29 mars 2007

Digital filmotheque of Alexandria

"Digitizing film ashes"

Following the recent debate around a universal cinema digital database started by 3 articles in the New York Times (March 18 2007) :
Later put into perspective with a reality check and some ethical questions :

"A screen is a screen is a screen" (Dargis)

From the consumer's POV, maybe, but from a critic I'd expect a little more subtlety in comparing a Kinetoscope, a theatre and an iPod...The miniaturization of the image causes obvious aesthetic issues that we can't just ignore because everybody else doesn't mind. If the audience only cares for stories, whatever size they come in, critics at least should defend the inherent properties of a projected image and the fine details on a panoramic screen.
I prefer to hear critics complain about how the frame composition of a widescreen movie was optimized to fit the 4/3 TV ratio. Do we want the film grammar to become iPod-complient with adjusted colors and extreme close ups to compensate the end-size loss?

There are 3 ways to look at the situation. The consumer, the producer and the historian perspectives. Each have their own desirs and limitations. They aren't quite compatible.

  1. The average consumer wants access to fashionable movies, here and now, and doesn't care about copyright infringement or the way of living of its makers, cost of the digital-transfer, scarcity of the print, perenity of the source, authenticity of the version (director's cut, censorship, bootleg, betrayal of translation), profitability of the transaction. The consumer is not stubborn, if the download is not accessible it's easier to click on another title that could be seen now. There is too much choice, too little time and the unicity of films doesn't stand out to them. Movies are interchangeable commodities.
    Not everyone in the world wants to see every films ever made, even if they are available and free!
  2. The producer (in a broad sense, including director, copyright holders and distributors, everyone with financial interest) follows the natural law of the market : demand and supply. Popularity makes profitability. They want to reach the masses, the mainstream taste and sell a product to the wider population even if it means adapting non-offensive material, P.C. cuts. They want to invest in what can pay back, and prefer to shelf an item that becomes too costly to maintain available to the public. They don't have a long term historical perspective, but the terms of their bank loans. Perennity of "out-dated" (non-marketable) sources is not their priority.
  3. The historian (archive, scholars, festivals, critics, filmmakers, cinephiles) doesn't care about availabilty to the public, or profitability of any given title, but unlike everyone else, they care about the survival of films, undiscriminatively. And if we let films decay and get lost we'll never have a universal cinemathèque...

The priority here is not universal access to a miniaturized digital version of every movies, because that's not even what consumers ask for. Kristin Thompson explains very well how this utopia is not only unpractical, but also unreachable.
The priority is to save original prints! It's no time for arguments... film stocks' lives are limited and original colors fade away quickly.

Oddly enough Dargis and Scott both embrace the consumer perspective, in a blissful and naive technological utopia, without considering films that will never be digitzed. Instead of complaining about the poor distribution of foreign and older films on american theatre screens (ruled by Hollywood hegemony : 95% of projections!), critics in the New York Times apparently prefer to speculate on whatever might become available on iPods... as if it was a society column about new behaviors rather than their take on the fate of cinema.
Kristin Thompson checks the feasability of the operation assuming the Producer's perspective.

I'd like to ignore consumerism and capitalism for a moment, and recall the invaluable mission of Henri Langlois.
The idea of a Cinémathèque, that seems natural today, was born in total illegality. Thanksfully Langlois identified the only rightful priority before it was too late. Regardless for copyrights, legitimacy, maintenance or restoration costs, he went for the urgency and saved, stole, bribed, deceived, exchanged, bought on the black market everything he could. Many key treasures of cinema history would be unknown and forgotten for ever had he respected the rules and waited for funds or a commercial viability. The reason I mention Langlois is because the digital stage of film history brings up the same problems he once faced.
Clearly the idea of a universal cinematheque shall not be put in the hands of the market or copy right holders. Public availability is minor issue. I don't care if I can't watch all films I want, here and now, as long as I know the masters are all in a safe place and that they will make film prints or digital versions become accessible one day, to me or my children and their children.
The history of cinema is over 100 years old and it's about time its preservation should be taken into consideration on a global scale, as a worldwide heritage! We lost too many originals already.
Just like architectural sites meaningful to humanity are protected worldwide by international laws (UNESCO), we need an international consensus and uniformization of regulations, control and formats to ensure, facilitate and optimize the preservation of a maximum of films across the globe.

The superior ethical question is to protect the source material. Only afterward could you contemplate the wonders of making it available at the click of a mouse... And I don't care much which format the majority of consumers will choose to watch them on. We can't stop the progress of technology, and we can't control the (bad) habits of new generations. The critic is there to set an example not to encourage the latest ephemeral and silly trends. The VHS came and went, leaving us with the same problem of film masters unchanged.

  • It's intolerable, in the face of art history, that studios have the final decision on keeping films on the shelf for ever.
  • It's intolerable that countries who can't afford a decent restoration would let their archive perish.
  • It's intolerable that films keep on dying every year despite the available technology to save them today.

What can be done about it?

6 commentaires:

HarryTuttle a dit…

At The Chutry Experiment, Chuck Tyron adds some links : The Whole Shebang of World Cinema...

HarryTuttle a dit…

'The Surviving History of Movies' At the Click of a Mouse? by Ryan Stewart. He refutes Thompson's counterargument, by filling the carefree shoes of the consumer who believes Studios provide for all his needs no matter what. AS if everything he'd want to see, the Studios would have thought of making them available already... I don't trust Studios as much. And it is a very limiting view of the global cinema offering, certainly someone who doesn't care about foreign/old/obscur films. "Movie-movies" WTF is that? The market defines what the majority is most likely to want to see en masse, but it doesn't adapt to individual tastes or to minority tendencies. Not to mention the idea that only the mass-oriented entertainment should be made available to the average viewer in an easily accessible format. Of course the history of cinema shall be considered as a whole, undiscriminatively. Or else it's someone imposing a certain biased taste onto mindless consumers...

HarryTuttle a dit…

A film is made to be projected, bigger than us. On TV they are only reproductions, because they are smaller than us.
We look up to the cinéma screen, we look down to the TV set.


HarryTuttle a dit…

Scorsese talks about the World Cinema Foundation, dedicated to do just that, restore and preserve film prints, especially in developping countries from the third world who can't afford to take care of this business.

Press Conference at Cannes 2007

What is sad is that individual viewers ganging together have to do it, because the powers that be, studio executives, right holders, governments don't do it themselves. What Scorsese achieves with his fame and money, should be ruled by international law and the expenses spread over right holders and governments as a cultural policy.

Cannes Classics is also doing a good job, since 2004, restoring some forgotten films every year, little by little.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Brewster Kahle (founder of the Internet Archive), gives a lecture at TED on "A Digital Library, free to the world" (Sept. 2008):

"Digitizing Moving Images. If you think of theatrical releases, they aren't that many. As best as we can tell there are about 150,000-200,000 movies ever that were made for wide theatrical distribution (half of them are Indian films). It's doable.
But we found only about a thousands of those that are out of copyright, so we digitized those, and made them available [Internet Archive: Movies].
But there is a lot of other types of movies that haven't seen the light of day: archival films, political films, amateur films... needing a home. so we started to make these available and it's going to be very popular. We're not quite like YouTube, but we think in the long term, so that people can re-use and make them into new movies."

HarryTuttle a dit…

"Politique des archives. European Cinema and the Invention of Tradition in the Digital Age" By: Vinzenz Hediger (Rouge)

"The archivist-historian-curator and the marketing campaign are direct competitors on the field of the production of knowledge about film history. They both turn archival holdings into programs, and they both produce – and suppress – knowledge that could and does inform viewer’s choices. It is a competition and a challenge that the archivist can only lose by not accepting."