Monday, August 24, 2009

The Death of Cinema



Aphoristic, cryptic and apocalyptic, this is a frustrating, infuriating little book. So naturally I based my whole PhD on it. When I say ‘based’, I mean more in terms of inspiration than actual analysis or theoretical underpinning, for no matter how many times I returned to it, there was always something at the centre of Cherchi Usai’s book that seemed to utterly elude me, and I could never write about it with the kind of controlled and comprehending, all-embracing perspective that I thought - rightly or wrongly - was expected of me. The genre of the academic dissertation doesn’t lend itself to the approach that film critic Francesco Cassetti took when he presented an earlier version of this book at the Cineteca Italiana in Milan in 1999 and proceeded to tear off its pages one by one - an ingenious solution to the problem of how to make sense of Cherchi Usai’s work.

At the time when he came to New Zealand to deliver the keynote presentation at the Film and History conference held at our national Film Archive back in 2000, Paolo Cherchi Usai was senior curator of the motion picture department at George Eastman House and director of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation - impressive credentials indeed for a commentator who might have otherwise exposed himself to the charge of simply not understanding the potential of digital technologies in the area of film storage, transmission and long-term preservation. And since I was finding myself similarly reluctant, albeit in a broader and less expert domain, to accept the dominant ideology of information and networked computing, his example from the coalface provided much needed support and inspiration.

The day of that conference in Wellington, Cherchi Usai didn’t claim specifically that cinema was dead but made a point that would have been even more provocative to his audience of historians and film historians, namely that the moving image isn’t a document. Both of these counter-intuitive notions - that cinema is unsuited to document the empirical real, and that besides it’s dead anyway - are based on Cherchi Usai’s unique understanding of the moving image, its history and the circumstances that enable its production and consumption. That last term in particular, consumption, is crucial here for its double meaning of fruition and destruction, and its capacity to convey therefore the peculiar being in time of the moving image, which is progressively and inexorably degraded each time we look at it.



Images in decay are the subject of Bill Morrison and Michael Gordon’s extraordinary Decasia, a symphony on the fleeting nature of cinema. But understanding that materials like nitrate and acetate don’t last forever is all too easy, and can be represented just as easily; the digital is something else entirely.

When information loses its body and becomes a pure mathematical abstraction, how do you even fantasise about its loss? We know what a corrupted digital image looks like. We can even simulate it by applying glitch effects or using tools such as Digieffects Damage. But a much more common circumstance in which this decay manifests itself is through a file that just won't open, or a DVD that stubbornly refuses to play. Suddenly there is no longer anything to see. As Cherchi Usai documents in his book, when Pixar went to make the DVD of the original Toy Story, it discovered that
twelve percent of the digital masters had already vanished. For three months, Pixar Animation Studios staff scoured the system for the toys' missing parts - salvaging all but one percent of what had been lost in the computers. The remaining scenes were reassembled. For subsequent Pixar movies, Lasseter said, 'we have a better backup system'. (p. 100)
You’ve got to backup your data, man. Who hasn’t learned this lesson the hard way? And we should, really, for lots of copies keep stuff safe. But just how many copies, and just how much stuff? As Cherchi Usai told his Wellington audience, it was estimated at the time that 1.5 billion hours of moving images had been produced in 1999 alone. I don’t have updated estimates, but I suspect that the projection he proposed back then of 3 billion hours for the year 2010 would be conservative - that was before YouTube and video-enabled cellular phones. Even at that conservative rate, the amount would reach 100 billion hours by the year 2023 or 2024, and once we’re faced with that order of magnitude, will it really matter how much of it is meant for instantaneous consumption - or no consumption at all - rather than in the hope of repeated viewings and a prolonged archival existence? I suspect not, for the sheer weight of the former would likely overwhelm the latter anyhow, and the task of assigning relevance and context to individual items would be of a level of difficulty that stretches the imagination. In fact, if one buys into the myth that digital information can be copied perfectly and stored and retrieved indefinitely, the prospect are even more grim, Library of Babel-style. Writes Cherchi Usai:
If all moving images were available, the massive fact of their presence would impede any effort to establish criteria of relevance - more so, indeed, than if they had all been obliterated, for then, at least, selective comprehension would be replaced by pure conjecture. (p. 19)

Limit cases rightly invite scepticism, and the author's contention that some time this century we'll reach a singularity followed by a collapse of our systems for storing and exchanging audiovisual content is perhaps the easiest of the imaginings on offer to dismiss, if only because it's so hard to imagine: what would such a rupture look like? But even if you don't buy this side of the argument, how about the events that are not at all hard to imagine: global wars, economic crises, companies filing for bankruptcy even at times of relative prosperity, the no longer profitable trendsetters of last month making way for new ventures. We all know what's happening this coming October 26th, right? And how do you feel about Twitter leveraging its users to 'create value' and leaving the issue of how to figure out a revenue stream for later? How comfortable are you that once that phantom business model has taken actual shape the free will remain free, or that those servers one day won't be bought out and gutted to make space for something else? What will happen then to the world's conversation, and to the illusive idea of the commons that it sustains?


The "guillotine", a machine for shredding 35mm feature films after their commercial distribution, located in Cinisello Balsamo near Milan, Italy. (Image from The Death of Cinema, p. 76.)
Similar commercial imperatives regulate the life and death of moving images, and are even stricter in the film industry proper. In Due dollari al chilo (Two dollars a kilo), Paolo Lipari has documented the activities of two Italian facilities where polyester and triacetate film are recycled in order to produce combs, benches and low-cost fuel for other plants. Says the owner of one of these facilities (my translation):
The films that go through our plant suffer a dramatic change in value. Titanic, which cost hundreds of millions to make and grossed even more, arrived here on seven trailer trucks. When it left, on the same seven trucks, it was worth 25 or 30 thousand dollars. Two dollars a kilo. It's a crude way of considering what we do here. About 40 dollars for each film. 40 dollars for a film that affected us, enriched us, entertained us.
But here's the twist: 'Cinema,' contends Cherch Usai, 'is the art of destroying moving images' (p. 7), and therefore death becomes it and is in fact integral to it. The model image immune from decay that the proponents of the digital seductively invite us to imagine doesn't exist, and if it did, it would have no history (p. 41, at least in my interpretation). It follows, in one of the most inspired passages of the book, that film history should be primarily 'concerned with mutations affecting the physical evidence of the image rather than with any evolution in the expression of meanings' (p. 83). And moreover
[m]oving image preservation will then be redefined as the science of its gradual loss and the art of coping with the consequences, very much like a physician who has accepted the inevitability of death even while he continues to fight for the patient's life. In monitoring the progress of image decay, the conservator assumes the responsibility of following the process until the image has vanished altogether, or ensures its migration to another kind of visual experience, while interpreting the meaning of the loss for the benefit of future generations. (p. 105)

For the reasons stated at the outset, I hesitate to sum up the book in anything resembling a declarative sentence, but the concepts expressed in the two paragraphs above are to my mind the key to a cultural project of immense value, and that goes beyond cinema alone. It's a project that recognises and embraces the transitory nature of our cultural artefacts; that values knowledge over information and context over content alone; that treats our collective and individual capacity for attention and comprehension as finite resources to be carefully managed; and finally that takes a longer view in its guardianship, striving to set systems in place that might allow our cultural heritage to remain alive with connections not in the perpetual present of the digital archive, but rather in a concrete future of material realities that we cannot hope to foresee. In the most unlikely of ways, it is a very hopeful project.

I shall return to this time and again, as you've probably come to expect of me by now. But before I go I want to share with you another example of the kind of intervention - in the spirit of Mr. Cassetti's page-ripping rampage - that this peculiar little book can inspire in its readers. Earlier this year I lent The Death of Cinema to the redoubtable Steven Crawford, and when he returned it I discovered he had fashioned for it a most fitting bookmark, this one:



Brilliant.



Paolo Cherchi Usai. The Death of Cinema - History, Cultural Memory and the Digital Dark Age. London: bfi, 2001.
Paolo Cherchi Usai. Keynote presentation at the Film and History Conference held at the Film Archive in Wellington, 30 November 2000.


31 comments:

Daphne Moran said...

Thanks heaps Giovanni, I enjoyed this post a lot. It set me thinking about materiality and the volatile nature of nitrate film. Boom! Teehee.

George said...

I think I find the guillotine even more repulsive than the idea of burning and otherwise destroying books. Film is an extremely impermanent medium, falling apart from almost the moment it is created, and as you note, digital is perhaps equally so.

The idea of cataloging human knowledge is a futile one. When you mentioned global wars, I thought of the African World War, the conflict in Central Africa over much of the last two decades which involved 8 nations (and more indirectly) and caused the death of millions. It was experienced by millions, but barely left a trace in representation. It is as if it was not happening, and as if it never happened.

Giovanni said...

@Daphne If they finally ban fireworks, some of those old nitrate prints will come in very handy.

@George as you note, digital is perhaps equally so.

More so, in almost every respect. Historians routinely find new bits of film from the early years of cinema and in one way or another they manage to view those pictures, and often identify their provenance. You can't leave a DVD in an attic and expect it to contain any readable data in one hundred years. Plus the physicality of emulsion film allows you to do some forensic work and establish some forms of context - meaning that if Cherchi Usai is right when he says that the moving image is not a document, this would be even truer of digital images. And artefacts without a history are of very little meaningful cultural value.

It was experienced by millions, but barely left a trace in representation. It is as if it was not happening, and as if it never happened.

Not because we lack the means of representation, obviously, or 24 hour news networks dedicated to nothing but - the political will to represent clearly involves a whole other set of problems. Cherchi Usai did in fact show during his conference presentation BBC footage from 1996 of Taleban student burning film prints in a public square, and it touched upon that.

Paul said...

I disagree with the claim that digital media are as fugitive as film. Disks and drives are generally more durable and they can be repaired. Besides, it is easier to make copies: to copy film stock you have to reproduce each frame to a new one; copying a digital file is just drag and drop.

We are living in a golden age of recording. Everything is cheap and plentiful, and everybody is doing it.

George said...

@Paul, I agree with you - a DVD left open on a shelf will accumulate dust over 100 years, but presuming a player can be found it will still be watchable. You can't say the same for film. But the question is more complex, as formats shift so rapidly.

We are living in a golden age of recording. Everything is cheap and plentiful, and everybody is doing it.

Just as the printing press allowed for the proliferation of the written word, consumer electronics are allowing for the proliferation of visual imagery.

@Giovanni, certainly. But the problem goes further, because there is a distinct lack of the representation (visual, written, auditory) that we have come to take for granted in representing our own conflicts in the last 100 years. I'd be a fool to make predictions, but perhaps with the extremely widespread adoption of multimedia enabled devices (mostly mobile phones), the Congo War will be the last major war to go unrecorded in this way. I study West Papua in Indonesia, and a similar problem exists - a complete lack of images in the last 50 years, meaning human rights abuses and minor armed conflict occur(ed) in darkness. Photography is starting to spread, but not as quickly as I would like.

We shouldn't underestimate however how much printing itself is still in the process of explosion. In West Papua the number of books coming out of that province annually has gone from tens to hundreds, in just a few years.

And since I mentioned the printing press, I saw a documentary on Gutenberg's press, narrated by Stephen Fry last week. It's viewable (perhaps ironically?) on Youtube - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Zqgs4iS76c

George said...

The above comment should read "... distinct lack of self-representation."

Giovanni said...

I study West Papua in Indonesia, and a similar problem exists - a complete lack of images in the last 50 years, meaning human rights abuses and minor armed conflict occur(ed) in darkness.

Another question is why do we need images in order to understand and believe. Why is it that things have to be put in front of our eyes, when narration and testimony used to suffice. Cherchi Usai would also opine that those images you wish we had by themselves wouldn't be documents, all the more so if taken digitally. That may well be the hardest contention of his to accept, but I think he has a point.

Disks and drives are generally more durable.

Than what, film? Different emulsions vary quite a bit from one another but in general, no, at least in terms of what your average consumer can and will buy. The lifespan of a write-once DVD is supposed to be fifty years (it’s not verified yet, obviously, we just know of the ones which haven't lasted the distance), for a re-writable much less. The hard drive in your computer won’t last that long. High end blu ray discs are engineered to be more durable, but whether that’s true or not remains to be seen - the industry has quite a history of making spurious claims on that front. As for the issue posed by George of whether you’ll be able to find a DVD player that can play a DVD in one hundred years, I have my doubts. Backward compatibility of blu ray drives is not mandated by the standard, so that gives you a rough idea.

and they can be repaired

Hardly. A film print of which 10% is lost or that has suffered, say, a 10% colour degradation still leaves you 90% of the content, something to look at. A digital file in which one bit in ten is lost is generally completely unrecoverable. And you won’t be able to restore an old video file in the same way that you do an old film print.

Besides, it is easier to make copies: to copy film stock you have to reproduce each frame to a new one; copying a digital file is just drag and drop.

That is obviously the major advantage of the digital over other technologies. And it's significant, to an extent, I linked to the LOCKSS project for that reason. Still, it's not quite as simple as that. Let us suppose you made perfect lossless copies, for the sake of argument. First of all, those copies individually are no more durable than the ‘original’, obviously. So not only you have to make lots of copies, you have to keep making lots of copies, whch means that individual artefacts have to be deemed relevant and conservation-worthy with much more continuity than in the past. As a consequence, rediscovering and re-evaluating old authors or films will be that much more difficult, and any major disruptions such as wars and assorted catastrophes will be potentially a lot more damaging. Then there is copyright, which is designed to impede the very thing that enables digital artefacts to survive. You're not supposed to copy Citizen Kane on your hard drive. You do anyway, but you're not supposed to, and that's not entirely unproblematic. Then there is the sheer amount of audiovisual information out there, which makes isolating what ought to be saved that much harder.

Paul said...

Yes, digital media is more durable than film. I used to do data recovery, among other things, for a living. People in the film and television industries would pay me large amounts of money to recover footage which they had not backed up. But it was only a tiny percentage of their work which had become corrupted, and had they backed up they would have had no problem. In most cases I was able to recover the data.

The notion that losing ten percent of a file will kill it is spurious. In most cases the file can be recovered: the data does not go away; it just becomes jumbled.

Underlying this Death of Cinema argument is an insidious nostalgia for analogue technology, one which is quite prevalent in the film industry. It really was not that great: film stock was difficult to use and sometimes dangerous (vide Cinema Paradiso). The reason that someone is able to make a living from destroying reels of film is that a major release would need to be copied for every cinema in Italy; once the film's runs are over, these copies are useless. Mourning their destruction is absurd: you could not give them away.

Finally, as to this thing about isolating what ought to be saved: an embarrassment of riches is no bad thing; and who is entitled to say what ought to be saved? We recover from the past that which has been preserved, by accident or design. The future will recover the remnants of our present in much the same way.

Giovanni said...

Yes, digital media is more durable than film. I used to do data recovery, among other things, for a living. People in the film and television industries would pay me large amounts of money to recover footage which they had not backed up. But it was only a tiny percentage of their work which had become corrupted, and had they backed up they would have had no problem. In most cases I was able to recover the data.

I’d be tempted to say - tell it to Pixar. But really that only proves that some digital information can be recovered, not that it’s more durable than film. In 1895 about 40 minutes of film were made and we have pretty much all of it. How are your floppy disks from ten years ago doing?

The reason that someone is able to make a living from destroying reels of film is that a major release would need to be copied for every cinema in Italy; once the film's runs are over, these copies are useless. Mourning their destruction is absurd: you could not give them away.

I wasn’t mourning it, and neither is Cherchi Usai. It’s just a reality of what happens to our cultural artefacts that a lot of people are unaware of. It calls attention to material circumstances that are hidden from view but that are important to understand.

Finally, as to this thing about isolating what ought to be saved: an embarrassment of riches is no bad thing; and who is entitled to say what ought to be saved? We recover from the past that which has been preserved, by accident or design. The future will recover the remnants of our present in much the same way.

Yes, and no. I’ve mentioned before and will discuss again the mandate that the National Library has been given of preserving our digital heritage, and in spite of the reservations I have about some aspects of that project, I think it’s important work. If you ask them, they’ll tell you that it’s an extraordinarily difficult task, in part because of the embarassment of riches and the reluctance of being arbiters of what ought to be saved that you describe. And I think there is scope to argue that the nature of the problem has changed radically, not just by degree. For instance, in terms of how many digital artefacts will be saved by accident as opposed to design (in the way that, say, the Rosetta Stone was), one suspects that in the long term it will amount to exactly none. I think that ought to give us a certain amount of pause, and inform how we understand and look after our culture.

Taramoc said...

I tend to agree with Paul. I find the digital age much more naturally equipped to preserve than to lose.

Also, I'm not sure about the issue of ever changing format. A blue Ray disk looks as good as possible to the human eye, and its weight/volume is so low that I'm not sure more sophisticate and improved formats will be necessary from a practical/technical point of view.

We have to consider the economic imperative, of course. Corporations will always want to come up with something new for us to start buying from scratch movies we already have, but even that seem to be changing these days.

The profit margins have been more and more moving towards the time of consumption of the media, than the consumption itself. I bought a used version of Watchmen in DVD for $9.99, two weeks after its DVD release, at my local Blockbuster, and soon it will be available new, as many other movies before it, for 5-6 bucks in any electronic store, not a lot more than the cost of the disc, box, shelf space, storage, and salary of the employee that sells it to me.

It is a fact that movies earn 90% of their money the first 3-4 weeks of their theatrical release and the first 2-3 weeks of their DVD release. For that reason the fight for copyright infringement has moved towards piracy pre or concurrent to the release than copying it on your hard drive at a later date. In this environment, conservation is not really threatened by law.

I do agree with Giovanni that it’s important to understand the conservation process and to optimize it to the digital age we live in, to avoid the possibly overwhelming noise of all this material distributed everywhere, but I cannot avoid thinking that if I was a movie archivist I’d be excited about the possibility of the digital age, not worried.

merc said...

My first book was handset and printed on 100 year acid free museum quality archive paper, on a hot letterpress machine. I had an understanding independent publisher, the Govt. would not be so kind.
The second I wanted to use a re-constituted 16th century Fell font (used for the King James version of the Bible, heh), this meant going digital. I did not hesitate.
The third book I did not want to kill trees for, it is held digitally.
The forth I simply publish on my blog. I use whatever comes to hand and let the future decide it's worth.
I don't seek, I find. Picasso.

wordverf; micadess, my very naughty anima.

Lyndon said...

I recall an arcivist saying once a cd or dvd bubbles the entire thing is useless.

That said, you shouldn't confused the medium (disks) with the type of information (digital). But I suppose the problem is to preseve the information people aren't actually trying to keep.

And of course, human languages seem to last longer than (many) digital formats. Most of the text files on the world's home hard disks aren't in text format. If your book survives, you can reasonably expect your children to be able to read it.

And now, having skimmed the comments, to read the post.

Giovanni said...

@Merc My first book was handset and printed on 100 year acid free museum quality archive paper, on a hot letterpress machine.

The Death of Cinema is printed on acid-free Fineblad Smooth 130gsm, meeting the requirements of ISO 9706:1994, Information and documentation - Paper for documents - Requirements for permanence, and American National Standard ANSI/NISO Z 39.48:1982 - Permanence of paper for publications and documents in libraries and archives.

Which is just as well, because it’s out of print. Or rather seems to be permanently out of stock, which I suspect is the same thing.

The second I wanted to use a re-constituted 16th century Fell font (used for the King James version of the Bible, heh), this meant going digital. I did not hesitate.

You did that for a font? That’s great and I might have to refer to it in the future.

@Taramoc I tend to agree with Paul. I find the digital age much more naturally equipped to preserve than to lose.

Everybody talks about the Apollo 11 tapes that were lost, but my favourite story is another one: the digital tapes with the data that NASA collected throughout the seventies with its space probes are not lost, they know exactly where they are. They’re just degrading really fast, faster than their ability to convert them and transfer them to a better medium, which they do by means of a machine that (and here’s the kicker) nobody’s able to reverse engineer. At the time when I came across the story, about ten years ago, this machine was working full time and still couldn’t keep up with the job; eventually it was going to break, and NASA was quietly resigned to have to simply repeat the missions.

but I cannot avoid thinking that if I was a movie archivist I’d be excited about the possibility of the digital age, not worried.

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Cherchi Usai is a film archivist, one of the foremost in the world in fact - theory and practice are different things. But to clarify, because I might have misrepresented him: the issue as he sees it is not film good, digital bad, but rather film bad, digital also bad, and bad in ways that are not sufficiently understood and acknowledged, because its promoters are pushing this idea that it’s all fine and we have bought the sale pitch pretty much wholesale.

This badness, the fleeting nature of the image, is something that Cherchi Usai ultimately embraces, he’s no iconoclast. He would hardly be a film archivist and scholar if he thought that the moving image was bad.

And this is something I cannot stress enough: the alternatives are not between excited and worried, with nothing in between. That's the binary logic that the digital invites, and that the ideology of technoscientific progress demands, you're either for or against, you either get it or you don't. If there is any one thing this blog is against, it is the idea that we have to comply with that logic.

merc said...

What can I say, my friend calls me a very Modern Monk, or an evil Daemon, depending on the day.
You'll want to know about the paper stock we used on Mercurius, it's pearlized, opalescent and shifty...like me.
The publisher said..we want to do a number on this one. I said, mmmkay.
My obsessions know no bounds, including press passing the proofs just so I could see a Heidelberg in action (and hand mix the colours). Mind you the Letterpress is a God Of Machinery.
I can't even begin to tell you how i do my drawings up on stretched canvas, there is a low end, high end digital component.
I used to work for a 3D software company and have worked on Photoshop (as in contributed).
Modern monk.
p.s I got into copywriting because of Copyists, another tale, another day.
wordverf, elysph, and angel elf.

Giovanni said...

Modern monk.

Ah, you would have loved Cherchi Usai's presentation in Wellington, then, the last part was all about how archivists and curators have to think like medieval monks. I'm going to write in a future instalment about that idea, which is also put forward by Stewart Brand. Both of them, I strongly suspect, will be in the crowd at Ise in 2013 when the shrine gets rebuilt.

Jake said...

"That said, you shouldn't confused the medium (disks) with the type of information (digital)."

As a historian of the book, I find this claim a little dubious. Don McKenzie and Adrian Johns tell us, convincingly I think, that the methods of production of books in the seventeenth century are as important as the words themselves, and that in fact the historical meanings of the text can't be separated from their means of production. And those means of production are inscribed in the texts. I think this is as true of the digital age as well (and it's a problem that both Chartier and Mckenzie address in different places, although they did so in the early nineties).

That is to say that, in answer one of Giovanni's questions above, I don't have any disks that are ten years old, but I have files that date back to 2003, and I fully expect to have them in 2013, backed up, as they are on both an external hard drive (my time machine!) and also Evernote and Dropbox (yeah, so I'm becoming paranoid). When I get a new computer this one is becoming a dedicated Crashplan machine as well.

But.

But I don't know if having these files as data, even if they remain readable, is quite the same thing as having a properly historical document. Because when someone writes a biography of me, and thanks me for being such a careful archivist of myself, they won't be seeing, say, my BA (hons) documents the way I saw them, as Microsoft Word has changed and will have changed even more. I'm pretty sure printouts don't exist, and so they'll only be seeing the data in some form.

It's important because, as I said above, seeing the text as properly historical is about more than the information. The medium, as McLuhan said, is the massage, and the material text bears imprints of its own history -- the economic and cultural millieu within which it was created need to be understood. And they can't be if all you're concerned about is the data. It becomes abstracted from its historical production, and is just kind of floating. It would be a shame, really.

But, on the other hand, there are other possibilities. My Time Machine, should I be egocentric enough to not write over but instead buy a new one when the current one fills up, will provide an incremental history of say, the writing of my dissertation. My future-biographer will be able to find out exactly what I wrote each week, and how it took shape over the course of the project. They'll also be able to see how my music collection took shape over the same period. When I visited the British Library Museum a couple of years ago, I was struck by the fact that they have contemporary authors' hard drives sitting next to drafts of Ulysses and Jane Eyre. Are those hard drives documents? What will their physical nature suggest to historians? I don't know.

The point is, it's not a dichotomy between complete destruction or preservation of data. It's about retaining a sense of the texts as having had a material existence, even if that material existence is rendered in a virtual world.

On another note, when watching Coppola's Dracula on DVD a few years ago I noticed that there was a grainy, degraded feel to the whole thing. I realised that we weren't watching 'Dracula' as it was made in 1993. We were watching the transfer to DVD of a film that had been given six or eight years to degrade.Sure, the story was the same, but the feel was different. When it gets put onto blu-ray, it will lose that, and be turned into a hyper-clean, hyper-crisp thing that never existed in the first place.

Taramoc said...

I guess I didn't make myself clear enough. When I say I'd be more excited as a film conservationist, I wasn't implying that I would just jump in without analyzing the problems and looking for solutions. I agree with you, Giovanni, black-and-whitism doesn't belong here.

Change is not good or bad, it's just change. If it happens, there's a reason, and that reason typically includes a bright side.

Obviously it takes time to adjust to change, and even more to embrace it. The story of the NASA tape is similar to a million others regarding computers (the COBOL dependent financial institutions, now that COBOL programmers are a rarity comes to mind), when they were introduced. People doing things without thinking properly or with tools not yet ready for the scope of their projects.

The Y2K hype and subsequent fizzle it’s another example of predicting doom and gloom for the future, while the problem was fixed behind the scene and efficiently resolved. I got the same feeling reading about Usai’s book.

Granted, the fact that I haven’t read that book, nor I know anything about film conservation may invalidate my whole argument, so take it with the appropriate grain of salt.

Giovanni said...

One could quibble about the quality of the bloggage, but the comments are just terrific and I love you all.

@Jake
(and it's a problem that both Chartier and Mckenzie address in different places, although they did so in the early nineties).

That McKenzie lecture is another text I kept referring to again and again, much like Cherchi Usai's book. Jeff Rothenberg discussed the same issues very thoughtfully from an engineering background in a paper last revised back in 1999 but also far from outdated. PDF here.

the material text bears imprints of its own history -- the economic and cultural millieu within which it was created need to be understood.

There is a brilliant example of this I came across recently at a talk given by Michele Leggott on Robyn Hide, when she revealed that on the manuscript of an article that Hide had written she found typemarks from some poems that she was working on with the same typewriter. Because she knew the date of the article’s publication, Leggott was able to date the poems - which was terribly important in the context of the scholarship - but the discovery also bore a trace of the act of writing itself, the circumstances in which Hide worked. (Megan knows all the details, I was going to write a post about it.)

The medium, as McLuhan said, is the massage,

Funny you should say that, I tweeted about it just yesterday...

The point is, it's not a dichotomy between complete destruction or preservation of data. It's about retaining a sense of the texts as having had a material existence, even if that material existence is rendered in a virtual world.

Nothing to comment on here, except that it’s brilliantly put. As for your point about hard drives sitting side by side with manuscripts, and Time Machine possibly representing a remediation of that kind of writerly archive, I agree with you, although the issues of preservation remain peculiar and significant. Some of those old timey drafts survived without any effort to preserve them other than not throwing them away, because paper is pretty durable. I have years of CDs and DVDs of computer backups, including snapshots of my dissertation, but I'm certainly not backing those up. Somebody had better discover I'm a genius reasonably soon, is what I'm saying.

But. In some respects digital culture is highly aware of these issues of textual historicity. For instance the version history of the software that circulates on the Web is often painstakingly recorded, but more significantly the edit history of Wikipedia shines a light on the (collaborative) writing process that has no equivalents I can think of in print culture.

On another note, when watching Coppola's Dracula on DVD a few years ago I noticed that there was a grainy, degraded feel to the whole thing

Hah! Martin Scorsese has this to say in the preface to The Death of Cinema: “Like all good things, however, the worthwhile cause of film preservation can be (and has been) abused in the name of commercial interests. The very term 'preservation' and 'restoration' are being indiscriminately appropriated by marketing experts who know nothing about preservation itself but are aware of the economic potential of its public appeal. Many of the films made available today through electronic media are misleadingly hailed as 'restored', while nothing really has been done to enhance their chances to be brought to posterity.”

Giovanni said...

@Taramoc The Y2K hype and subsequent fizzle it’s another example of predicting doom and gloom for the future, while the problem was fixed behind the scene and efficiently resolved. I got the same feeling reading about Usai’s book.

They won’t get fixed if we are not aware of the problem. At a digital preservation forum I went to recently one of the speakers said outright that one of the roles of his community was to scaremonger, jolt people into realising that there is an issue, and that it is significant. The hype of Y2K might have served that function too, and we talked about something similar earlier this year in relation to swine flu, didn’t we? In fact if you look at Cherchi Usai’s professional achievements (here's the reason of an award he received in 2005) you'll see that he's explicitly recognised for precisely that kind of work.

merc said...

If not for digital,love us you say well Love My Way I say,
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-P09gm_I5RI
And all praise the Auto Image Adjustments in Photoshop, for otherwise I could not digi my drawings and post them on Love Is A Symbol (well rounded plug on Love theme, I love you too man).
I also play a digital emulator Vox amp, that has a valve in it! 5 amps in one! And I don't have to get David Geffen to buy it for me! (Kurt Cobain).
I love digital.
wordverf; noinies when the eighties just ain't good enough.

Giovanni said...

I love digital too. The alphabet is a digital technology, isn't it?

That video reminded me of our earlier discussion on video games, in that having instant access to a library of material like that without having to pay for it (in the case of coin-ops) or wait for MTV to include it in the rotation is such a radically different experience, to go along with the more obvious ways in which those artefacts are transformed in the transation. That's why I think Cherch Usai's line on "ensuring the migration to another kind of [...] experience, while interpreting the meaning of the loss for the benefit of future generations" is so spot on.

Also: Robin Hyde, not Robyn Hide. Silly me.

merc said...

Migration back and forth to other lands, other times, digital travel on waves of heat.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLCNIZTzg9w
How else could I transport back to Sister Europe, tight black stovepipes, a rat pony tail and cheap speed.
I have a phaser on my shoe gazing gat rig, digital Gothic.

Taramoc said...

I guess my unwavering optimism in similar situations pushes me towards exciting people into action, instead of scaring them. Probably my approach in Usai's shoes would have been more outlining the incredible possibilities that digitalizing a movie would open if done right, instead of theorizing the demise of cinema.

As I said though, I don't know anything about his world, and probably his approach was necessary, at least judging by the award you mention.

Giovanni said...

Probably my approach in Usai's shoes would have been more outlining the incredible possibilities that digitalizing a movie would open if done right

What would those be? Assuming you're talking about digitisation, and not digital restoration of film prints (which is a whole different set of issues), from an archivist or curator's point of view there really is no advantage to digitisation, any more than there is in taking really good photographs of a Caravaggio. If it is done in order to ensure that a trace will remain of the artefact after it's gone, that's all well and good (I've argued here in favour of doing it with our artistic heritage, which of course ought to include film), and like in any other form of art reproduction it will allow more people in more places to see an approximation of the artefact (which is however not the job of the people in charge of conservation). But if you went to a Caravaggio exhibition and paid good money for it only to discover that instead of displaying the actual paintings the curators have hung up on the wall photographs, even really good ones, larger and with wonderfully magnified details, you'd ask for your money back, wouldn't you? Cinema is an art predicated on reproduction, but digitisation is not a reproduction, it's a transformation. That we've somehow elided that difference as I see it is really the key to the problem according to Cherchi Usai. We tell ourselves that digitisation ('done right', perhaps?) entails no loss, or maybe it's even an improvement, and thereby we cancel the history of whatever it is that we are digitising. That's the death of cinema right there.

I suppose then that digitisation done right would be a practice that seeks to acknowledge that loss and account for the history of the artefact. I was involved in the digital edition of the poetry of William Golder and had the opportunity to learn a little bit about what places like the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre are trying to achieve. It's worthy work, and while it's mainly aimed at scholarship and dissemination, there are aspects of curatorship as well. But there is also a significant tension there, borne out of the constant temptation - which I don't claim to be immune to, far from it - to consider the digital text as a substitute, in spite of the fact one should know better. The epiphany for me came in the Golder project after weeks of XML tagging of the digital scans, when I actually saw one of the books for the first time. It was so small, much more than I had imagined, and it was an aspect of that book that we hadn't managed (or even attempted) to reproduce at all. Then of course you realise that now that you've made the text available online, fewer people who would have previously sought the originals will bother to do so, and see how amongst other things how small the books are. It's still a more than acceptable tradeoff (hell, scholars and other interested parties won't have to fly all the way to New Zealand and then travel up and down the country, that's worth something surely), but it is a tradeoff. There are more significant implications as well - chiefly, that the resourcing of the care of the artefact will thereafter have to compete with the costs of producing and hosting the digitised edition - but that was the aspect that struck me at the time.

Giovanni said...

Cripes, sorry for the long comment. Also, I realise I opened up another can of, let's say wasps, by making a comparison with books, since it was after all writing first and print second that allowed us to consider content, a text, independent of its carrier in the first place - my implicit claim that the Golder books are artefacts unlike any other contemporary first edition is thus entirely arbitrary.

Also, since it's already become a keyword search, I should provide a source for the NASA tapes story upthread: Terry Sanders, __Into the future: on the preservation of knowledge in the electronic age__. Hollywood: American Film Foundation, 1997.

harvestbird said...

Dear pen drive, little USB-stick,
dear data in a thumb-sized stub,
your final mutability
was an irksome transformation.

Dear cluster of plastic and metal
whose end was abrupt and which
consumed some files I needed that day:
I don't suppose it matters.

I improvised my talk, recurred to
electronic sources for my handouts;
I'd backed you up on networks
which in turn back up to networks,

but still, my hand dives into the
back of my bag for you
by habit, impulse; dear little amputee,
dear toy.

Giovanni said...

Oh, commiserations, even if it turned out okay.

I recall being very nervous ahead of my first ever tutorial (film history), but then the tutor before me informed me on his way out of the room that all the audiovisual equipment was kaputt and just like that all my careful plans about scene comparisons (which barely required me to be there, really) went out the window. It was for the best. Not suggesting it's what's happened here, just thought I'd reminisce.

I also feel like offering this picture,
from a great series on contemporary films reinterpreted as Russian folk art. (Via Bibliodyssey.)

rob said...

I found a pen-drive on the road, crushed by cars. I thought at first: I want the cap! (it was unscathed, and the caps on usb-drives seem to vanish like ball-points and socks and other tangential but vital-when-they're-missing things.)
But I picked over the remains as well, the tiny, battered circuit-booard, and thus took them home and- bandaged and un-bent- inserted into usb slot. And glory. The drive worked.
Being a 'bad-person' I made little attempt to find the original owner (the only contents were cycling photos: a friend who's a keen cyclist failed to identify anyone, and I gave up there. If you are missing a bunch of cycling photos- let me know!)
That's not cool, 'cos
I sympathise deeply with the loss of digital stuff: it can be so sudden and shocking and total. This digital nugget was resiliant: many are not.
But there's also every chance this person has at least one other copy of the photos: on a computer, or on the camera.
And- finally veering momentarily onto topic! I don't think the analogy of lost celluloid and photographed artworks is quite right. Noone gets to see the 'original film' - except in very rare cases where it's shot on reversal. There are typically many 'slash-prints- and then layers of grading- before a master neg is produced. Copies are all that people see.

rob said...

But they also see the film digitised: dvds and tapes and youtube clips: and now blu-ray. For me, all the celluloid that tells a story can be destroyed and leave the story quite intact. (More: from an appropriate high definition format, another high-quality film copy could be made. Perhaps not 'losslessly': but so good that the loss is very hard to detect.)
If your interest is in the story, the dramatic shape, the dialogue, the characterisation, then the medium is less central. If your interest is in the visual experience of the film- and the 'filmic' nature of the imagery- maybe something is inevitably lost- but perhaps not so much as you imagine.
And even so: if all trace of Carravagio were lost, save a series of careful photos: we might come to value them- differently, but highly- too.
There was gently scathing article on the kindle in the New Yorker recently: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/08/03/090803fa_fact_baker
The kindle experience of reading is rather different, he claims- and unsatisfying. I can see that. I don't love reading online, either.
But. (Here we are!)
I have shelves of New Yorkers, more or less intact and complete, from 1993. My partner is not impressed. It's a lot of old magazines (maybe 5 metres?) The organisation has broken down: they are not all neatly filed in order.
A couple Christmases ago I bought a 'dvd archive' of the magazine- a set of dvds which contains every page of the New Yorker from first publication in 1926 or so, ads and all- and is searchable, as well.
It's a lot more- and a bit less. I don't love reading onscreen... though have been known to bring the laptop to bed.
You could, I guess, print it all out on glossy paper and bind them and kind've experience the same thing as having the magazines.
It's also enormously space-saving, a much bigger and more complete archive, and completely searchable.
One of the things I could search out- I can't remember when it was published- is a fascinating article about just what- subtle judgements; arcane cross-references; brilliant precis- was lost when libraries moved from card to digital catalogues.
I'd probably never find it in the mass of magazines.
But still.
There's always some loss. I haven't thrown them out yet- or offered them to a hospital waiting-room or started a worm-farm.
I don't really want to.
It's very human (and a little pathetic!) this clinging to things. Like it or not: I can feel the approach of spring-cleaning fever.
What I sense in the whole project of digital archiving- as in my own hoarding- is a strong instinct to preserve the past intact, all of it.
Yet change simply does, inevitably, mean loss. You can feel it as you get older. The seductive promise of the digital archivist is that we can have it all, 'losslessly'.
We can't.
(Sorry also for the loooong comment! Started and couldn't stop, and then it was too long to post ;) And thanks, HB, for the work you're doing at our university. Today was... interesting!)

harvestbird said...

Thanks, Rob (thread-hijack alert); it was good to be at the meetings last week. I considered whether to say hello but didn't want to distract from the matters at hand! However I will surely remedy this next time. [end hijack]

With regard to my failed USB drive, I was impressed with the care with which the technicians handled it, considered it was so utterly kaput by then. They asked if I would like it back, and although I declined I imagined either burying it or putting it in a velvet bag, as one might a piece of broken jewellery.

By the same token, it felt quite liberating to be speaking to staff and students from memory on the day that my technology failed. There was a flexibility and a fluidity that I don't normally have when I've slides to which to stick, and although it didn't alleviate my fear of wandering utterly off the topic, it felt like a more creative enterprise.

Giovanni said...

And- finally veering momentarily onto topic! I don't think the analogy of lost celluloid and photographed artworks is quite right. Noone gets to see the 'original film' - except in very rare cases where it's shot on reversal. There are typically many 'slash-prints- and then layers of grading- before a master neg is produced. Copies are all that people see.

Excellent point, in fact Cherchi Usai's reflections on the 'model image' and what constitutes the original, idealised, virtual or otherwise, are the aspect of his work that convinced me the least. At any rate he does acknowledge that there is no such thing as an original, wholly authentic viewer experience, every reproduction and every viewing is a compromise, every copy less than perfect. There might come a point too when watching a DVD of an old Buster Keaton picture in one's own home is just as authentic as the attempt to approximate the experience of the original audience in a theatre with a live orchestral accompaniment, simply because we no longer live in the 1930s. Stagings of Shakespearean plays done in the manner of the Elizabethans strike one as being equally anachronistic, but nonetheless they play a role in "interpreting the meaning of the loss" of that original experience - that in itself is valuable.

And even so: if all trace of Caravaggio were lost, save a series of careful photos: we might come to value them- differently, but highly- too.

Yes, I argued that very point in an earlier post. Cherchi Usai's contention in his Wellington presentation, however, was that in three hundred years time literally nothing would be left of a film like Citizen Kane, other than a wealth of critical material about it, and that the historians of the future would have to approach that text much in the way that we approach ancient Greek music - of which we know just about everything, except what it sounded like. It is of course an unprovable claim, and by and large the audience was sceptical I think.

ShareThis