Fest Forward

Digital Video at Cannes

The future of cinema as we know it was not to be found at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival. Most of the press agreed that this was a particularly disappointing festival—an assessment based not on the complete absence of satisfying films but on the presence of so many tired and pointless ones. Even the cheery Janet Maslin—she who embraced The Phantom Menace—had some negative things to say, even if she used Harvey Weinstein as a mouthpiece to do so.

Maslin also picked up on the burgeoning interest in DV (that's digital video). DV was the buzzword among the big-money producers shacked up at the grand palace hotels along the Croisette, the no-budget filmmakers commuting from bed-and-breakfasts in neighboring towns, and the techies who jammed the seminars and demonstrations sponsored by MITIC (International Market of Technologies and Innovations in Cinema). Indeed, the Cannes festivals of '98 and '99 may go into the history books as the place where the DV filmmaking revolution turned glamorous. Last year saw the premiere of Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration, dubbed "DV's Birth of a Nation" by digital maven Peter Broderick. This year, there was far more heat around the MITIC demonstrations than around any of the dinosaur films screened in the festival's main sections.

One of the most thoughtful and provocative movies I saw was Eric Rohmer's Cambrure, a 20-minute short, shot in DV as a kind of test for future features. Cambrure was the pièce de résistance of Broderick's DV seminar, where it was shown as a 16mm film transfer and also as a straight DV projection. The title (which can be literally translated as curve or arch) refers to the line of a woman's torso from waist to hip. The protagonist is obsessed with the representation of this particular bit of female anatomy in painting and sculpture. But when he compares his girlfriend, who has an exceedingly beautiful body, to a Modigliani, among others, she doesn't know whether to be flattered or insulted.

The film is a sly riff on representation in various art mediums, the latest being DV. It's also the first film I've seen shot in DV that, in its 16mm transfer, has the kind of limpid, pastel radiance that's one of the great attributes of celluloid. (According to Broderick, France and Denmark have the most advanced DV-to-film transfer facilities.) Projected in video, however, Cambrure looked flatter and cruder. Part of the problem may have been the video projector itself. The stumbling block in DV is still how to show the stuff in theaters, which is why the pricey step of transferring to film is still a necessity.

And while the Rohmer piece proves that DV movies can have the old-fashioned aesthetic appeal of film, the DV projects that seem most interesting, at least on paper, are attempting to find new forms for the new medium. Cheap and portable, DV lends itself to multiple-camera production. Thus, Harmony Korine's The Julian Chronicles was shot with about 10 different mini-DV cameras and Lars Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark—which is being produced in a combination of film and DV—has one scene for which 100 mini-DV cameras were used. These are not the kinds of cameras George Lucas is planning to use for the sequels to The Phantom Menace. Von Trier used a three-chip "prosumer" DV camera for The Idiots (shown at Cannes '98 and still unreleased in the U.S. because of the demise of October Films). Vinterberg used an even cheaper one-chip camera for The Celebration. But what's encouraging about Hollywood's sudden passion for DV is that it has the bucks to finance advances in technology that will filter down to the low affordable end.

 
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