Mainstream cinema culture is reluctant to reconcile the digital video versus film stock debate. As with any story of king and pretender to the throne, it is too easy to dichotomise and thus deny the possibility of a fruitful dialogue between past and future. When contrasts are characterised as oppositions, the space in between gets totally lost.
Yes, film’s incumbency is on the wane and digital cinema’s ubiquity has arrived, but the instant that a paradigm shifts is hard to recognize and impossible to isolate. More likely, it is the very idea of competing film and digital aesthetics that will, in the future, be pointed to as the characteristic sentiment of the vague time during which the old film technologies were put away for good. But for now, we have purists on both sides advocating the essentialness and relevance of their chosen media, more or less to the exclusion of its alternative.
And then there is Jem Cohen, who has made an entire career out of being neither on thing, or another. Often cited in the context of the musicians he’s worked with, his reputation, until the small miracle of 2012’s Museum Hours, went hand in hand with the bands he filmed. If you don’t like Fugazi, it’s doubtful you would have seen Instrument. If you’ve never heard of Smoke, or Vic Chesnutt then there are large swathes of Cohen’s catalogue that you might not be compelled to seek out. Furthermore, as an experimental filmmaker of largely non-narrative films he’s never been overwhelmed with cash. Making use of whatever is on hand, his films exist across the whole gamut of technologies: from Super-8 to 16mm to video and HD. However, rather than oscillating between modes and technologies—performances captured on celluloid, portraits of place in digital—Cohen’s recent works are hybrids. Not only is he making films designed to be accompanied by a live score, but these pieces contain within them fragments of digital and scraps of film. Cohen describes We Have An Anchor (recently shown/performed at the start of a retrospective of his work in London) as “neither a film nor a concert, but a ‘meeting in the air’ between the two.”
But it is more than just a meeting of film and concert; it is a meeting of film and digital technologies of a kind unimaginable within the mainstream dichotomy. We Have An Anchor intermingles the digital with the analogue, without hierarchy or overt distinction. This intermingling has interesting effects on our perception of each medium. Although intermingled, one can’t help but distinguish them. In one sequence, an abandoned house in the middle of a young forest is photographed over the course of a decade. 16mm is edited with shaky HD, 35mm stills are cut together with camera phone photos. Media aren’t just juxtaposed temporally; Cohen often makes them share the same space. Not only does he frequently partition the screen and project images alongside one another, be they digital or film, but the show opens and closes with the lighting up of two auxiliary screens carrying veiled (literally, the screens have a gauze or veil across them) images that echo what’s going on in the centre screen. The ‘meeting in the air’ between the three screens is one of every imaging technology that was available across the eleven-year span it took to build the archive from which We Have an Anchor is made. The film is totally hybrid and, by that measure, it occupies a unique position in between the orthodoxies of analogue and new doxas of the digital.
What is surprising about the hybridity of the film, however, is how quickly one’s mind disentangles the digital from the analogue and vice versa. Despite the variety of images that are projected one is rarely at a loss as to how any image—even one given the briefest of appearances—was made. Just as we register that the accompanying live band has fallen silent and the birdsong exists as part of the pre-recorded soundtrack, so it is possible to note the textures of the images on screen and categorize them with great ease, becoming attentive to them according to how they were made and what they are, i.e. whether they are digital or film, whether they come from a cranky 16mm film camera or a mass-market piece of consumer electronics. In short, one experiences each image slightly differently according to its category. This is accentuated by the rough chronology that can be mapped across the variety of cameras: broadly put, film images are from longer ago than the digital ones. The film doesn’t explicitly compare and contrast media: any and all means were used to make this portrait of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. We Have An Anchor simply acknowledges the materiality of its bits and pieces and lets the differences between digital and film speak for themselves.
To attempt to articulate what these differences are is to tread dangerously close to the dichotomy lamented above. They are experiential differences, not necessarily quantifiable. But they are key differences, nevertheless: differences that point to the fact that the usurpation of film stock by digital video is not an upgrade without loss. Conversely, the differences are such that one can’t claim the turn away from film stock is a turn for the worse. By intermingling the technologies so modestly, Cohen teases us with their differences, and forces us to recognise the values that are exclusive to each.
It goes without saying that We Have An Anchor is a museum piece and this article rests on the relatively anachronistic premise of a cinema of discrete start-times, no pauses and a full-time projectionist. Nevertheless, it is characteristic of Jem Cohen’s work that he turns our attention to the conversations that weren’t had at the time the great change was happening. CHAIN (2004) is a document of corporate spaces and, tacitly, a powerful lament that the American landscape was homogenized so quickly and with such a profound lack of imagination. Empires of Tin, another concert/film from 2008, was a stubborn and concerted consideration of empires in decline that served as a tonic of resignation against the strained optimism of an American election cycle. We Have An Anchor is a positive interrogation of the nature of both digital and film images and their relative abilities to capture space, mood, time and perspective. It is presented at a time where everyone carries a camera-phone on them, all of the time, citizen-filmmakers, in potentia. Yet this fact is present within the aesthetics of mainstream cinema as nothing more than a plot device (“look what I found on YouTube,” [cut to grainy image] etc.). Surely some deeper changes are afoot. We Have An Anchor demonstrates that a cinema audience can have a fundamentally different attitude to an image depending on their relative familiarity with the technology that created it. The mysterious chemistry of celluloid carries with it a whiff of magic, the accessibility of the digital replaces this magic with… with what? I don’t know. Less of an impression of the place being photographed, a denser impression of the perspective of the photographer? In any case, as “prosumer” cameras get cheaper and cheaper and audiences look upon moving images with a growing sense of appropriation (the “my five year old could have shot that” sentiment) mainstream cinema can’t look the same forever.
New aesthetics spring from new technologies. It is the avant-garde’s job to try and make this happen as suddenly as possible and the mainstream’s prerogative to incorporate the successful elements of experimentation into a commercially viable evolution of the prevailing aesthetic. But with digital video technologies changing our visual environments so rapidly, every YouTuber is essentially a member of the avant-garde. The architectonics of the film industry are such that aesthetic change in popular cinema is mostly dictated from above. As the world shifts beneath it, it is in the interests of the film industry to keep the film versus digital cinematography debate langouring as a dichotomy. The model of the digital projection of film-stock images digitally manipulated in post- leaves aesthetic innovation in the hands of powerhouse directors, post-production technicians and business minded distributors. In the sphere of the independents, meanwhile, digital cinema remains, by and large, an embodiment of old aesthetics enabled by new technology. The word “revolution” doesn’t apply to the digital shift in mainstream cinema. Insofar as the change is currently being felt by audiences, it is as a surplus of spectacular digital effects. But are these anything more than the after-images of a celluloid age? The phantasmagorias of Messrs. Lucas, Cameron and Jackson are novel but not new, current but not contemporary.
We Have An Anchor exists across the spectrum from consumer electronics to large format cinematic projection. It demonstrates not only that film images and digital images can feel fundamentally different from one another, but that this feeling is not being properly addressed by a culture that is destined to be dramatically effected by it: cinema culture in a digital age. Jem Cohen’s collage makes the two technologies work in dialogue—creates a ‘meeting in the air’ of past and future—and in so doing makes it possible to pause and examine the nature of a very significant change even as it is happening all around us.