citizens. Un Chien Andalu consciously drove a coach and horses through any illusions that cinema was delivering the actual world in which audiences lived. And Méliès offered this audiences fantasies, entertainment that escape, like the characters in Voyage to the Moon, from their early limitations.

This volume is full of interesting and well-researched material on aspects of film history, cinema history and the new digital technologies that are replacing the traditional. One of the overarching arguments of the book is that this work has been motivated by digital viewings. However, it appears that such research and discussion could have been motivated by viewing on different formats, or indeed, from readings. I did wonder if this was developed from a post-graduate thesis. The THEORY in the volume appears to overlay the research and discussion; something that follows from academic requirements to reference writers, views, research and recognised studies.

There is also a major lacunae which is an important feature of digital which is the necessity of compression. Essentially once a image enters the digital process it experiences a range of compression. This is the term used though it not strictly accurate. Compression implies that when uncompressed the object merges again as the image compressed in the anamorphic process emerges on screen in its full wide format. But digital compression actually removes pixels.  The sophisticated techniques involved in digital compensate when the screening or viewing commences. But it does not replace the pixels removed. The process uses algorithms which [apparently] remove redundant data; this might be information not considered essential to the image and data that is repeated and can be duplicated in projection. Because it is not as dense  in terms of data the sound does not require the same level of compression.

This is not a new issue. The 35mm system involved copies of the originals negative and masters take from this. The more times a title was copied the increased loss of quality in the image. Thus there were prints described as ‘dupes’ where the contrast and definition, even the colour palette, were noticeably reduced. But the original, unless lost, remained for preservation and restoration. A digital master has already suffered compression. And, I have not found comment on this; since digital requires transferring of data as systems become redundant, what happens to the compressed data?

It is also worth noting that the range of digital formats means that the levels of compression vary considerably; increasing as the format capacity reduces. A DVD can house 4.7 gigabytes: High Definition Television and streaming services exceed this standard: but Blue-Ray exceed the live transmission systems offering 25 gigabytes of storage. When we reach theatrical standards a 2K DCP offers between 70 and a 100 gigabytes: whilst a 4K DCP can reach 300 gigabytes. Added to this it is far simpler to copy highly compressed data to higher-quality systems; the final result is only as good as the original source. Unfortunately the volume does not provide what size or standard the digital versions of Detour offered.

And there is an important feature that is common to photo-chemical film and to analogue facsimiles and digital facsimiles; this that they are all commodities. What determines the production of these titles and audience access to these is their exchange value. This applies across cinema and the moving image industries. Even the Soviet film-makers, working in a phase of socialist transition, were caught up in commodity exchange. To a degree they relied on commodities for production and even if the audiences in the Worker Clubs were not paying  a price for such products, for the Soviet Un ion they were frequently a vehicle  outside the Union and earning much need foreign exchange. In the similar fashion surrealist film-makers may not have relied  on audiences paying a price for their work but he funding from the affluent relied on the profits that arose from commodity production.

In his volume ‘ Minding Movies: Observations on the Art, Craft, and Business of Filmmaking’ (2011)  David Bordwell, whilst not really engaging with commodity production as such, details how the production of digital cinema aims at restoring or increasing the profits [surplus value] from industry products and, moreover, how it has been used by the oligopoly  that dominate the industry. In the era of photo-chemical film and, now in the era of digital forms, what mainly determines the production, form and content of film and its facsimiles is the commodity form and the necessity of producing surplus value.

This is the capitalist world in which Al, Se and Vera struggle to find a place. As Andrew Britton comments;

“Ulmer’s road is not a refuge for exiles from a culture in which America’s ideals have been degraded, but a place where the real logic of advanced capitalist society is ac ted out by characters who have completely internalised its values, and whose interaction exemplifies the grotesque deformation of all human relationships by the principles of the market.”

This explains whilst it is increasingly difficult to see 35mm titles. In fact, whilst, as mentioned in Bordwell’s study, there is continuing presentation and restoration of photo-chemical film, it is increasingly the case that the archival product in digital rather than filmic. This is despite the fact that digital storage costs more than filmic storage and that the former’s shelf life is about only 10% of that of 35mm film, nitrate or safety. It also explains why the theatrical DCP, commonly in Britain, at what is termed 2K, is not an equivalent to 35mm prints. And it is debatable where the 4K  DCP, relatively rare, is equivalent either.

Usai’s use of ‘facsimile is a more accurate description of the digital version than copy and more useful than the term ‘simulation’; the latter might work better for gallery presentations or for a work like Hugo (2011) which renders version of Méliès titles into 3D. It is not always a matter of choice for viewers which they can see and hear. So digital facsimiles are of definite use for audiences and individuals. But it is not the same. A student can clearly write an essay of Leonardo da Vinci without visiting the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. And it will cheaper and easier; no crowds on a computer screen. But even if you do not subscribe to Benjamin’s ‘aura’, the texture of the image is not the same. This applies just as well to films and digital files. I have seen several hundred titles transferred from 35mm to digital files. In only a few cases does the viewing seem equivalent to the original. The Scandinavian archives have a very high standard. One title I have seen in both formats is the 1924 Kean. One notable difference is the tinting on the 35mm print, which has been carefully recreated on a restoration by the Cinémathèque with assistance from the Czech archive; whilst t on the digital version the tinting is over saturated.

The books offers interesting material and, at time, sharp comment. But the overarching values accept uncritically the transformation of cinematic film by theatrical [and indeed non-theatrical] digital formats. With a film shot digitally, like Blade Runner 2049, this is fine with its own aesthetic. But when the transfer is of works like those by Edward Ulmer and Georges Méliès I find the result problematic. I felt the author was, like Al, an ‘unreliable narrator’. It paralleled the way that Andrew Britton describes Al’s narration;

“Al’s commentary, however, though it is not hypocritical – he plainly believes every word of it – is profoundly self-deceived and systematically unreliable.

“The whole meaning of Detour depends on the fact that Al is incapable of providing the impartial account of the action which convention leads us to expect in first-person narrative, and when we examine the film’s detail, we discover that his commentary has a status quite different….”

In detour Haskell first offers a lift to Al: later, Al offers a lift to Vera: all three characters find their expectations frustrated by events. I often feel like that when I watch a digital facsimile of an earlier film. So, I borrow and reword with an acknowledgement to Groucho Marx;

‘Every time someone switches on a digital facsimile I can [hopefully] go into another auditorium and watch a 35mm print.’

 

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