Dark Blue (Ron Shelton, 2002)
Dark Blue dramatizes a procedural tale of corruption and social unrest set explicitly (though diffusely) against the backdrop of a decade prior, the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Part of what's intriguing here is how the film announces this setting immediately. Opening credits begin to roll, then the title card. Next: video footage, with a computer font typing out the location (“Los Angeles, California, 12:47 A.M. March 3, 1991”) in the lower right hand of the screen. Certain other markers give us stray bits of information: the Paxton St. exit, the speed of pursuit. The footage sets up the 1991 Rodney King beating—the acquittal of those LAPD cops in 1992 lighting the fuse for the South Central unrest which frames a lot of the action late in Dark Blue.
The videotaped image is murky, shaky, although the much-replayed footage of the beating itself (taped by George Holliday) is only shown for a few seconds. Its timecode—blocky white letters across the bottom—is wiped clean, or rather, cropped—though we've already seen the trope of a computer font indicate the Los Angeles setting. In cinema, the insertion of videotaped footage like this has often connoted surveillance or some kind of a detached, omniscient viewpoint. The shift in the visual, textural substance of the image could register an entirely different "feeling" as well as narrative point-of-view—a problem taken up in art cinema by the likes of Haneke (Caché), Soderbergh (sex, lies & videotape), and Egoyan (Family Viewing), to name a few.
But Dark Blue, a less vaunted work, affords us viewers a fascinating problem for the way that this technological juxtaposition can impart meaning. As digital video made impressive gains in the twenty-first century, the once reliable shift to video footage in a film is no longer quite so discernible a gesture. That is, it becomes more challenging to always recognize with confidence how much, and in which places, a new "film" uses celluloid versus digital formats, or digital effects atop a celluloid base. Indeed, while post-production today is still a playground for the textures of movie images (and not just Tony Scott titles), commercial films that now feature digital video inserts will often bypass differentiating the image between film and non-film, as through markedly inferior resolution we see in this Dark Blue clip, for example. So Dark Blue's opening sequence depends upon an audience that will be able to grasp a significant difference between this rougher video footage and the rest of the film. Concomitantly, this image is readable exactly because its audience is largely expected to recall the King beating footage from 1992 news broadcasts. Thus, the device indicates a periodization in the narrative (1992, from the perspective of 2002), but also hinges upon an aesthetic device whose era is passing—perhaps, nearly already past.
Part of our on-going video series, The Last Place You Look