Musings On The Digital Age & The Future Of Cinema – A Post Inspired By Last Night

Last night saw Mark Cousins bring his rolling launch of The Story Of Film to Sheffield. The screening of a specially edited 70-minute cut of the film was followed by a question and answer session that raised a number of points that have inspired this post. 

The first point was this idea that Cousins raised that the life of the cinema could be seen as a parallel to that of a human life. I’d like to take that a bit further, with a musing on just what it is that the digital age has brought to the table. 

If 1895 to the 1990’s was the “life” of the movies, then the digital age is its afterlife, it’s funeral. Actually, “funeral” sounds far too ominous and definitive, when this is meant as a declaration of passion. The digital era is a reincarnation of sorts, an era of reevaluation and rediscovery. It ought to go without saying that that the digital age has given rise to the scope for the appreciation of cinema. DVD is as accessible and ubiquitous as any piece of furniture in any house in the Western world (while Video Disc picks up in the rest of the world), and downloading is making interest headways, both legally and not-so-legally. The Warner Bros. archives are open to the world: for a nominal fee I can request a film from a selection of thousands never deemed “worthy” of a commercial release, while the same company, and this is where it gets even weirder, have finally given Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, that most notorious of butchered masterpieces a release. Via iTunes. Not on disc, not on BoD (burn on demand, for example, the Warner Archive) but on iTunes. The four hour, partially restored with still images of von Stroheim’s classic is now available on a home video format for the first time in over 20 years, and in the most unlikely of places. It’s often been said that the standing of Japanese cinema in the West in particular was shaped and defined thanks to the DVD format. We’re constantly reminded that the digital revolution will be the death knell for valuable content as more and more people decide that a digital file is worth nothing in monetary value, but I’m not so sure this is true, especially when we’re in an unprecedented position in terms of the products being made available to us. 

I care about the past as much as I do the future so it’s only natural that my first thoughts lay with the history of the cinema and not the future. I try to reject nostalgia leading the way when possible, but admit that it does sneak its way in on occasion (It’s bound too, given that nostalgia is essentially an emotion). In spite of this, the concept of digital filmmaking excited me greatly. Michael Mann has at the same time reinvented himself as a filmmaker, and brought his work full circle thanks to the hyper-real, super visceral nature of the digital cinematography that he has adopted for the latter part of his career. That same digital cinematography has brought even greater filmmaking capabilities to people previously unable to work. Be it We Are Poets, the lauded documentary filmed in Leeds, or Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not A Film, the lauded documentary filmed in an apartment in Iran, digital filmmaking is allowing those who might not otherwise be able to to make films. Try smuggling 6 reels of 35 mm film in to Cannes in a cake. 

Methods of production and delivery aside, the digital revolution has opened up other fresh and exciting avenues of relevance to the cinema. This very article is a product of the digital age of the cinema. And I’m not referring to the content of the piece, but the medium on which it is being consumed and manner in which it is being done so. I grew up on the cusp of the relevancy of the internet. As a teen growing up in a working class town in a working class household I quite literally had no to shared my burgeoning interest in movies with, nor did I have the means or the opportunity channel the excitement into a drive to find out more about them. Monthly magazines and the occasional newspaper article were all I had. At 16 years I started art school (and film studies) and my world opened up. I finally discovered the Hyde Park Picture House, the Bradford Pictureville and the local film festivals that utilised them. I built up a small circle of friends that shared similar interests, and finally had the opportunity to see so many of the films I’d spent 4 years reading about. While I think that there is a lot to be said about the escalatory nature of my own introduction to the cinema, it’s difficult to deny that I would have benefitted hugely from the double-bill of the internet and DVD (although I was an early adopter to the format, in 2000) during my formative years. WordPress makes publishing your own thoughts on any subject simple even for the most technologically-incapable amongst us (I count myself among their ranks), while Twitter, online forums and even uber-personal mediums like Facebook offer unparalleled platforms for discussion. Note the use of the term “medium”. The internet has naturally splintered in to a series of mediums, which is hugely fascinating. The digitally aided future is evolving in a manner that traditional mediums haven’t or are unable to. 

Speaking of which, the “Are there very few great movies being made these days, or am I missing something?” line was thrown to Mr. Cousins last night by a member of the Q&A session. Cousins quite rightly informed the gentleman that he must indeed be missing something, before quite wonderfully declaring that a filmmaker such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul was making work in 2012 that was as important to the overall tapestry of cinema as that of Orson Welles. Excusing the fact that Apichatpong Weerasethakul is the only filmmaker to quite literally stand me up its hard to disagree with Cousins. In attempting to answer the initial question myself one only need to point to the manner in which the last five weeks themselves have given us such stone cold modern classics as Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, the Dardenne Brothers’ The Kid With A Bike and Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not A Film. We’ve had two films from Bruno Dumont, a man who is perhaps France’s greatest contemporary filmmaker, and who is knocking out masterpieces like there is no tomorrow, and fresh work from Aki Kaurismaki. Even on the “dreaded” mainstream American side of the fence we’ve had inventive and subversive works like Drew Goddard’s The Cabin In The Woods and Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s 21 Jump Street. The latter is supposed to be doubly feared, given that it’s the naysayers greatest nightmare, a remake!

Looking forward to the rest of the year, and using todays Cannes announcement as leverage and guidance, one cannot help but anticipate what is to come. Carlos Reygadas returns with his first work in five years. Jacques Audiard is screening his Rust And Bone. Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik is back four years on from the truly remarkable The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. All three of these filmmakers are under fifty years of age, suggesting that, happenstance aside of course, the current cinematic landscape holds some excitement for at least 20 years to come. Cannes aside 2012 also sees the return of a couple of other cinematic prodigal sons. James Gray, Alfonso Cuaron, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson and Walter Salles are all returning, with at least half of those bringing with them their most ambitious films to date. Cinema is in a fantastic shape at the moment, and boo-ey to anyone who claims otherwise.

Apologies if this post seems a little bit sporadic or all over the place. Such is the nature of the digital voice, I guess. Apt really. 

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