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:


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.