The Aesthetics of the Digital Revolution

Here is a piece from the New York Times by film critic by Manhola Dargis
You can read the article here and see Manhola’s list of the top 30 movies of the year here

IN the closing credits for his independent confection “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” the young director Damien Chazelle doesn’t just announce that he shot on film — he also names the black-and-white stock: Eastman Kodak Double-X Negative Film 7222. It’s a fitting coda to an enchantingly sincere romance about two people in love, or perhaps not quite, who sometimes break into song and dance. Mr. Chazelle, born in 1985, wears his nostalgic influences lightly, including John Cassavetes and the French New Wave, and has said that film was the only way to go for the story and aesthetic he was aiming for. I bet he also collects vinyl.

But what is that aesthetic exactly? It’s a question worth asking, seriously and with feeling, as moviegoers continue to be swept up in the rush from celluloid to digital, thereby bringing an end to movies as we have known them for more than 100 years. Or so you sometimes hear. Yet even as digital supplants celluloid (and almost every film now involves some kind of digital processing), it can be difficult to gauge what has been lost or gained. Some of this year’s most acclaimed and talked-over movies, for starters, including “The Social Network,” “Black Swan” and “Tiny Furniture,” were either partly or wholly shot in digital. It’s no wonder that more than a third of my 30 favorites this year — because, really, why stop at 10? — were a combination of the two. Does it matter?

“The Social Network,” “Black Swan” and “Tiny Furniture” couldn’t be more thematically dissimilar: one is an unlikely psychological thriller about the creation of Facebook; the second is a claustrophobic, darkly humorous art-house exploitation joyride about a ballerina pirouetting toward a breakdown; the last is an intimate, quasi-autobiographical movie about a recent college graduate adrift in New York City. What really unites them is that their digital cinematography is a constituent, expressive part of the whole. No longer used only as an inexpensive substitute for film, as a vehicle for special effects or as an aesthetic frontier for industry outsiders like David Lynch, digital has gone so mainstream it’s doubtful that most moviegoers, critics included, see it when it’s right in front of their eyes.

A decade ago, when independent movies shot in digital video like “Chuck and Buck” (2000) started hitting the big screen, it was easy to tell you weren’t looking at film because the often smeary, muddy visuals looked about as bad as an old VHS tape. Audiences didn’t seem to care, possibly because, after decades of watching battered home videos on standard-definition televisions, they were accustomed to degraded imagery. For many the pleasure of being able to rent a Billy Wilder movie at their leisure outweighed complaints about how lousy the videos looked. But today’s digital has a far higher image quality than the low-res digital video used to shoot movies like “Chuck and Buck,” which makes it increasingly difficult to distinguish movies shot in digital from those shot on celluloid.

The director David Fincher has been using digital to make movies beginning with “Zodiac” in 2007. He has said he likes digital for its workflow convenience, cost and ability to capture images in low light, important for a filmmaker whose visuals are often as dark as his topics. Digital also frees him up to do numerous takes because he’s not burning through expensive film, just adding data to either reusable flash cards or external hard drives (turbocharged versions of what you might have at home). And Mr. Fincher likes a lot of takes, having shot the first scene of “The Social Network,” in which the protagonist Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), learns a harsh life lesson from a soon-to-be ex, in a whopping 99 takes.

Like all of Mr. Fincher’s features “The Social Network” is beautiful, its subdued, dark palette punctuated by a dazzlingly bright rowing race that puts the differences between the main adversaries into symbolic and chromatic relief. The camera that he used, a souped-up Red (he actually shot with a couple of Reds, two borrowed from his friend Steven Soderbergh), approximates the appearance of film without ever really looking like it. Digital images still don’t look as rich and sumptuous as film, which was developed to reproduce the way our eyes see the visible spectrum. But in Mr. Fincher’s hands digital has its own striking, somewhat hyper-real quality, and a coolness that suits the stories he likes to tell.

Mr. Fincher is helping to redefine what we think a movie looks like, and he isn’t alone. Working with the cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Darren Aronofsky shot most of “Black Swan,” about a ballerina (Natalie Portman) who loses herself to her art, on film. But when it came time to get down and dirty in the New York subways (and without the requisite permits), Mr. Libatique switched to a couple of digital single-lens reflex Canon cameras: in other words still cameras, with video functionality, which are not much different from the kind you might use to load your iPhone up with shots of the new puppy. Created for the prosumer market, the cameras weigh less than three pounds and run for $1,699 and $4,999.

Lena Dunham used the less pricey Canon to shoot her second feature, “Tiny Furniture.” To put this staggeringly low sum in perspective, consider that Panavision, which makes much of the equipment used in the mainstream industry, does not even sell its cameras (it rents them), while the Red starts at $25,000 — or about what Ms. Dunham apparently spent to shoot her movie. “Tiny Furniture” also looks as if it was shot in digital, but its humble, unadorned visuals are a perfect fit for a story about a college graduate (played by Ms. Dunham) who returns to her mother’s TriBeCa loft, where she struggles to find a voice, including a way with images, of her own.

It’s exciting to witness how digital is allowing young filmmakers to shoot fast, cheap and in total creative control. At the same time it’s hard not to feel apprehensive about the digital revolution, given what’s happening to film. You may not miss the battered and scratched and badly projected film prints of the good old grindhouse days, but, much like those who prefer vinyl records over CDs, you may soon miss something else: an image with depth and warmth, however attenuated by abuse. Film stocks come and go, but it was hard not to mourn when Kodak announced last year that it would no longer make Kodachrome. John Ford shot his World War II documentary “The Battle of Midway” with that stock, and Abraham Zapruder used it to film the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Kodachrome is also beloved by the experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky. Some of his recent films — exquisite abstractions of flora and human figures shuddering in often crepuscular light — have been making the alternative rounds this year, including in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, where they were quickly etched into my memory. One, “Compline,” turns out to be the last Mr. Dorsky shot on Kodachrome, which he had been using since he was 10. In his program notes he described “Compline” as “a loving duet with and a fond farewell to this noble emulsion” and, after the screening, spoke of Kodachrome and its soul. That isn’t a word you usually hear when people talk about film; certainly you don’t hear it in connection to digital.

Does digital have a soul? Maybe Mr. Dorsky has an answer to that question.

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