Don’t Kill The Carrier Part 1 — The Digital Dilemma Is A Communication Problem Not A Format Problem

December 1, 2011

My first experience with 16mm home projection was during a sleepover at a classmate’s home. I was 7 and at the time in a private school in southern Oregon, which meant my classmate A) either lived in town or in an even smaller town somewhere within a 50 mile radius (it was the latter), and B) that his parents were either overly strict, religious, or anti-authoritarian (it was primarily the latter). For those of you not from the West Coast, this type of anti-authoritarianism tends to manifest on a broad continuum, with the peacelovehippies on one end, the Manson hippies on the other, and bulk represented in the middle by more of a Bakersfield/Five Easy Pieces kind of vibe.

Of course segments of these types mix together in contradictory ways. At my classmate’s house we were forbidden from watching Three’s Company because it was too racy, we went to a natural food store for snacks made from various puffed or toasted grains (after sneaking some Nerds and Bottle Caps on our way from the bus to his home), and we spent the evening watching 16mm educational films because his father worked for a distributor and could get a projector and films for free.

So my associative experience with 16mm film projection? Some combination of awe over moon landings, malnourishment (70s health food was a much different [soy-based] beast than what is available today), and primarily discomfort and slight concerns over my safety in case I made a reference to Loni Anderson or Soap. In my mind, viewing a film film in a non-theatrical venue equates to nervousness, low level fear, and hunger.

What, then, does this mean in terms of the format? Nothing, really. 16mm is not inherently Manson-like (8mm, perhaps), but these are my emotional attachments to the viewing experience. This is nothing against the format or the filmic experience — my next 16mm viewing came 20 some odd years later on a Brooklyn rooftop, discussing the deep magenta tone of a NYPL print of On The Town in between reel changes with my NYU archiving cohorts. There was probably a similar degree of fear and hunger involved, but, overall, a rather different experience than the earlier one.

Between these endpoints, my primary interactions with Cinema were the multiplex, television, home video, and TV/VCR combos rolled into classrooms. My film classes at two universities before NYU utilized projected VHS tapes, either from the library, Blockbuster, or dubbed from TV. Despite my chosen career and the obvious aesthetic qualities of film, my life and the lives of the bulk of people I know have to make me assume that over the past 30 years these types of experiences with movies are more representative of the broader culture than actual film projection.

And it is exactly these points of personal experience and aestheticism where the film-as-film preservation argument runs into the first of many impediments — not due to a question of quality but a question of how we communicate across a broad audience. We can write touching paeans about our personal attachment to film or create masterful homages to certain styles or periods in cinematic history, but in the end we have to consider whether these great enlightenment sermons are converting souls or just creating an emotional buzz for ourselves, whether they push ideas ahead or are more like resigned obituaries looking to reify the past ere it dissipates forever.

We also have to consider that media archiving and preservation extend well beyond motion picture film. Within the past 20-30 years how much content has been created on video as opposed to film? And what of audio? These media types do not have a viable long term format to migrate to outside of the digital realm, and many of them are already born digital. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves if a fundamental rejection of digital preservation and the work needed to establish archival methodologies in favor of film is ultimately detrimental to the preservation needs of non-film materials as well as the presentation needs of existing digital cinema.

The personal narrative can be an effective rhetorical angle, but it is not the entire argument. In order to more successfully advocate for the importance of media archiving and preservation we need to acknowledge that the unreceptive do not typically travel the Damascan road. Within the humanities, critical arguments based on the appreciation of all that is sweetness and light are valid but limited lines of reasoning. Limited because aesthetic arguments tend to be easily dismissed by those not of like mind or similar background as mere opinion or too soft, but also limited because it does not take full advantage of the skills a humanities education provides: analysis, questioning, interpretation, empathy, awareness of audience, historical perspective, and more.

As with all formats, the risks associated with digital media and its material differences from film are real and definable. The way those risks and differences are communicated — both in terms of creating awareness and establishing means of dealing with them — will greatly affect our ability to deal with the challenges and to gather the resources we need to do so.

Next: Don’t Kill the Carrier Part the Second: The Digital Dilemma is a Resource Problem not a Format Problem

—¬†Joshua Ranger