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What is the 21st Century?: Uncertain Times

What is the 21st Century? is the weekly column where Ignatiy Vishnevetsky tries to find an answer to the titular question.


Above: A good print of Rossellini's Vanina Vanini?

An overcast Friday morning; I went down to the Film Center for a screening of Rossellini's Vanina Vanini (1961), which they'll be running this month. I sit down in the front row, the film starts. The opening credits, mustard lettering over a Venetian red background; an Italy somewhere between Doomed Love and Under Capricorn, all Schüfftan effects, painted backdrops and decor so detailed that there's no distinction between inside and outside (the story goes that they built the sets before they had a script). There are some Freemasons and the sort of evenly-lit intrigue that Rivette would make his twenty years later (daytime suspense is always more nerve-wracking: it's possible to escape from a shadow into the light, but from the light the only option is to go further into darkness).

The movie is being projected from what I'd unthinkingly call a "very good print." But why do I think this print is good for this film? And why these concerns—Rossellini, film prints, everything so 20th century—here? Because when we talk about the 21st century, we inevitably bring up the 20th. Why? Well, first off, because there's a lot more of it. Second, because a key feature of the 21st century is its direct interface with the 20th: there has never been as much history and culture as there is now, and never has there been so much access to it. Even though its unavailable on a Region 1 DVD and rarely screens, it's easier for a dedicated cinephile to see Vanina Vanini today than it would've been in 1970. There's an illusion of immediacy: the 20th century is hard to let go of because we've surrounded ourselves with its details. It was a potent century—so potent the atomic bomb couldn't destroy it. We are, so far, the museum century, the boutique century; the preservation of previous culture has become a more popular issue than the creation of a new one (it could be said that we're too busy cataloging Modernism to move past it or our reactions to it); we are expanding instead of building.

I'll sometimes say that I'd rather watch five different subpar prints than the same "good" print five times, one of those crisp numbers that faithfully inverts the original camera negative (the negative has always been something like a mold, and it provides a link between filmmaking and casting, lithography or metal sculpture—though the loose decoupage of much digital filmmaking and the large amount of editing and adjusting involved is closer to marble sculpture, which has always had a place in cinema, especially in the non finito technique of late Welles). A film print isn’t just a representation of a movie (or half of a movie; the other half is provided by the audience), but a history and an experience in and of itself. Scratches are both scars and brush strokes. If we're going to lament the slow disappearance of the film print, it shouldn't be because of a loss of quality (yes, for now 35mm is better, but technology moves fast), but because of a loss of variation. Sometimes even a loss of imagination; I remember a print of Lola Montes so pink you had to imagine what the colors must’ve looked like. And then there's the arbitrary structure imposed by reel changes; there aren’t many things better than when half of a two-projector set-up breaks down, widening a print’s seams (two intense experiences that resulted from such situations: Mother and Son broken up into passages or even stanzas, and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, whose long takes meant that there was a five-minute blackout after every couple of scenes, turning the movie into a serial).

Above: Paul Schrader's Blue Collar.

There's a beauty to the imperfect print, and a wonder to the bootleg DVD; imperfect reproduction substitutes new elements, shifting color, adding grain and distortion. It’s not erasure; an unfaithful copy contains as much information as a perfect one, but the difference is that it has introduced new elements. Two possible reactions to an imperfect copy: you can focus on those elements that you assume are perfect (say, "blurry images, but at least the sound is crisp,” that sort of thing) or you can enter the copy as you’d enter a room with the lights off; you wait in the dark as your eyes adjust to the low light—you begin to discern shapes and colors, but you can never be completely sure that what you’re seeing is really there or just a product of the darkness. Both choices are sabotaged: the first by its reliance on a fallacy (that a perfect, absolute copy exists; the insistence of many film and video artists on particular screening procedures for their work is really a struggle to control meaning in a way the popular conventions of movie-watching deny), the second by that doubt that grows out of an insistence on certainity. A person could argue that we’re “misunderstanding” something when we see it “the wrong way,” but how many great movies were born out misunderstandings? So much originality is failed imitation; the greatest artists were for the most part failed forgers. No American could’ve made Once Upon a Time in America. The jump cuts of Mickey One were no different from Bob Dylan trying to be Woody Guthrie: the New Hollywood was the result of a game of broken telephone; Paul Schrader made his best films by misunderstanding Bresson.

Movies survive all forms—or, really, they are distinguished by their ability to thrive through transposition into new formats, approaches, into memory and culture (is this why filmmakers are so often attracted to Shakespeare, whose work constitutes a sort of cinema, beginning as something certain and growing in potency over the centuries until it's able to survive as a phrase or a characterization?). So let's not forget that there are elements of an image that only reveal themselves when the image is miniaturized, just as there are feelings that come through strongest on a big screen. The truth is that there are aspects of movies that we can see now that were invisible to audiences when they were first released, and it goes the other way as well. Vanina Vanini was made for a specific audience, for a specific purpose, all of which we are currently negating. Here it is in a crisp print, with the sort of pins and needles grain that made the recent print of Bigger Than Life so tactile. Rossellini's films always constitute a resistance to idioms, and this tactility makes that resistance even more jarring. But if I was watching it on a crappy video copy from a tiny screen, I'd notice new things: maybe the zooms would feel less liquid and more structural; with the artificiality of the sets less noticeable, maybe the images would give me a different feeling. At first, you would only have been able to see Vanina Vanini in Italy, then France, then it ran for a bit in the UK. Then the US and probably some retrospective screenings over the years; now anywhere in the world, a person with an all-region DVD player or a passion for torrent sites can have a copy in a week. Vanina Vanini is no longer just this Italian film from 1961 that may sometimes get revived; it's become a cultural object any person might conceivably have access to. The flourishing of options, and of uncertainty, is the flourishing of meanings.

I can relate 100% to your point about us living in a ‘museum century’.. so much great cultural heritage is rediscovered every day, which is something to be celebrated.. Yet it leaves one with a bitter aftertaste: Why do we seem so keen on rediscovering the past? Why do the people around me in London dress up as if they’ve come straight from the 60s? Resurfacing vinyl? Burlesque? Nouvelle Vague? One would think we have nothing to offer that is quintessentially ‘now’. It’s all very ‘hip’, and don’t get me wrong, I am one of those people- but what are we creating that people in the 22nd century and beyond are gonna remember US for? Something to think about..
Dominique, It’s a good point, because there’s so much great new cinema going on (which, I think, the Auteurs, both in the “cinematheque” and the Notebook, has done a great job of exposing people to), but I think people become very cautious about praising the new while having no such reservations about praising the old (in fact, people who attack accepted “masters” are usually heaped with the most scorn). For that reason, I think it’s important to praise “new” things—this was kind of the point of this project: to delve into the present. But here I am, only on the second column and already diverted by the 20th century, which is like a powerful magnet pulling at my head. I promise next week’s entry will be about the 21st century.
Your article brought up some very good questions, Ignatiy. Just curious, why is there a picture of Blue Collar in there? While I can understand how it could fit in with your discussion of films taking on and losing different meanings as movies pop up in new contexts throughout history (the current crisis with the big 3), I don’t think you mentioned that particular film. For me, one of the more complicated things about the 21st century is this access you are talking about. While at first it seems exciting and beneficial, like we are on the verge of discovering great secrets buried in all of this information, I have found it to also be a burden. What this instant access does, to some degree, and mostly for the curious, is provides a degree of transparency into the world that leads to, yes, uncertainty, paranoia and doubt, amongst other things on the negative end. As all of the worlds’ differences get squeezed through globalization, tolerance becomes more and more desirable for a civilized world. And tolerance also becomes more and more slippery, I feel, when there is more pressure and tension from this squeezing.
In a certain way you could say the 20th century = D.W. Griffith’s film INTOLERANCE, 21st century = Some Director’s (yet to be named) TOLERANCE. but even that’s not correct, except for the necessity of tolerance is perhaps greater this time around.
Kalvin, As always, I agree. The wealth of access is a little terrifying at times, and it makes cinephiles, paradoxically, less inclined to find new things. There was a time when every movie was something new—now we have so much basic ground to cover, that you can spend your whole life catching up on canons. But there’s also a hope to it. Earlier today I helped record an interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum (destined for these pages) where he talked about the foolishness of making blanket statements about the state of cinema in the present, considering the fact that we now realize how little we understood about, say, 1960s cinema when it was going on. There are more people making movies now than ever before, and I think it means we have to be do more discovering. And you’re right—we have to be more indiscriminate. As for BLUE COLLAR; it goes with the beautiful misunderstandings and broken telephones that make up the paragraph below it. I still think it’s Schrader’s best film, chiefly because it’s a failed attempt to make a different sort of movie—it fails because Schrader cannot deny who he is, and so, through failed forgery, he creates something completely original. BLUE COLLAR is in some ways an attempt to make an “intelligent, European-style” film, but no European has ever made anything like it. I think failures are often very successful. Are you going to direct TOLERANCE?
I’m guessing you loved the Open City print they played, which led to a couple impromptu intermissions . Something about the heavy emulsion scratches and faulty splices made the film seem much more precious, but not in any superficial sort of way. I’ll usually take a bastardized print like that to a new restoration…In some ways taking cue marks out for DVDs can wreck the rhythm of a film; there’s a certain sense of comfort that comes from knowing every eighteen minutes there’ll be a be a small hole in the upper right hand corner of the screen. My concerns with digital technology and increased access to media are that art will lose its personality. being able to see “We Can’t Go Home Again” on a home computer is great. But who are you going to share it with? For the most part, film works best as a public medium which is why places like the film center and even the Music Box are vital to the medium. then there’s the aesthetic qualities of film, even the worst print of a film looks miles better than the best digital projection, which, no matter how good it looks, will always look dead. But maybe I’m just being nostalgic, if I am I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I’ll agree that there’s not much we’re leaving to discover in the 21st century, and maybe that’s a little greedy, but there’s still so much art to unearth from the 20th century, not to mention the 19th, the 18th, etc…
Julian, I don’t think it looks dead, but it looks like a very different sort of alive. I remember watching HDTV for the first time. This was when the technology was still new; I crashed at a friend’s house and his family had one of the early models, and I, after waking up, I decided to see what it was like. This was early in the morning, and only a few channels were broadcasting in the format, but I found myself mesmerized by a Fleetwood Mac concert on PBS. I was amazed that a small image could look so detailed. That’s always been the defining property of the digital image: in film, the first thing that strikes you is larger movement (tracking shots, etc.); in, say, HD, it’s the smaller movements—trees swaying—and the way they’re rendered so carefully that comes across strongest (I think this difference has been at the heart of Michael Mann’s approach to the medium). Nor do I think DVDs damage a film—they create a different sense of it, and the fact that movies can continue to survive and still be themselves in all of those formats is a testament to their potency. I will say that, like you, I prefer to watch movies socially, and, in a better society, it would be easier to host screenings; there are plenty of small organizations in every city (I can think of a lot of them in Chicago), but the problem comes down to legal issues and money.
I’ll agree that the detail of high definition DVDs and television is fantastic, and maybe dead is too harsh a word, but there’s something about creating a world that looks almost exactly like the one we’re living in being reproduced that, for me, creates a disconnect between the film and its viewer. That being said I hardly think digital filmmaking is some weapon against cinema, however, it shouldn’t be treated as a replacement, but as something like a new film stock. It has its merits. I really like DVDs, I wouldn’t have seen half as many movies as I have if they didn’t exist, and I love pulling up a chair and my favorite cat and staring at a television screen for hours on end. They’re a great alternative but certainly not a substitute for film and neither is the highest quality digital projection. If film is no longer circulated in theaters I think we’ll loose a lot. It’s a personal preference, but I’ll probably take it to the grave. Speaking of hosting screenings, I’ve got a 16mm print of Ulmer’s the Black Cat I’ve been wanting to show for a while, I probably will sometime in early June. If you’re interested I’ll send you an invitation…At any rate excellent writing, I enjoyed reading.
Ignaity, if I did I’d need you help doing one of those Schüfftan effects.
Also, will the Rosenbaum be video or just audio?
Indeed, it does appear that there is aN empty space for a great movie titled TOLERANCE. Doing a quick search on imdb i found a few with plots like these: “Alan communicates only through postcards-a peculiarity that makes him an object of ridicule for Evil Twin 1, and his brother, 2. Despite some initial self-doubt, Alan sets out to earn Lisa’s friendship with kindness, sincerity, and some exceptional dance moves.” “Jack Spartan is a Professional Fighter. With fight training taking priority, his neglected girlfriend embarks upon a vengeful affair. When Jack learns of the deceit he takes matters into hand. No one makes a fool of Jack Spartan and lives." There are actually more movies called ZERO TOLERANCE or something else that means the opposite of tolerance than there is TOLERANCE. Telling, isn’t it.
Kalvin, Yes, telling—but you get a sense that TOLERANCE is the sort of name that no one would go for these days—too obvious. As for the Rosenbaum thing, it is both video and audio—at the same time! The video (and direction) by Ben Sachs, the audio by me. Julian, There’s something about 16mm that’s so fitting for Ulmer, a filmmaker of big ideas and low production values. I’d imagine Beyond the Time Barrier looks best in 16mm, where there isn’t enough detail to see the sets are made of cardboard—you end up seeing something close to the film Ulmer must’ve envisioned. As for HD’s detail—I didn’t mean it was more lifelike. I think it’s as “unlike life” as 35mm, which I think makes it feel more real.
maybe one detail of the 21st century is the prevalence of the words “video” or “hd” which silently include sound in them. whereas in the 20th century you could say film and mean either with our without sound, it seems that now “digital” is hopelessly tied to sounds.
Good point: it seems like a lot of people working with (low-budget) digital video take sound for granted. I mean that, in a way, their movies are more focused on images (at least in thinking) than those that were originated on film. When sound comes easy, it becomes an afterthought. When images and edits come easily, they too sometimes become afterthoughts.

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