By Tara Judah
When we talk about truth in cinema we invoke questions of intimacy; between film and filmmaker, film and viewer. For the film diary, this relationship has a history of being anchored to the medium, linking truth and intimacy to workflow: inside the mind of the creative, in-camera as it is captured or to-film when cameraless, on completion, and when projected. But if the format is changing – and we are repeatedly told by the profiteers that it is – then so too are the parameters of these relationships.
That’s not to say that the anchorage is coming loose – let’s forget the hyperbole for a moment and create a space in which to talk about the implications of digital alteration to what’s traditionally been film stock only workflow. Setting aside the so-called “death of film”, romanticism over scratches and movement – as well as my own undying allegiance to celluloid – I’d like to talk about two new works, screened as part of an impressive experimental shorts program, ‘Digital Dilemma’, at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival: Eva von Schweinitz’s A Film is a Film is a Film (2013) and Russell Sheaffer’s Acetate Diary (2013). Both use the film diary structure as a framework through which to explore and reveal the filmmaker’s own relationship to film. And though both von Schweinitz and Sheaffer use the medium’s materiality to create their art, their final works are subject to what we might think of as a type of ‘digital disruption’ to the workflow, having been transferred onto and screened as digital files.
A Film is a Film is a Film begins at the end and is as behind-the-scenes as it gets for cinema: in the booth, with the projectionist, where the “magic” happens. She admits to feeling as though there’s romance to her work, in the tactile relationship she encounters with the hundreds of metres of film she makes and breaks up daily at New York’s Film Forum. Saddened by the sight of so many dismantled 35mm film projectors across New York City, she decides to examine the nature of her relationship with film. Concerned that the basis for the relationship might just be nostalgia, she questions whether or not there is anything scientific to film’s cultural currency or, if it belongs solely to entertainment: could it be that the materiality of film is just another cinematic magic trick? And, if so, are those of us who fight for its future the fools in the crowd who refuse to see the strings?
Her first port of call was a neurologist. Assuming that there’s something scientifically superior in how we perceive moving images, von Schweinitz tries to relegate pixels to headache inducing eye-strainers. According to the neurologist she spoke to, however, there is no evidence to suggest this. Disappointed but still curious she looked to the only place the truth could be: the past. Armed with a copy of Essential Brakhage: Selected Writings on Filmmaking by Stan Brakhage (2001), she started making her own experimental films – on film. It is only in this moment that we become aware von Schweinitz has been recording her video diary on a digital format. Then, as we watch her bury and paint and scratch clear strips of celluloid, we also come to understand that the short burst of colour and animated squiggles at the very start of the film was a digital transfer of the finished experimental films we have since watched her create. In this instance the act of digital disruption has created a feedback loop that is necessary to both present and capture the film stock workflow process.
Russell Scheaffer’s Acetate Diary is a – though I’m tempted to say purer, I’ll settle for singular, which isn’t so loaded – example of a film that was created in conversation with the materiality of the medium. In this instance the relationship is literal: Scheaffer scribbled words (his diary) across 100 feet of 16mm film, and into the sound strip of the celluloid. If the entire process had been strictly film, then there would have been optical sound at the time of projection. That is to say that the physical layer of the ink/paint/other would create a sound as the cameraless film ran through the projector, creating an aural experience of the optical. For Acetate Diary, however, as the work has been transferred to a digital format, the sound we hear – though still produced in this way – is a recorded playback and not an instantaneous effect.
I’d like to pause here and return to the question of how these two examples of digital disruption have entered and affected the relationships between film and filmmaker, film and viewer.
In the example A Film is a Film is a Film, despite the filmmaker’s love for celluloid, the disruption cannot be separated as an outside interrupter at any stage of the workflow process. It is, however, still possible to think of it in terms of a disruption, due to the nature of the feedback loop – the digital format acts as both the instigator and disruptor. If it weren’t for digital disruption, there would be, in this instance, no film diary about film. Likewise, there would be no researching, creating, recording and transferring of a cameraless film project onto a digital format. That the digital format also acts as intermediary between film and viewer is significant. Though the viewer is not necessarily aware of the feedback loop until von Schweinitz shows the cameraless footage for the second time, it is imperative that their relationship to the film encounters the feedback loop in such a way that it too becomes a part of it. As such, if truth and intimacy are to be achieved in this particular workflow, then its presentation can only be digital.
For Acetate Diary, the relationship between film and filmmaker is an exercise in truth and intimacy. What Scheaffer writes onto the film are his personal feelings after receiving a medical diagnosis. That the film is then transferred to digital before being shown to anyone else is a distancing step, in sync with the film’s intended reception. Though the viewer sees colours, shapes, patterns and maybe even whole letters as the film plays out, and hears the sounds created by the visual markers on the celluloid, they are never able to read or hear the words Scheaffer has inscribed onto the film. It is a deliberate abstraction that hopes to share but also displace the truth of his relationship to the content of the film diary. In a similar way, the digital disruption acts as another abstraction between film and viewer. Here, that abstraction enables Scheaffer to share his feelings in a non-confrontational though still truthful way.
What’s most significant about how digital disruption enters the workflow process for both A Film is a Film is a Film and Acetate Diary is that it creates a productive dialogue with the changing medium, which, in turn, creates a space in the auditorium for another dialogue to take place. There is too a tertiary relationship that I’m yet to mention. It might even be the most significant of the three. As I have shown in using two rather than one of the short films from the ‘Digital Dilemma’ programme as my examples, there is also a relationship between the films selected and screened in succession that further comments on the role of digital disruption. The six other films selected by curator Jon Gartenberg, though not explicitly film diaries, also spoke to this question of truth and intimacy. The programme as a whole successfully avoided the typical polemic surrounding questions of format, medium and digital technologies in favour of a far more productive discourse on how immateriality isn’t necessarily inductive of the death of film. Though the profiteers would have us believe that the medium has to change, it is increasingly apparent to me that, though disrupted, the medium is still very much in conversation with new digital technologies.
Acetate Diary trailer can be seen here.