Analog Senses in a Digital World:

Between Futile Nostalgia and Weary

Optimism at True False 2012

By Gerald Sim

For a time, it seemed popular and fashionable to proclaim the “end of cinema.” During the last two decades, there appeared ample cause to feel that way. We did not merely sense the death of art and the rise of commerce in its place. With each digital incursion into various phases of filmmaking and exhibition, changes arrived that rendered the form unrecognizable to some. But despite their nostalgic pessimism, others are eager to embrace the inevitable. Notions of epochal change like this litter film history and criticism. In 2012, this tension was a structural presence at the True/False Film Festival.

While the sun set on the fourth and final day of the event, Russian director Victor Kossakovsky declared, “people should stop making movies!” Answering questions after a screening of his magisterial film, ¡Vivan las Antipodas! (DE/NL/AR/CL, 2011), the soft-spoken filmmaker’s exhortation silenced his audience. For a few beats, they grappled with the irony that the recipient of the only prize at True/False – the True Vision Award recognizing non-fiction artists in mid-career – would say such a thing. They had just beheld his thoroughly cinematic observation of life at four pairs of antipodes, which are diametrically opposed points on the Earth. Then, Kossakovsky clarified that his injunction was aimed at what cheaper cameras and consumer-oriented editing software have wrought. “Just because you have a pen doesn’t make you Dostoevsky. Everyone who has a camera thinks they’re a filmmaker.” Voicing despair over YouTube’s appetite for cat videos as compared to the paltry market for visionary films, he continued, “there are just too many [films] and we’ll kill it if we don’t stop.”

Kossakovsky personified one extreme of the event’s aesthetic divide, representing the case for auteurist vision, humanism, and tradition, against the hordes for digital populism, crowdsourcing, and new media. If he were familiar with the vociferous debate between Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin within the Frankfurt School over the merits of popular culture, he would unquestionably side with the former. And by granting Kossakovsky its True Vision award, and one of his screenings the exclusive privilege of 35mm projection, True/False would seem to agree. The reverential tones with which festival co-directors David Wilson and Paul Sturtz also spoke about the beauty of cinematographic labors like Low and Clear (Kahlil Hudson and Tyler Hughen, US/CA, 2012) further demonstrate this commitment. During a prologue for that film, Wilson made a point of stating that he considers images like these, one of cinema’s defining joys.

In that context however, the festival’s ready embrace of other films’ new media aesthetics felt rather uneasy if not vexing. I point this out with neither intention nor need to demand consistency. Inclusiveness has been a consistent strength of the True/False programs. Yet from another point of view, the slate placed attendees at the turning point of social, political, and aesthetic changes.

By any measure, ¡Vivan las Antipodas! meets its director’s criteria for filmmaking. Films are only worthwhile, he argues, if they arise out of unique ideas and visions. From a basic premise of crosscutting between antipodes, Kossakovsky’s ambitious canvas takes in the entire planet’s cultural and geographic diversity. His camera traverses the distance between Argentina and China, Spain and New Zealand, Chile and Russia, and Botswana and Hawaii. To convey that they are antipodes, he relies on one grand transitional device. It first appears as he cuts from Entre Ríos, Argentina, to its antipode in Shanghai, China. Kossakovsky frames the pair of locations in a split screen as mirror images on either side of a horizon, then gradually rotates it 180 degrees. Executed with widescreen compositions, the gesture overwhelms with its simplicity, marrying geographical topography with its cinematic counterpart. Without narrative apart from these comparative observations while facilitated by a multicultural soundtrack, the montage of geographical and cultural variety projects oneness, and creates intimacy with long shots and long takes. ¡Vivan las Antipodas! elicited unsurprising comparisons to Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass’s collaboration on the Qatsi trilogy (Reggio, US, 1982-2002), but the association is limited because Kossakovsky seeks to thematize unity, rather than alienation.

Similarly, Low and Clear will most immediately remind many of A River Runs Through It (Robert Redford, US, 1992) because it shares subject matter and style with the Hollywood film. The documentary tells the story of two opposite personalities with little in common but a friendship and passion for fly-fishing. It promises and delivers requisite panoramas of isolated figures dwarfed by northwestern landscapes, balanced vertically by swaths of earth, sea, and sky. Filmmakers Hudsen and Hughen admitted to deriving their vocabulary from Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt, US, 2006) – both films chart interpersonal conflict with patient and vibrant photography.

On Kossakovsky, Hudsen and Hughen’s stylistic antipode stood three films that make separate pushes to integrate new media artifacts into traditional cinema: ½ Revolution (Karim El Hakim and Omar Shargawi, DK, 2011), Me @ the Zoo (Chris Moukarbel and Valerie Veatch, US, 2012), and V/H/S (Adam Wingard et al, US, 2012). The most compelling justification came from ½ Revolution, an on-site document of 2011’s Arab Spring, from the ground at Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Narratively, the filmmakers combine their personal stories with journalistic ventures outdoors, just as visually, they pepper digital footage with cellphone camerawork. The imperfections of the latter technology’s visual and audio signatures relay immediacy and veracity, which consequently energize the scenes indoors where the protagonists reflect in relative safety about Egypt’s social structure and political future.

In the face of real violence and events of such consequence, it feels frivolous to dwell on aesthetics, but I can purport to take Variety’s lead. The magazine’s review states that the film “resembles an indie action-thriller, with its creators as the embattled heroes.”[i] In that regard, the authenticity of ½ Revolution becomes mediated by the sinking feeling that we have seen this movie before. If or when the film triggers flashbacks to the handheld frenzy of the horror-action flick Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, US, 2008), the expositional conversations about Egyptian politics take on a regrettable veneer of staginess. Still, a purely verité film without the dialogue in these scenes to help frame the violent emotions outside in context, would be both ahistorical and less accessible. As such, they are symbiotic.

From almost another world, Me @ the Zoo expresses slightly different yearnings to be understood and liked. The portrait of YouTube personality Chris Crocker, the Britney Spears fan who uploaded an impassioned defense of the pop singer in the infamous “Leave Britney Alone!” video, was part character study and part ethnography of celebrity culture. It reveals Crocker’s domestic challenges and his vain attempts to establish careers in music and reality television. The reflexive premise of going “behind-the-video” by stitching together clips of the subject’s vlogs aspire to an ambitious statement about social media’s place in our personal and collective memories. But ultimately, Crocker’s futility is matched by the film’s inability to grow beyond simulacral pastiche; it does seem that one can only spend so much time watching YouTube videos.

Rounding out the new media triumvirate is V/H/S, a set of faux “found footage” horror shorts that perplexingly found its way onto the schedule of a documentary festival. A True/False representative introducing the work trumpeted one segment’s use of Skype conversations as a maneuver that advances film language. It consists of a series of shot-reverse shots ostensibly provided by the video-chat application. The festival program pushes the line that “some imaginatively re-created found footage and home movies… open up new terrain for those who work in the real stuff.” But these oversold claims remain inscrutable, partly because the warmed-over scares prevent the Skype device from rising above gimmickry.

The bifurcation between celluloid-inspired traditionalists and new media Turks, visibly represented this year by these films, brings to mind the buzz-worthy film from last year’s festival, the Ridley Scott-YouTube collaboration, Life in a Day (Kevin Macdonald, US, 2011). That film captured one specific day in the summer of 2010 by soliciting videos clips from the website’s users. The resultant feature-length collage was harvested from 80,000 submissions totaling 4500 hours of footage. Although it is paced as frenetically as one would expect, it shares its epic scale and unifying humanism with ¡Vivan las Antipodas! Those qualities enable it to transcend YouTube’s frequently caricatured inanity of feline pianists, pratfalls, and narcissistic vlogging. Therefore, Life in Day emits a glimmer of hope that new media can defy Kossakovsky’s prognostications of the end of cinema. On current evidence, the jury is still out.

In her analysis of how digital animation has affected film style, Kristen Whissel discusses the increasing frequency with which contemporary cinema stages dynamic conflicts along the vertical axis, and composes spectacles depicting “digital multitudes.”[ii] More relevantly, she posits that these formal innovations resonate with an audience confronted with a new geopolitical reality increasingly defined by economic polarization as well as political, religious, and military extremism. By casting that interrelationship between film technology, aesthetics, and epochal changes in the material world, Whissel thereby encourages us to unearth similar referents. To wit, the bipolar character of this year’s curation does indeed bespeak historical shifts.

We lie at a juncture between old and new economies. If, from an American perspective, one marks the start of this shift with the decimation of the domestic manufacturing base, or with China’s entrance into world markets, then we stand at the latter stages of this transition. Cinema’s digital revolution, in all aspects, is also close to completion. Both of these historical movements evoke eerily similar mixtures of futile nostalgia for a glorious past, and weary despair towards an inexorable future. Particularly, as America deals with the economic issues and its attendant emotions, cultural and political discourse have landed its focus on Detroit. The automobile capital of the United States is prominent not merely as a place, but as an idea. When industry struggles led to blight, Detroit became culturally associated with economic collapse. In the movies, “Detroit” signifies a violent urban jungle of mythical proportions.

The strength of that iconography however, now coexists with the narrative of a successful auto-bailout, and the impression of a city that is coming back against globalization. For two successive years, Chrysler has released the most talked about Super Bowl commercial, first with rapper Eminem and then with American film icon Clint Eastwood, who famously declared, “it’s halftime in America” – not “Detroit” but “America,” proving that the city now speaks for more than just itself. The ads attempt to convert the city’s affirmatively resilient character into a fetish for product. When cable news subsequently waged frivolous and partisan debates over Eastwood’s politics, the furor sidestepped questions about whether Detroit is indeed resurgent. And with those high-concept spots fresh and barely weeks old in memory, Detropia (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, US, 2012) provided meditative counter-programming at True/False.

The film bills itself as a work that “sculpts a dreamlike collage of a grand city”[iii] – simultaneously ode and eulogy. Detroit’s affectionately photographed milieu is indeed so enthralling and vivid, as to possibly invite charges of aestheticizing decay. Ironically, Detropia itself criticizes tourists who literally slum for a look at so-called poverty porn. These are perhaps ironies that inflect the filmmakers’ sense of Detroiters as a bunch valiant enough to live in socio-economic limbo. The only thing clearer than the population’s sheer fortitude is the rudeness of post-industrialism’s undeniable reality.

Detropia arguably left a phenomenological imprint deep enough to envelope other films. Virtually and spatially, it colonized the uplifting crowd-pleaser, Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, SE/UK, 2012), about musician Sixto Rodriguez, an obscure Mexican-American Detroiter whose political brand of sixties-era rock ‘n’ roll bombed domestically but found cult status in South Africa. Following a barely concealed plot twist, the film lands in the singer’s hometown. After decades in anonymity, middle-aged Rodriguez meets stadia-full of loving audiences, but forsakes those riches to remain a laborer in Detroit. With Detropia still flickering in my mind, it was difficult to think that Rodriguez could have been found traipsing anywhere else.

“Detroit is an analog city in a digital world,” co-director Heidi Ewing said in answering a question about the city’s structural challenges. The evocative statement is a striking assessment of much more. When the audience applauded Sixto Rodriguez’s rejection of material wealth, they deemed his principles heroic. The sentiment resembles general valorizations of the dying middle-class, and quite possibly, the veneration of cinema aesthetics as we knew them. As Whissel might suggest, these strains of nostalgia are intertwined.

These sparring emotions are further reified in a pair of documentaries about China, The Vanishing Spring Light (Xun Yu, CA/CN, 2011) and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (Alison Klayman, US, 2011). The former, an ethnographic work about the final days of a 75 year-old matriarch who lived in the Sichuan Province, stands astride old and new China. It tracks the post-stroke deterioration of the old lady’s health in three acts: where she is still mobile and lucid, then bedridden, and finally her funeral. Yu does not foster empathy in his observations, preferring (as his English title suggests) to build a metaphor about the passage of time. The woman’s demise occurs under the specter of globalization; the government is gentrifying her neighborhood. Therefore, The Vanishing Spring Light’s record of the quotidian and eventually, funereal rituals shoulder double significations. When concrete and steel replace these streets, and these cultural practices are consigned, temporal touchstones like mourning might not be spared either. Unfortunately, even the eponymous artist Ai Weiwei appears unwilling or unable to resist. Klayman’s profile of the famous activist, in parts biography and professional retrospective, offers only temporary delight. Ai’s counter-hegemonic subversions of the Chinese state offer vicarious thrills, but by the end of the film, for reasons left unclear, even he capitulates.

Finally, from a cultural antipode even if not a precisely geographical one, Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Abendland (AT, 2011) visits the interstices between old and new, in a sense literally. His non-narrative essay of present-day Europe’s more unglamorous nodes, discovers a region that has further militarized its borders at a time when neoliberalism champions the effacement of those very boundaries. As with ¡Vivan las Antipodas!, the audience drew expected but overly obvious comparisons to the Qatsi trilogy. But Geyrhalter’s view goes deeper. His eschewal of musical scoring magnifies his visuals’ cold and impersonal affectation. The images have no time for nostalgia, and confront viewers with a world without affection. Geyrhalter threads a trajectory through prominently placed video technology in his shots – modern surveillance equipment, webcams, and live television. The iconography charts the replacement of one visual regime with another, and keenly invites an application of Paul Virilio’s evocative screed, “The Visual Crash.”[iv] It is beyond my current purview to elaborate, except to say that Geyrhalter and Virilio’s insights into space, time, and visuality resonate loudly. And since Virilio emphasizes the centrality of sight to how the world moves towards universal immediacy and proximity, it was only a matter of time before a cinematic companion materialized. Abendland is exceedingly more ambitious than the filmmaker’s most famous film to date, Our Daily Bread (DE/AT, 2005), and marginally more mobile. It is in fact Geyrhalter’s new willingness to move his camera that spatializes the film’s conception of time. This is a monumental work.

In conclusion, there were more films I saw that weekend that would have expanded on my reflections above. I am forbidden from mentioning these color-coded “Secret Screenings” because True/False maintains a strict media blackout on these titles. The policy was installed in deference to more prestigious venues with eligibility rules designed to maintain their exclusivity. It is ostensibly how the relatively young Midwestern festival has been able to exhibit in-demand works. As its stature grows – it is already a filmmakers’ favorite, and screened almost 40 features and half as many shorts this year – True/False might be well served to assert that standing. If nothing else, it would mirror the 2012 program’s collective acknowledgement of an inevitable future.

NOTES

[i] Simon, Alissa. “1/2 Revolution.” Variety 425, no.7 (Jan. 2, 2012): 22.

[ii] Kristen Whissel, “The Digital Multitude,” Cinema Journal 49, no. 4 (Summer 2010): 90-110, and “Tales of Upward Mobility: The New Verticality and Digital Special Effects,” Film Quarterly 59, no. 4 (Summer 2006): 23-34.

[iii] “Synopsis.” Official Website for Detropia. (2012) <http://detropiathefilm.com/synopsis.html> Accessed May 18, 2012.

[iv] Virilio, Paul. “The Visual Crash.” In Ctrl [space]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother, ed. Thomas Y. Levin, Ursula Frohne, and Peter Weibel. (Karlsruhe, Germany: ZKM Center for Art and Media, 2002: 108-13.

Biography

Gerald Sim is assistant professor of film studies at Florida Atlantic University. He has published recent essays on CNBC personality Jim Cramer in Rethinking Marxism, and on the history of digital cinematography in Projections. He thanks the Morrow Fund Endowment for its support of this work.