Straight to film: can video cut it on the big screen?

Straight to film: can video cut it on the big screen?

Gavin Smith

Can video cut it on the big screen? The pros and cons of tape to film and the video-ization of the movies.

“The great hope is that now with these little 8mm video recorders … one day some little girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart and make a wonderful movie,” pontificates Francis Coppola in Hearts of Darkness, the 1991 documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now. Even as he spoke, American avant-garde film had admitted to its pantheon Sadie Benning — a teenager from Milwaukee who used a low-resolution Fisher-Price PixelVision videocamera to explore her inner world.

Echoing the domestication of video in the past dozen years — the assimilation of the VCR and the camcorder into daily fife — mainstream cinema was quick to make room for video in its visual vocabulary. Video surveillance, secondary characters with camcorders, and cutaways to camera-viewfinder POVS have become a reflexive plot accessory/stylistic device, from Get On the Bus back to Down and Out in Beverly Hills. While the unsurpassed primary text remains David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, Greater Hollywood waited until sex lies and videotape to anoint the second coming of the home movie. Since then, cinema has embraced video as the “capturing device” of our age, surpassing the unfulfilled promise of Super-8 a generation earlier. If there is a hidden agenda in movie promotion of the debatable idea of video’s penetration and restructuring of all spheres of our lives, it may lie in its successful subordination of video to its own economic imperatives: video has gone from being an ancillary revenue stream to Hollywood’s revenue base — it’s not b.o. that counts now, it’s units.

But remember the ad copy for Larry Cohen’s The Stufi: “Are you eating it — or is it eating you?” While Hollywood exploited video’s economic possibilities, video staged aesthetic coups d’etat. Video’s most profound implication for the movies is the demystification and annexation of control that the VCR represents. What was onee overpowering and unstoppable now obeys the viewer’s PAUSE, REVIEW, and STOP controls. Sublimating its hostility, Hollywood now makes its blockbuster action/SPFX flicks for the VCR. The escalation of EPM (edits per minute) and the ever more frenetic, attenuated, and incoherent construction of spectacle — appreciable in the mere year separating The Rock and Con Air — seem designed to satisfy freeze-frame and slo-mo connoisseurship. Consolidating this aesthetic takeover, video technology has captured two key levers of the filmmaking process. Filmmakers have been directing from behind video assist monitors for nearly 15 years now — even during shooting they’re video spectators. And the switch to nonlinear digital editing has accelerated the postproduction process at the expense of considered editorial decisionmaking. More crucially, edit-intensive cutting — formerly a painstaking process not embarked on lightly — is now child’s play, and indiscriminately deployed. More and more films appear to be cut by people trained at videogame consoles.

Yet for now video remains film’s visual inferior: it cannot equal 35mm resolution, and in particular there are still problems with both onscreen and camera motion blur (known as strobing) that are inherited in the transfer from 30 fps to 24 fps. But film also has, for lack of a better term, a moral problem with video, which is admitted to movie territory mostly as an inferior, suspect Other. Certainly film’s rapid surrender of the pornography sector to video in the early years of homevideo’s emergence conveniently tainted the upstart medium. In the movies, video is implicitly impure or impersonal at best; more usually, it connotes the sinister insidiousness of surveillance, the banality of TV, or generic estrangement/voyeurism/malevolence, as in Lost Highway.

“My love for you is impossible to show on screen,” affirms French writer-director Alain Cavalier to his lover in La Rencontre, a highlight of this year’s San Francisco Film Festival. This unique film merges essay, diary, and personal documentary in an attempt to disprove that observation — and its first act is to abandon film for video. Shot in Hi8, edited on video, and then transferred to 35mm, it’s an album of intensely subjective images linked by voiceover observations, confidences, and exchanges between Cavalier and his unnamed lover. Rather than chronicle the development of the relationship, Cavalier attempts to capture the renewed awareness and sensory wonder that romantic involvement spurs — and the antisocial impulse it harbors.

His method is rooted in the devoted scrutiny of a succession of still-life tableaux consisting of small, commonplace objects and details — a pebble, a leaf, a fish, a dead bird, a key, a dissolving aspirin, a pine cone — which constitute a private language or iconography. The viewer is not furnished with a translation, a way of decoding and extracting the personal associations that underwrite any image. La Rencontre is visualized and structured around the denial and exclusion of the outside world and its replacement with a private realm of contemplation and privileged objects and spaces. Never fully onscreen, Cavalier and his lover exist as disembodied voices and fleeting physical fragments — hands, feet, etc. Yet even as it pursues the ineffable, La Rencontre voices doubts and reservations: “If people see [the film], it won’t be ours anymore. the woman objects.

If this conceit never quite succumbs to its own preciousness, it’s because Cavalier pursues it with absolute commitment and discipline; its rigor redeems it from self-indulgence. And as the originating format, video reinforces this: Cavalier uses its cooler, more impersonal affect to counter the potentially smothering intimism of the material. The video image’s weightless translucence and discreet inertia, and the camcorder’s self-effacing camera-stylo simplicity fit naturally with the ascetic-yet-lyrical minimalism of Cavalier’s compositions. Even the camcorder’s (at times visibly fluctuating) auto exposure evokes the evanescence and instability of emotional ebb and flow. Where mainstream narrative film implicitly views video as a debased medium, in La Rencontre it has never seemed as pure.

The standard process for transferring video to film is kinescope (telecine is the reverse). Now quite common in visually functional documentary, most notably Hoop Dreams and Visions of Light, it has also been successful in experimental work like Derek Jarman’s staggering, trailblazing 1987 The Last of England (which transferred Super-8 to one-inch video for editing and treatment and then back onto 35mm) and Michael Almereyda’s delightful PixelVision featurette Another Girl Another Planet. Recently there has been a mini-wave of tape-to-film features, ranging from the inept, self-satisfied would-be cult digital video film Love God to Rob Nilsson’s brooding, visually striking, post-Cassavetes pool hall redemption drama Chalk. Underscoring the fact that video isn’t a substitute for film, La Rencontre is transferred through rephotography — a less orthodox, more experimental method. In rephotography, the edited video is played on a TV monitor and reframed and filmed directly off the screen in 35mm at 30 frames per second. The most notable recent example is German filmmaker Fred Keleman’s Hi8 long-take doomfest Fate, a neo-direct cinema study in cultural dispossession and urban abjection.

Where kinescoped video’s “clean,” transparent transfer would mask the fundamental irreconcilability of the chemistry of film and the electronics of video, rephotographed video by contrast accentuates their differences, stressing the visible pictorial surface of the TV screen with its kinetic pixel texture. (Again, video’s fixed pixel grid is antithetical to film’s unfixed grain field.) By rephotographing La Rencontre, Cavalier affirms that what we are watching is more than TV yet less than film — an intermediate form with its own aesthetic autonomy.

Lars Von Trier’s enigmatic ventures into transmedia processing seem motivated more by an interest in pure texture experimentation. His 1988 made-for-TV Medea (or should it be called Media?) was shot and edited on video, rephotographed off a TV monitor on 16mm and then transferred back to video again (the completed work only exists in tape format). The resultant grainy, washed out texture degradation suggests an archaic, pre-technological visual idiom. Conversely, Breaking the Waves’s film/video fusion — 35mm Panavision telecined to video for color desaturation, then kinescoped back to 35mm, acquiring video pixilation in the process — is tenuously explicable as hitech cinema verite.

If film tends to enlarge real life into a movie, does video by the same token reduce it to TV? Can that reduction be overcome by tape-to-film upscaling? Does one medium subordinate the other? The merits of the work come into play here. Compare Shane Meadows’s Small Time, an unassuming micro-budget English film shot on video, and Chris Marker’s Level Five (also at the SFIFF). Small Time is Laws of Gravity via Mike Leigh — a loose, idiosyncratic ensemble comedy set in Nottingham about a gang of petty thieves and their wives. Mixing desultory naturalism and sharply observed parody, this affectionate spoof of Nineties English Lad culture underlines the gap between fantasies of criminality and the mundanity of English life. Shot in an offhand, knockabout style, its low-budget pragmatism carries it “beyond” video’s limits. By contrast, the much-anticipated Level Five, the latest addition to the secret history of modernity that is Marker’s overarching project, is sketchy and riddled with redundancy — a problem in a work predicated on information overload. An interesting 40-minute essay is inflated to a monotonous near-two hours via an enervating narrative framework featuring a female videogame designer’s hazily-defined Dantean cyberquest to make sense of repressed history — namely the mass suicide of Japanese civilians on Okinawa prior to the invasion of U.S. forces. Memory is Marker’s great subject, but this conjunction of fascinating WWII history, oppressive digital legerdemain, and increasingly tedious cyber protocol (computers are, after all, memory machines) is at once overwrought and half-baked. Perhaps entropy is Marker’s point, but this time his vision is impoverished by and doesn’t “transcend” the visual and conceptual compression of video and computer-generated imagery.

There’s a certain subliminal optical tension or unease latent in video on film, as there is in digitally sourced film imagery — the soothing flicker of 24 fps doesn’t neutralize the hard, unyielding electronic glare of video. I’m not sure why in some cases this remains dormant and in others flares into eye-ache-inducing malignancy as in Level Five. At the risk of retreating into superstition and essentialism: only film carries the imprint of the real, the filmed object, in its form. In film, light becomes chemistry; in video it becomes an electronic signal, an analog of the recorded object rather than a direct impression of it. And where the absence of film is a comforting darkness, the absence of video is the snowstorm chaos known as “noise.” With digital imagery it’s even more removed; those dinosaurs consist of 0s and 1s in complex arrangements with no origin in external actuality to make its likeness faithful, to keep it honest, if you like. (Neil Young uses the same argument in favoring the vinyl record over the compact disc.) Perhaps that’s why CG! feels so soulless and unsatisfying after the initial frisson of spectacle has passed — it’s simulation born in a sensory void. Mathematics and music are close kin, but the math of digital seems light years from Mozart.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Film Society of Lincoln Center

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