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NYFF08: History seen too clearly ("The Northern Land")

Daniel Kasman
Above: A digital image of Ana Moreira in The Northern Land.
It looks like film festivals are finally starting to show digitally shot films (or shall we more correctly call them videos?) digitally, that is, digitally projected. Is it a sign that more and more theaters are becoming properly equipped to screen digital cinema? Definitely. Is this a step towards taking digital cinema seriously? Perhaps. The impetus to “upgrade” theaters to handle digital projection is almost certainly an economic one, and one of an institution hedging its bets for the future.  Not of treating digital as something that deserves proper projection, but treating digital as the possible/probable future, and making sure the theaters are ready for that future.  But if this means that, unlike in 2006 when the Tribeca Film Festival screened the digitally-shot Still Life on a smeary 35mm print, in 2008 I will be able to view Jia Zhangke films properly exhibited so that I can finally actually see the crisp, documentary photography the director and his cinematographer intended, than I for one am happy.
Ironically, equipping theaters for such screenings may have the effect of leveling the playing field for digital cinema, finally giving audiences the chance to see digital films the way they were intended to look, to their benefit or detriment. This could bring about a fairly radically change in digital aesthetics, and João Botelho’s Portuguese video The Northern Land, which is playing in the New York Film Festival, may very well be the kind of video that will be a future victim. Simply, it is a digital video shot in the manner one would shoot 35mm film, with dramatic swathes of supple, dark shadows and vibrant color across the story’s many time periods (1960s, 1850s, 1900s, and I think 1870s as well). The problem is the peculiar kind of clarity a digital camera can have, which to a degree removes a layer of distance between what is being photographed and the end product projected in a theater. While a piece of film seems to place a physical layer between this input and output, digital works can eliminate that layer of artifice. The result is the sense that the objects in front of the camera have a much more “real” presence than they would in film.
Above: Simply, a room and a woman.  From Jia Zhangke's 24 City.
Now, how a filmmaker would choose to accept or embrace (or even combat) this aesthetic effect can more often than not determine the successful use of digital cinema as a medium. The aforementioned Jia Zhangke, for example, who has two films in the New York Film Festival, the short Cry Me a River and the feature 24 City, has no qualms about the uneasy sense of reality digital brings to the recorded subject. His films’ lack of artificial or theatrical lighting, and their groundings in real locations are all part and parcel of Jia’s utilization of digital to help blend fiction and documentary in his pictures of modern China. Another Portuguese director, Pedro Costa, goes a different direction. Whereas Jia’s crisp, lucid images provide a clarity to the locations he sets his films in, and a veracity in the way his actors and non-actors exist and move about in front of the camera, Costa, to a degree, like David Lynch with Inland Empire, embraces the ineffectualness of  digital cameras to record what is in front of them, plunging his videos in the uneasy, unclear representation of pixilation and digital grain. The film (video) world is cloaked in an uncertainty precisely because the camera is unable to capture all of an image’s detail in total clarity.
Above:  The failure of digital cameras to see all lends for an authentic digital beauty in Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth.
Getting back to The Northern Land, it seems a film whose time has come and gone in its own creation. Undoubtedly the use of digital recording helped Botelho both fund and shoot this ambitious, multi-generational tale adapted from an Agustina Bessa-Luís novel (like many of Manoel de Oliveira’s films). But at the same time the very medium that both enables and eases the video’s production fundamentally cripples its aesthetics: digital video plus historical costume pageantry plus heavily stylized theatrical lighting results only in the look of actors on a stage in front of us playing dress up. Now, this may to a degree be the point; Botelho, like de Oliveira is indeed narrating Bessa-Luís in a rather frontal and artificial style that begs comparison to the theater. But the digital aesthetics go beyond this narrative and dramatic choice and undermine the sanctity of the diegesis. In other words, believability in the “sealedness” of the film world crumbles because the look of the video is of a very rigid and cinematic recording of a series of theatrical performances; we become aware the camera is there capturing what is in front of it.  How The Northern Land would play if it were "improperly" shown on film is another question, but as it stands, shown as it supposedly should be projected, clarity only brings awkwardness, and, for a moment, the beauty of the thick strokes of black shadow and costumed color that is right there in front of the camera.
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