As film studies goes digital

Cans o Film, by Atomic Jeep
"Cans o Film," by Atomic Jeep

I don’t think it’s any secret (among those who care about such things) that the Film Studies program at Yale is at something of a crossroads. Film studies as a discipline has been increasingly turning into media studies, and Yale’s program, like a lot of programs, is having to decide how much it wants to participate in that shift. It’s been fascinating to be in the middle of this. There are strong opinions on both sides of the debate, but what I’ve really enjoyed is the fact that it hasn’t gotten personal, at least as far as I can tell; it’s a genuine intellectual debate about where film studies should go.

Where do I stand? Well, I’ll say this: film studies has given me a lot. Sometimes I’ll emerge from a discussion of Hitchcock or Truffaut marveling that I’ll never think about those filmmakers the same way again. And then I’ll go home and sit slack-jawed in front of my computer for hours on end, like I do every day. When I remember to come up for air, it’ll occur to me what a shame it is that we can’t turn that arsenal of analysis toward the technologies that define a large portion of my life.

I had to fill out an application recently that asked for a 600-word essay on how new technology has affected my discipline. Once I started writing, I was surprised by how much I had to say. So here’s what I wrote about film studies.

Digitization has, in certain ways, come to mean that films are available more easily and in greater number than ever before. Current film students are often bemused by older film scholarship, whose authors explain that their descriptions of film scenes are limited by memory. This is rarely an issue for today’s film scholars, who can almost always obtain a copy of a work in some form. Film’s new availability can be a real blessing for close reading: scholars can play scenes over and over, slow them down, and freeze them. They can compile large film libraries on their own hard drives and pull up relevant scenes at will.

For teachers, too, film’s digital proliferation can make life much easier. Instructors can put entire films online for their students. Easy-to-use editing software makes it simple for instructors to enliven lectures by including film clips in PowerPoint presentations. I once embedded a QuickTime clip in a PowerPoint presentation and played it on a SmartBoard, allowing me to mark up the scene as it progressed, like a football play-by-play.

But part of the reason I love studying film is that it gives us the tools to think critically about visual media. Technophile though I am, I’m compelled by arguments that emphasize film’s materiality as key to its meaning. Film, the argument goes, captures reality in a way that no digital emulation can, because film is the product of light actually hitting emulsion — of reality encountering celluloid. Does that magic get lost when reality is stored in binary code?

To the more pragmatic-minded, these reservations may seem to trouble only the most fragile-nerved academics. But what about the fact that digitization allows images to seep into every corner of our lives? At photography’s outset, observers were stopped in their tracks by the technology’s power to capture reality. These days, we rarely pause to think about the images we see. Moreover, we’re savvy enough to know that any image can be (and usually is) digitally altered. Does this image-immersion make us less attentive to the messages embedded in photographs?

I often think about these questions when I’m putting PowerPoint lectures together. I want my students to be engaged by image-rich presentations. But by offhandedly dragging-and-dropping photographs on digital slides, am I allowing them to forget how ideologically dense photographs really are? By chopping up a film in QuickTime, am I indulging my students’ (and my own) impulse to “get to the point” by dismissing extraneous information? Technology writers sometimes say that the internet cultivates a population that confirms its own biases by avoiding uncomfortable facts. Is this really the attitude I want students to bring to, say, a Godard film?

I reflexively support accessibility, and I’m inspired by initiatives like the Internet Archive’s Moving Images Library, which makes thousands of films available for download, often without copyright restrictions. I also strongly support catalogs like the Library of Congress’s Moving Image Collections portal, which offers a unified entry point for a number of film collections, making it much easier to locate a film in an archive. I think film scholarship can be enriched by full-text, metadata-enhanced databases like American Film Scripts Online. I would, however, urge archivists to keep holding and preserving physical film, troublesome and bulky though it is. Times change and attitudes change, and we may yet find that materiality matters more than we thought it did.

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