Black Maria Essay Series

The Non-Decisive Moment We Find Ourselves In Is A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Of Perfect Narcissism

by Roddy Bogawa


With the digital has come the fatigue of our eyes worn out by the brightness pushed to the limits of monitors and digital projectors, images made more contrasty than the real world in which they were taken from. This was a world pre-figured by the Japanese friend of the narrator in Chris Markers Sans Soleil endlessly processing the world to a wash of color fields, now re-visited in Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language, whose lo-fi images can only land upon the faithful dog rolling playfully in the snow. That Godard doggedly (excuse the pun) still edits using linear technology achieving such complex relationships of sound/image and structures proves that the non-linear lies in one's thinking patterns and not the tools. The instantaneity at which these tools have invaded imagemaking is astounding and more so how unquestioningly they have been embraced without pause to study how they might have changed one's relation to creativity and thus the creation of meaning. The Nagra recorder, Steenbeck flatbed editing machine and Bolex, Arriflex and Aaton cameras had some aesthetic and mechanical relation to filmmaking and its craft-based process; that Final Cut Pro looks more like a poorly designed word processing program and that the "new" digital cine-cameras look like airplane black boxes reveal this shift. There no longer exists "dailies," "a cut." "Sculpting with light" is now replaced by the vocabulary of "codecs," "menus," and "raw data." That in music, we can buy a single song with the click of a mouse rather than a full LP not only changed our relationship to the music industry but also quickened its collapse but beyond the cannibalistic commercial elements of this, no one saw the loss of the artistry needed in crafting a "side one" and a "side two" or the physical joy of tracking a vinyl record to your friends. While 45rpm singles had always existed, the a-side was often backed by another song that often contained the more arty track, deemed too esoteric for inclusion on the album. That one's entire music collection can exist in the physical space of a cigarette pack or smaller speaks to our desire for instant gratification and convenience over objects manifesting work, time, and artistic effort literally taking up space in one's living room. Fast food culture dominates much of our daily decision-making in many aspects of the day to day but what does it mean when it crosses over into creativity?

For my last film on the British graphic designer, Storm Thorgerson, one of his mantras in the creation of his iconic imagery (Pink Floyd's DARK SIDE OF THE MOON and HOUSES OF THE HOLY for Led Zeppelin among hundreds of others) was to "do it for real" and I believe one of the reasons he cracked the door open to me was the fact that I mentioned I was going to be shooting on 16mm film. I remember his wry smile when he said, "Not HD?" and the self imposed limitation of finite shooting led to interesting exchanges with many of the musicians I interviewed as the production went on. David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, a camera buff, recognizing the Arriflex SR 2, said "people used to shoot us with those" and went to another room returning dressed in a leather jacket. Robert Plant was astounded when I told him I had only brought two cans of film meaning we had eleven minutes of shooting time and said "So Roddy, you only want diamonds out of me." It was an invaluable lesson in the preciousness of eleven minute building blocks, breaks in time while reloading the camera, forcing myself and the film's subjects to spend more time discussing ideas within the film before and between rolling the camera getting to know one another on a completely different level. I came away from the project with a renewed love of filmmaking in all its quirks. For full disclosure, the film was edited on a computer based system that was to be the first feature length project I would complete digitally and I would constantly discover other strange characteristics in adjusting to this methodology. I forced myself to make logs but I was baffled by the invisibility of the material into digital clips within manila folder icons. While you could not see shots in film dailies and rolls with traditional editing, there was a physical presence of the camera rolls in boxes, labeled and on shelves. I felt a disconnect to the project that I had never felt before. It was extremely difficult to get a sense of the timing of the overall structure of the film's ninety minutes and I found myself having to output the film to DVD and project it in a screening room to regain a temporal relationship to rhythms of scenes. There rapidly developed a new hierarchy of decision-making, one that privileged the "let's just try it out" approach rather than reasoning through each picture cut. The so-called advantage of "speed" touted on all fronts revealed itself as a "two steps forwards, three steps backwards" methodology and I combated this impulse with red wine. Perhaps what I will miss most is the physical space once inhabited by film editing  that is, your eyes having to train on the viewing screen, then looking down at the actual frame to mark a cut, then having to rewind the film and pull the slack to cut and then tape the shots together  which gave oneself an undeniable physical back and forth between eyes, hands and body now completely lost by the computer monitor gaze and mouse click or key command. This is a radically different creative space, one in which results trump process, quickness over rationale and in many ways intuitively feels wrong to such a critical step in filmmaking. As with how the new approach in shooting high resolution digital images asks for a "washed out, unsaturated" image to allow the most options in color correction and manipulation, I find this an insult to the approach of creating contrast, texture or color rendition through lighting techniques and film emulsion choices.

I try not to be nostalgic in filmmaking as with other aspects of my life but when tools become the mode of expression rather than the methods of expression, perhaps this is when the lines should be drawn or at least questioned. One forgets that George Lucas piloted all the camera developments with Sony chip technology in response to how crappy the computer generated characters looked laid atop 35mm filmed images and cleverly realized if it was all digital, then the seams wouldn't show as much. One must see that there is an unfathomable divide between the "camera-less" experimental films of Stan Brakhage or David Gatten's What The Water Said and James Cameron's nearly camera-less Avatar in both intentionality and conceptual trajectory. There are pockets of resistance even from the center of the film industry  Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarentino being two of the most outspoken  and before that Stephen Speilberg who long ago remarked he would "shoot film until the last lab closed down." There are new boutique theater chains sprouting up against all odds promising the "experience" of seeing films projected in 35mm rather than digital projection along with the persistence of the micro cinema circuit and each year in a parallel universe there is an article about the resurgence of vinyl record sales and pressing.

Not long ago, I walked past someone who was talking on his cell phone and as another guy walked by talking on his phone started waving and reaching out to him without stopping his conversation. Both furtively grabbed each other's arm though not missing a word of either's conversation. Take a look around. There's a whole entire world out there.

Look up from your gizmo.