04 September 2009

Reply to Jason Guthartz: Film as Object, a contrarian view

My recent post about LACMA prompted an extended comment from my friend Jason Guthartz, who raised a few issues (which seemed admittedly rather specialized for my initial piece) that demand a post all on their own:

I think there's a much deeper cultural issue here, more pronounced in popular culture but more problematic within film culture. LACMA would never close their modern painting wing due to the availability of posters of Pollocks and Rothkos, and the public wouldn't accept it either. So there's a basic question of where the "art" and aesthetic value is seen to reside within a particular medium. If film is seen as primarily a story-telling medium, then who cares if you're watching something on 35mm, TV, or DVD. If film is seen, per Brakhage, as "on-off illumination of individual still images in sequence," that creates a different attitude towards the medium and a deeper appreciation of the need to see films in their "original" (print issues notwithstanding).

A respected archivist once told me that he would welcome the (probably imminent) day when all first-run houses project content digitally. Only then, he reasoned, would archives and museums have a rightful claim to something special—the cinema as it was meant to be seen. Now, he was no elitist, mind, but he had no problem with film exhibition taking on a more rarefied air either; it would be like going to the concert hall to attend an opera or going to the museum to study a painting, he thought. Tickets might be $25 and the venue might be paying $1,500 for the rental of this 35mm “museum artifact.” (We’re close enough to the $25 ticket already.) It would be a trade-off, no doubt, but it would be the only reasonable recipe for survival.

I’m uneasy about this path, largely for the reasons that Jason outlines above. Simply stated, I do not believe that critics, academics, archivists, and exhibitors have adequately laid the medium-specific foundation for such a pitch to rest upon. Admittedly, this is a harder case with motion pictures, one without ready parallel.

Reproductions and ancillary forms are not inherently bad. Recorded sound has not brought about the extinction of live opera or symphony performances but most anyone can succinctly differentiate between a CD and a live performance of the same. Paintings are reproduced all the time (and often badly) but, again, most anyone can distinguish between a photocopy and a canvas. The availability of these substitutes does not deter people from seeking out the real things—and, indeed, a preference for the real thing marks one as a connoisseur.  No one has ever questioned a tourist’s interest in visiting the Louvre—or maintained it was unnecessary because a poster of the Mona Lisa already hangs over the credenza. Brushstrokes and texture and the third dimension upon which they intrude are not incidental elements of a painting.

But arguments about film and video are not so common sensical; invoking them often invites semi-sympathetic nods of agreement. Fact is, the great majority cannot tell the difference between a beautiful 35mm print and a projected DVD, even when the latter is shown on the same screen via an LCD projector better suited to PowerPoint slides and corporate adverts. Part of this problem doubtless arises from home theater, whose enthusiasts tend to place a premium on superficially sharp, plastic images and view scratches and grain as the unacceptable artifacts of outmoded technology. Consequently, cinema audiences tend to complain more about an elfin base scratch than they do about a reel projected out-of-focus—the unspoken presumption being that film never could give us High Definition detail in the first place and its tendency to fray and scratch deservedly hastens its obsolescence. And so we begin to hear that the DVD of a particular film definitely looks better than that groddy print that a theater deigned to show last week.

Can anyone imagine an art critic praising a postcard in the museum store at the expense of a canvas in the gallery?

In short, film prints are not generally seen as art objects and there is a considerably high burden of proof to be surmounted when we assert that they are. Perhaps it is even legitimate to insist that the performances of actors, the unfolding of stories, the delivery of witty dialogue, the atmosphere advanced through music cues and familiar editing schemes lifted from serial television, etc. are conveyed perfectly well in a video reproduction. So long as a film is valued on these terms alone there is indeed little reason to prop up the over-engineered and cumbersome celluloid delivery system.

The only argument for medium-specificity, and one well-worth making, has to do with material integrity and its aesthetic implications. It has to do with grain being an active and crucial element of the film image, really the mediating aspect of the medium itself. Screen movement and color and light are, instead, will o’ the wisp approximations of the real things perceived as fluctuations in the density of discrete, irreducible units of visual data. They congeal before our eyes, but their character and quality are essentially random—the constituent elements of an initial impression modified, augmented, and inflected at each stage of the photoduplication chain and reflecting the peculiar circumstances of how photochemical emulsion reacted to each successive exposure. Film grain is indeed an artifact—the immutable evidence of material intervention and contamination, the unassailable reminder of film’s physicality and its place in our physical world. It is the remnant of a process and, until now, an inherent aesthetic quality. Artifact, then, should not be taken as a slur.

Now, when the above is applied to a feature-length narrative film it indeed sounds pretty silly at first blush. Indeed, it is presently a minority position. I once complained to a veteran projectionist that the innovation of digital intermediate post-production work, coupled with the subtler grain level achieved through Kodak’s proprietary T-grain emulsions, tended to make release prints look much less film-like. Grain is the image, I said, to which he replied, “Nah. Grain is just the thing we used in the old days to make sure the image was in focus.”

(Even this, though, is not nothing; grain is, among other things, an artifact of labor and its survival as an index of this labor—the human judgment intrinsic to exhibiting a product correctly and the means by which this was achieved in a particular time and place—is important, too.)  

The case is plainer with avant-garde films such as Paul Sharits’s appropriately named Axiomatic Granularity from 1973. Strictly speaking, there are no images in the twenty-odd minutes of this extraordinary film, only the hints of grain recorded onto exposed emulsion through colored filters. For all that it is not a static film, but instead one marked by intractable swirls of activity and a concrete suggestion of mass. Sharits inconveniently proposes that this information is indeed axiomatic—that even a film “without images” contains a complex, inexhaustible sequence of images created by grain alone. Presumably films with more assertive “content” impart images beneath images (or perhaps even motion within motion). Indeed, this fascinating film plays out concurrently with every other film we encounter. This is not merely a pernicious accident of history or the problematic residue that marks pre-video objects, for the presence of grain makes the other films we enjoy more experientially, aesthetically, and, yes, emotionally complex rather than less. The stasis of an Antonioni, a Stroheim, a Hou, a Benning, a late period Minnelli is markedly more complicated and mysterious because it is transposed over an ever-shifting backdrop of restless material transformation.

A filmmaker possesses a sort of general control over grain, selecting a particular camera negative stock and the corresponding shooting parameters that will yield a certain ‘look.’ But beyond that grain is a product of industrial, rather than artistic, logic.

This industrial character of all film production is precisely what leads to the problems that Jason outlines here:

Isn't film undervalued at such institutions precisely because it is so cheap? There being no "original" as there is in painting or sculpture, a film print can't be commodified. And to the extent that a work's value in the art market influences (and can be influenced by) it's value in art culture, I'm afraid film will always be the black sheep (cheap whore?) in the art family. Which is why the whole repertory system -- even calling it "repertory" is a weird concession to market logic -- is being sustained on life support by those few individuals […] who remain dedicated to the medium rather than the market.

These issues are not new. Benjamin taught us long ago that works subject to mechanical reproduction lose aura, vulgarly translated in market terms to the monetary value of the piece in question.

If anything, film curatorship and collecting should be liberated by the fact that they do not carry this baggage. In all but a few extraordinary circumstances, films are not worth more than the stock they’re printed on. Few film archives have a robust acquisition budget—and even those that do command the barest fraction of funds that might more lavishly be applied towards once-in-an-institutional-lifetime art opportunities at Christie’s.  Contra countless people who find an 8mm reel in the attic and presume that they might lure a few archives into a bidding war, film is stubbornly resistant to commodification.

This is ironic, of course, as the film industry is obviously dedicated towards creating durable, highly profitable commodities. The fact that all but a handful of individual prints are destroyed or recycled into other prints a few months after a film’s initial run would seem to bode well for film-print-as-commodity. Yet demand does not sufficiently outstrip this handful of surviving prints to make a film anything resembling an investment for a collecting institution. The studio could always make another print. And even if the studio lost the ability to make another print, it would still own the copyright to the film, effectively preventing our collecting institution from capitalizing on its rare material.

I repeat that this is an almost wholly positive thing. When a collection is only as good as the endowment an institution can marshal to outbid a peer institution, we are scarcely in the realm of history and scholarship. A film archive can acquire a cinematic masterpiece or an anonymous piece of poverty row hackwork for the same price provided a new print of either requires the same amount of work for the film laboratory. (If anything, the danger is that a film archive, constrained only by price-per-foot rather than the inflated costs that accompany stature, focuses too strenuously on masterpieces and fails to collect a broad portfolio of lesser works.)

This should make the whole work of film conservation, preservation, scholarship, and exhibition more convivial and less corrupt. Dare I suggest that film may not belong in a museum after all and might be better off for it?

Insisting again and again that film is a museum object does not make it so. An acquisition number and provenance record do not transform a print into a valuable art world commodity. If film remains in a museum, it certainly affects a radically different appearance and provokes an entirely new set of assumptions from the assets that surround it.

To an extent this is already acknowledged and confirmed by many august institutions, which scarcely treat films like any museum object I know. How often are exhibitions of paintings, photographs, sculptures, and the like supplemented with film clips, delivered in indifferent aspect ratios on a video monitor off in the corner of a gallery? It is as if museums used the slippery reproductive character of film to justify any and all ‘educational’ ancillary alterations to it. Film, video, magnetic or digital signals—they’re all essentially interchangeable.

In this climate the medium specificity argument is indeed a difficult, if not impossible, one to mount. The only plausible case entails accounting for film as an industrial object with its own mass consumption implications. I would even go so far as to say that Jason’s concerns about the rhetoric of the debate being ceded to ‘market logic’ misstates a fundamental aspect of film.

Film is art. Film is entertainment. Film is history. But above all, film is a particularly industrial triumph, a medium that quite literally dominated twentieth century communication and thought. Film had no daguerreotype period—its logic always dictated a mass audience with an infinitely reproducible product. The enormous expense of film manufacture, the precision of perforation, the pressure to produce a consistent and convincing facsimile of motion at every projection under whatever circumstances an exhibitor could afford—all of these factors meant that filmmaking for private pleasure or local consumption could never justify the development of this new system. Those things came later after the development of a market infrastructure. (One wonders about a passage in Patricia Zimmerman’s otherwise quite informative Reel Families when the author denounces Kodak’s successful efforts to dominate the 16mm field and laments that its early monopoly on the gauge prevented the preposterous if beguiling possibility of artisanal production of raw small gauge stock.)  Film needed volume to succeed—it needed to colonize every territory and become a conduit for entertainment, advertising, information, and experience.

Surely there have been films made without any concern for the market, but they nevertheless look and sound the way they do due in no small to market trends. Rarely do we consider Markopolous’s early films as masterpieces in Kodachrome and vindicate that process or Warhol’s talkies as (admittedly perverse) demonstrations of Auricon’s 16mm sound reversal system. These films had to be made within the material parameters that had been developed for other purposes. And the labs that processed these films were not philanthropies either—they took on independents but made their real money (and justified the enormous investment in equipment) from industrial, educational, and advertising clients.

This is not an apology for Kodak or Edison or ERPI or M-G-M, but instead an assertion that a responsible accounting of film-as-art (and especially film-as-art-object) must come to terms to fact that any film is irrevocably complicated by its place at the intersection of technology, mass consumption, and industrial logic. It is not only that film has no original fit for display (when was the last time a museum hung an original camera negative on its walls?) but that the display of any film artifact entails a creeping destruction that is fully consonant with the dictates of the form. A single exhibition of a film requires more human and mechanical intervention (and hence, more risk) than it takes to leave a painting hanging for six months. And because we consider a new print produced by any quality lab as an adequate substitute, and sometimes an agreeable replacement, for an original print itself produced by whatever anonymous lab the filmmaker or studio contracted with—as opposed to, say, valuing a photographic print only because it was personally printed and developed by the artist—we’re in quite a bind as the art world goes. To commodify the individual print beyond the going rate it would take to print it again would be a betrayal of the whole industrial basis of cinema.

This is only the sketch of an argument. But I don’t know another one that works.

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