Decay Cinema

Thinking about aesthetics, technology and the death of cinema has made me question the differences between analogue and digital cinema, and how they represent different personal and societal philosophies.

In The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory, and the Digital Dark Age Paolo Cherchi Usai posits that, fundamentally, analogue cinema is the cinema of decay. Cherchi Usai is a specialist in film preservation and he writes at length about the physical and chemical decay of motion picture film; a process that can be controlled and delayed, but not entirely prevented. He writes that:

…the viewer is an unconscious (sometimes resigned, in any case impotent) witness to the extinction of moving images that nobody cares to preserve, either because they are deemed unworthy or unsuitable for the purposes of further commercial exploitation. This is considered as normal as the corruption of an oral tradition, or the vanishing of other ephemeral forms of human expression. (Cherchi Usai, 2001) 

Earlier in his book, Cherchi Usai quotes from La Nature (Anon, 1897, pp.302-3) which finds the lifespan of a cinematographic frame to be one and one thirds seconds (based on a speed of 15 fps and 300 viewings per reel) and reflects on the lasting influence of film, which vastly exceeds the briefness of its life:

One knows, a priori, that a piece of fireworks is ephemeral. Its has, even so, an effective life incomparably longer than a projectile fired by a mechanical weapon or the cinematographe’s projected photograph, because it lasts several seconds. However paradoxical it may seem, this conclusion is quite rigorous; it can be confirmed by a simple bit of arithmetic, and is yet another instance of how dangerous It is to trust appearances. (Anon, 1897, pp.302-3)

In contrast, digital technology is perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be immortal and eternal, an unchanging representation of the original vision. Cherchi Usai speculates that these images, which show no apparent decay, can in turn have no history. And I wonder… is it this which so many analogue enthusiasts find unsettling? An uncanny valley of immortality? Do they find security in a medium whose transience reflects our own?


The same argument can conversely explain the attractiveness of digital film to its legion of converts; its perceived timelessness can offer some comfort against our own fears of ageing and mortality. Cherchi Usai wonders about the audience’s expectation of a permanent image, asking:

…are viewers willing to accept the slow fading to nothing of what they are looking at? Is it fair to encourage them to believe that they will never witness the inevitable, and that its actual experience will be left to someone else? (Cherchi Usai, 2001) 

For many, cinema is escapism, which film gladly provides. But should cinema force the audience to confront their own mortality, or be complicit in hiding it from them?


Another strand touched on by Cherchi Usai is the proliferation of cinema, supported by new technology. He writes about A Clockwork Orange (1971, Kubrick) as a parable on the excess of vision. Digital filmmaking has precipitated an exponential increase in production, so that there now exists more footage than it would be possible to view in a thousand lifetimes. This overload of visual media has created an excess of vision, in which viewers become addicts with a limitless supply, unable to stop watching. In contrast analogue is limited, controlled in its supply. Is this another reason for its perceived value?

This control of supply is inherent to analogue cinema. Few people have the means of projecting a 35mm film in their own home (in direct contrast to the many who can access digital visual media cheaply and easily in isolation). Cherchi Usai speculates that this trend towards increasingly isolated consumption of film will eventually reach a peak which is can’t exceed, writing that “it is expected that the time will come when the loneliness of the spectator will be detrimental to the pleasure of experiencing moving images.” (Cherchi Usai, 2001)

He goes on to speculate that the continued rise of digital technology and the consequent sidelining of analogue cinema will create an audience who no longer care for the business of filmmaking:

Whenever the quantity of moving images available to a given community exceeds the actual or presumed need for their consumption … it can be said that the primary source of pleasure, as defined by the viewer’s attention to the moving images or to other events connected with its display, has been replaced by another quality of perception … an impulse to ignore altogether the process of formation of the image itself. (Cherchi Usai, 2001) 

Is it this loss of interest in cinema and filmmaking as an art which analogue aficionados fear as they rail against digital technology?

Cherchi Usai goes on to write about the audience’s expectation that each viewing is an exact replica of previous and future viewings; that cinema is not an act of reproduction, but one of repetition. This concept of digital repetition vs. analogue reproduction connects back to his earlier writings on the concept of analogue decay vs. digital immortality and the different reactions that these concepts provoke in those who love analogue for its transience as oppose to those who admire digital for its apparent permanence.


In reality however, there is no such thing as digital permanence. Cherchi Usai directs readers to the production of Toy Story (Lasseter, 1995), a film produced using entirely digital technology, intended as a parable about the conflict between the old and the new:

When the creators of Toy Story went to make a DVD version of the film, twelve percent of the digital masters had already vanished. For three months, Pixar Animation Studios staff scoured the system for the toys’ missing parts salvaging all but one percent of what had been lost in the computers. The remaining scenes were reassembled. For subsequent Pixar movies, Lasseter said, ‘we have a better backup system’. (Cherchi Usai, 2001) 

If even the mighty Pixar weren’t able to safely store all of the digital media created for their film, can we expect any filmmaker to feel secure in the permanence of digital as a storage mechanism for their work?

Cherchi Usai believes that society can only preserve cinema, both analogue and digital, if it accepts and embraces the mortality of that cinema:

Any endeavour to protect the moving image from the environment and psychological factors leading to its decay is doomed to failure as long as the viewing experience is conceived of as an event that can be repeated indefinitely. (Cherchi Usai, 2001) 

It is not digital itself which threatens analogue film and cinema as a whole, but instead the danger lurks in society’s perception of its permanence and immortality which can only lead to the eventual, inevitable decay and death of all cinema.


Anon, (1897) La vie utile des vues cinematographiques, La Nature, 2eme semestre, pp. 302-3, translated by Paolo Cherchi Usai and Martin Sopocy

Cherchi Usai, P., (2001) The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory, and the Digital Dark Age, London: British Film Institute

Kubrick, S., (1971) A Clockwork Orange, Warner Bros.

Lasseter, J., (1995) Toy Story, Pixar Animation Studios

Morrison, B., (2002) Decasia [film]


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