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Tuesday, October 16, 2001

Digital Video Blues Pt. 1

By Kevin John

I recently saw a videotape copy of Barbet Schroeder's new film, "Our Lady of the Assassins," and I hated it.

Now I wanted to start my column with this sentence, because I deliberately packed it with several fluid meanings. For one, did I hate the film or did I hate the videotape? Or did I hate the film because I saw it on videotape? I've long suffered condemnations for watching films on video, much of it from the privileged position of festival hoppers, programmers, critics or just plain folks who live in a metropolis with a vibrant film culture. But do these condemnations hold when the film was shot on digital video, as "Our Lady of the Assassins" was?

Of course, the fluid meaning in that last sentence is the problem of even calling "Our Lady of the Assassins" a film. Had I seen it in a theatre, where it would have been necessarily transferred to film (although even that's changing with the installation of video projectors in theatres), I probably would not have known that it was shot on digital video, just like I didn't know "Chuck and Buck" was shot on digital video before I looked at the press kit. That goes for most filmgoers, including many critics, as well — by most outward appearances and institutional settings, "Our Lady of the Assassins" is a film. But on video, there's no mistaking it for a film, and I'm here to say that the difference between the two experiences is greater than the worst pan-and-scan video of a "real" film.

For some reason, that crisp, loss-of-depth quality of digital video didn't bother me when I saw "Chuck and Buck" on video a couple of months after seeing it on the big screen, most likely because the camera's itchy proximity to the characters suits digitization. But just two minutes into the "Our Lady of the Assassins video," I felt like I was watching "Masterpiece Theatre," and could barely stand it. Perhaps I need to adjust my appreciation of "Masterpiece Theatre" and other televisual forms. But those are televisual forms — they don't even travel within the socioeconomic framework of film the way "Our Lady of the Assassins" does. Whatever the case, I started to feel like one of those cultural reactionaries I long since dismissed the anti-film-on-video clan as.

As should be clear by now, I'm not concerned here with the specifics of "Our Lady of the Assassins"; I'm sure I would have found it dreary on the big screen as well, although I reluctantly intend to test this theory soon. What I find so fascinating is that my experience with it dramatizes the current dilemma of the work of film art in the age of digital reproduction. Popular music has been dealing with something similar since the '80s, and its meanings have only gotten more tangled with the advent of Napster. But since I'm going to switch my focus to a recent crop of experimental digital videos to illuminate the implications of all this for film, I'd like to bracket off that analysis until next column.

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