Debating the Death of Cinema


The “Death of Cinema” roadshow that Susan Sontag’s Times Magazine essay set in motion in 1996 arrived at MOMA last week, in the form of a panel discussion taking off from last summer’s two-part article by New York Press critic Godfrey Cheshire. His piece, “The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema,” was no self-serving pronouncement of the demise of cinephilia. In place of nostalgia for a golden age that never was, Cheshire substituted high-concept future shock: The Digital Revolution is coming. It’s a replay of CDs versus vinyl, and we all know how that one turned out—Cinema As We Know It is doomed. Sontag’s endearingly out-of-touch bandwagon is on a collision course with what MOMA film curator Laurence Kardish called “the juggernaut of electronic imagery.”

Cheshire opened the discussion with a cogent summary of his article’s central thesis. Comparing the impact of digital technology to the coming of sound, he identified seven key areas of film that have been or will be conquered by digital technology. Sound, editing, and special effects have already fallen; production, distribution, projection, and home delivery are next. DV films like Buena Vista Social Club and The Celebration and last summer’s video projection tryouts of An Ideal Husband and The Phantom Menace are the shape of things to come.

With one exception, the other panelists seemed to have already either embraced or capitulated before Cheshire’s prognosis, offering neither resistance nor alternative scenarios. This seemed partly in deference to the irresistible force of hard economic reality, and partly due to an understandable wish not to be seen to be “romanticizing the past and fearing the future,” as one panelist put it. Though cinematographer John Bailey stated that there were many unresolved technical issues relating to image “capture area,” mastering, compression, encryption, and decryption, he had curiously little to say about the fundamental aesthetic and perceptual differences between film and video—say, the difference between the flicker of film projection and the continuously scanned image field of video.

The idealistic independent producer Jason Kliot (Three Seasons), whose earnestness generated diminishing returns, trotted out the “more integrity for less money” indie party line on digital: that its low cost will “keep the director’s vision intact.” American Museum of the Moving Image’s executive director Rochelle Slovin distinguished herself as a tireless booster, but of exactly what remains unclear. An agreeably glum Peter Bogdanovich was content to assert the primacy of storytelling over technology, though he did sound the sole authentic note of mourning for the decline and imminent fall of the materiality of film: “The degradation of the image has been going on for 50 years, for those of us who remember seeing real nitrate prints, where there was actual silver in the film and the images used to shimmer.”

The sole holdout was the can-do, undaunted Dean Goodhill, inventor of an inexpensive new 35mm film cinematography and projection system called MaxiVision48, which doubles the current 24-frames-per-second standard to achieve new heights of image resolution, light-years beyond the capabilities of high-definition video. Goodhill’s system sounds extraordinary—but it’s a moot point, at least to Kliot, who observed that clarity and sharpness were all very well, but not everybody wants to make films with clear, sharp images.

The lax thinking that permitted panelists to treat digital video as a de facto synonym of film was underlined by Bailey’s amusing reaction upon viewing his first Edison Kinescope at MOMA earlier that day: “Wonderful—it reminded me of trying to watch a film on the Internet!” Even more problematic was Cheshire’s reductive equation of the digital realm with television. Where his fellow panelists all referred to the new technology as “video,” Cheshire—in a sweeping conflation of technology and aesthetics—spoke mostly of “TV.” At one point he stumped the others by challenging them to “name a famous TV director.”Uhmm—Jean-Luc Godard?

For now, the vacuum opening up around digital is being filled with this kind of fuzzy thinking, elsewhere typified by Bailey’s well-meaning announcement that he would soon be lensing a friend’s “Cassavetes[-style] improvised film with a group of actors” on digital. Can’t wait for that one. Finally, at the 11th hour, Bogdanovich mustered a mild slap to the new breed, observing apropos of The Celebration, “I had a lot of trouble seeing it. . . . I thought it was a valiant attempt, but it does matter if you can see it or not.”