Something that’s been circulating in my brain since reading The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory, and the Digital Dark Age (Cherchi Usai, 2001) is the relationship between cinema and memory, mythology and the that way we (as a society) think about the world that we live in.
It seems that the less information we’re given by something, the more emotionally connected to that something we seem to be. Scantly drawn images require a viewer to engage and investigate them in order to understand what they see, as oppose to detailed and realistic representations of reality which can be understood (at least superficially) with a cursory glance. It’s reminiscent of the mythologies of older civilizations, societies which we would consider to have a less scientific and more spiritual understanding of the world, but which often seemed to be more closely connected to their world as a result. And it links to the increasing detachment from the natural, spiritual world that many feel as a result of ever advancing scientific understanding. If we remove the need to look at the world around us, if we’ve been told how everything works, why would we need to investigate it for ourselves?
This connects to an idea that the less visual and narrative information artists provide an audience with, the more they will engage with the resulting art. This evasiveness and its reliance on narrative negative space is one of the tenets of horror, thriller and film noir. And it’s borne out in Cherchi Usai’s book, in which he writes that “the unseen is an integral part of our lives.” (Cherchi Usai, 2001)
The switch in cinema from analogue to digital is an allegory for the shift from a spiritual to a scientific understanding of the world. And we can use it to investigate how these changes effect society. When I wrote about perception I considered the subjectivity of our experiences. These perceived differences in reality are fixed in our minds as memories, which over time diverge further from reality as the subconscious morphs them into the varnished versions of reality that we want to remember. And, as in film and other visual art, the moments we choose not to see are as important as those that we do. It’s our mind’s ability to airbrush our memories that spares us from reliving every detail of every moment, enabling us to instead focus on the crucial moments as they seemed to us at the time. This mental airbrush also allows us to feel nostalgia, commuting positive memories into dreams that we’ve lived.
If memory is an individual’s selective recollection of the past, then mythology is society’s equivalent. It present views of the world which are comforting and reassuring. As a society it seems that we need these mythologies to sustain the belief that our lives have meaning. Just as primitive mythologies were replaced by organised religion, traditional religion is usurped by other modern religions; consumerism, cinema, TV, celebrity and the internet.
Analogue cinema was once one of the most powerful forms of this new mythology. It transformed forgettable, fleeting moments into physical objects, imprints on the film itself. It mimiced the quest that we all go on, to hold onto the past through our recollections, fixing them in our mind. And the aberrations in film are the black spots in our memory; the allegory in our myths.
Digital doesn’t have this same power to hold a moment in time. It copies a moment and recreates it in ones and zeros, but those ones and zeros don’t have the same connection to the image that they’re portraying. They aren’t evidence of a visual phenomenon, but a simulation of it.
So, how does this shift to digital, and the wider change that it represents, affect how we think and remember?
Modern digital technology doesn’t connect with its subject in the same way as analogue cinema does. Yet its thought to show us a more accurate representation of the world as we perceive it, through its higher quality video and audio. The audience begins to believe that what they see is reality, rather than a representation of it; they stop imagining, because they no longer need to. The subjectivity of their experience is hidden and replaced by a belief that everyone feels the same experience equally and tolerance for differing views begins to fade.
The shared experience of analogue cinema, which replicates the collective ritual of religion, is being replaced by an isolated experience of digital. And this risks a less tolerant audience, because a negative opinion is no longer moderated by the positive views of others. It’s another way in which the subjectivity of the cinematic experience is hidden from each viewer, which can only be a bad thing.
Cherchi Usai, P., (2001) The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory, and the Digital Dark Age, London: British Film Institute
Strickland, P., (2012) Berberian Sound Studio, Warp X