Digitizing Celluloid
Dan Friedman
January, 2002

I had intended the inaugural zeekfilm article to move from a consideration of our expressed intention of providing "thought and culture for bipeds," through an analysis of a topical early Peter Greeenaway short, and end up with a review of some of the current crop of celluloid offerings. Unfortunately, the easy distribution of film, even here in New York, does not stretch to minor works by major directors. If you scratch the surface of plenty in the twenty-first century you will find it is paint-thin.

Perhaps this opening article should take note of the biggest opening box-office ever. In this blockbuster, our three heroes join forces, sacrifice eternal youth (on someone else's behalf) and save the world from the clutches of evil. In the process the main hero finds that he has magical powers, an incredible reputation, and great riches left to him by two quite different parents. In the course of this Bildungsroman our main hero is tempted (a la Anakin) to join the dark side. The dark side is so tempting with its promises of immediate unlimited growth and power. There will unfortunately be no direct sequel because our main hero, Gerald Levin, has recently announced his retirement. Riding away on the Harry Potter cash cow, he will leave Richard D. Parsons and Bob MTV Pittman in charge of the shining synergy that is AOL Time Warner. He has ushered in a new era and now the rest of the team has to realize the potential he has left behind: Harry Potter is dead, long live Ron Weasley.

"What," you may be asking, "does this have to do with film?" Well, beyond the correspondence of the unusual triumvirate at the helm of the both film and corporate mega-entity, everything. From its inception, film has been a business. Despite the advances in electronic miniaturization over the last decade, and the encroachment of automated content, human contact with film is more than mere consumption--a movie is still a social event in a box. The people in charge of making films are shaping our social lives, one DVD at a time.

Like a play, a film is a social event in its production and reception, but unlike theatre, cinema is also a social event over time. I become part of a virtual community of people who have seen Lumieres Arrivee a La Ciotat, and this virtual community is 'realized' when I talk to another member of that community. Theatre can mezmerize with it aura of presence, but one performance might reach a couple thousand people at most, whereas Harry Potter might reach a million times as many. For this reason, theatre as a business (although not as an art) has long capitulated to the film model. The 'most successful' theatre in New York - Radio City's Christmas and Easter Spectaculars and long-running Broadway Musicals such as Les Miserables and Miss Saigon - all aspired to the condition of film: exactly reproducible spectacle. As well as making film a putatively democratic medium, its infinite reproducibility makes film immensely lucrative and equally influential.

I have nothing against the Harry Potter film. It is a pleasant entertainment based on an excellent book--exactly the sort of film that should be two a penny. The book is a thoughtful, witty depiction of the life of a young boy growing up one year at a time and coming to terms with his inner magic and his responsibilities. The film has many of the qualities of the book but, as The Onion points out in its own inimitable way, the Harry Potter film has also reminded children of the delights of watching films and saving the effort of imagination. Making films from best-selling books is a safe and lucrative business, but rarely adds to the cinema that had to fight so hard to be accepted as an art form.

The frightening thing is how relevant many people aged 20-106 have found Harry Potter. This is frightening for two reasons. First, the normal worry about popularity over content: that the standard of reading is such that this brilliant but far from profound or earth-shattering book is so much more popular than any of the works of genius written over the past two centuries. Second, and more worrying as a symptom of a wider trend, is how tractable even the educated population is to their progressive infantilization by tabloid newspapers, MTV-style reporting on the networks, and oversimplistic explanations of everything, everywhere.

Meanwhile--and we are supposed to be thankful for its general release while most so-called art house films run in three or four cinemas in New York for a week and then get digitized for the tiny audience that insists on watching them--David Lynch's Mulholland Drive is still playing. That the Harry Potter film might be a taste of the future, and Lynch a lone throwback to the auteurs of yesteryear, is a genuine worry. Mulholland Drive is an adult film in an era when adult has become a synonym for pornographic. There is a genuine erotic charge at the heart of Lynch's s film, but the audience's s titillation is toyed with, as indeed are those of his characters. Using special effects for special effect rather than for magical adventure, Lynch tests the limits of how, why, and with what resources we tell stories about ourselves and our unfulfilled desires.

Ruskin once said that you could make anything a little worse and a little cheaper. For an art form that depends on business, saving money is by no means a bad thing. With the vast economies of scale open to the mega-corporations, and the negligible cost of distributing digitized celluloid, we could see a burgeoning of film viewing, albeit on large home screens. The down side of this is that the economies of scale are only available to help make and distribute a certain type of film. With the consolidation of the means of production, distribution, criticism, and advertisement within these corporations they are becoming more aware of their own ideological positions; positions that are based on self-interests that are necessarily different from the wider population. In this second scenario, films present the world as organizations such as AOL Time Warner would like to see it.

In producing a world as we would like to see it, film is a mirror of desire. Film not only represents sexual desire but a whole slew of wish-fulfilments. Lynch's film is 'difficult' because it has adult protagonists and he makes sure that they (and his adult audience) feel the flux of its frame and concavity while looking into his mirror of desire. In AOL's film for kids the concept of desire seems much more simple. Dumbledore, the benevolent patriarch of Hogwarts, hides the mirror of desire from the eleven-year-old Potter after he discovers Harry gazing into it. At film's denouement Harry's selflessness is juxtaposed with Voldemort's ultimate selfishness and, although it nearly leads to disaster by liberating the stone, good triumphs over evil--lack of desire over desire. In this case Dumbledore, the shadowy manipulator of desire, seems motivated by good intentions and is the guardian of arguments for which Harry Potter and his childish audience are not yet ready.

If Dumbledore is a guardian worth his mettle, and Harry a wizard worthy of his legend, they will confront the difficulties of desire and the basis of Dumbledore's authority. High production values and professional distribution should not make us mistake authority for truth, difficulty for confusion, or childish certainty for accuracy. As adults, we should look into the cinema's mirror of desire and be prepared to deal with ourselves in it. If we fail to read the frame, we might miss the crucial clue as to whose desire we are hiding from and whose desire we are watching.

a r c h i v e

jay's head
teevee girl