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Introduction to the Last Days of Celluloid:
An Excerpt from Post-Classic Cinema
by John David Ebert
Film, today, now finds itself in exile.
But in exile from what? And from where?
After the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in the Romano-Jewish Wars of 70 AD and then with the erasure of the Jews from the geopolitical map of Palestine by the emperor Hadrian in 135 AD, the Jews found themselves in exile from their homeland, to which they did not return until 1948. Their particular model of society has been termed “diasporic” by Arnold Toynbee,[i] and appropriated by Arjun Appadurai as the social model of the “diasporic public spheres” configured today by non-local and post-national social formations such as Al-Qaeda, Anonymous, and other revolutionary movements and criminal organizations which now pose the major threat to the world’s locally based Big National governments.[ii]
But with respect to film, the exile has to do with its delocalization from a material substrate in celluloid – which signifies a particular set of discrete images imprinted onto a specific strip of celluloid enclosed in this or that canister – to the virtual interiors of the electronic matrix of global digitization. In exiling film from a particular material substrate to a globally dispersive network, the release of a single Hollywood movie, say, can now be globally synchronized to open on the same day in all the planet’s movie theaters which have converted to digital projection (and virtually all theaters, since January of 2012, are in process of doing this; all will have done it by 2015).
Once inside the matrix, the films take on a ghostly, derealized Platonic shadow life of non-locality such that they can even be released simultaneously on Amazon Instant Video, available to watch, for the first time ever, simultaneously at home and on the big screen. It comes as no surprise, considering the nature of such technology, that movie theater attendance is at an all time low (or at least the lowest it’s been since 1995). The future of the movie theater, along with the entire arena of public retail spaces, is now in jeopardy, due largely to the impact of the Internet together with the exile of movies from celluloid to digital, which confers on them a sort of omnipresent quality.
The exile of movies from a material substrate to a non-local and dispersive network signals an ontological change in the very status of cinema itself, a change that is analogous to what happened with painted works of art when, with the rise of photography in the nineteenth century, the image shifted from its incarnation on a particular canvas hanging on the wall of an actual museum that one had to take the trouble of leaving one’s home to go and see, to Andre Malraux’s Museum Without Walls,[iii] in which the images were then disseminated into the pages of expensive illustrated art books that could be delivered directly to your front door. Painting, of course, managed to survive this new technological development largely by bringing into question, with Pop Art, the very ontological nature of the division between the art object, kept sacred and under high security in the enclosed container of the museum, and the mundane consumer object available on supermarket shelves, and hence ubiquitous. Art, that is, began to leave the museum behind altogether in the various incarnations of Minimalism and Land Art.
But film is now no longer the same medium it once was, for when the material substrate of a medium shifts from capture by one apparatus into another, it changes the very nature of that medium, as any reader of Marshall McLuhan well knows. It is an altogethernew development, since the medium determines the content that goes through it. Classical music that is heard in a concert hall or on the radio or the gramophone, or later, on a CD, or even today on an mp3 file, is not the same medium. It is a different experience that rewires the sense ratios in each mediatic incarnation.
Likewise, the story that is told orally around a campfire, or written down by hand on an illuminated manuscript, or mass produced and set into typeface on the page of a printed book, is not the same story. Each medium impresses the content of the story with its own strictures, and changes many of the connotations and meanings. The handwritten manuscript is not likely to preserve the repetitions of certain phrases made by the bard as mnemonic devices to record and burn the story into his memory; while the printed text is likely to come equipped with lexical and annotative apparatuses that encumber the story with footnotes and scholarly references that change the reading experience into one that is more analytical.
Contrary, then, to the Shannon – Weaver model of communication that takes no account of the particular bias of the medium — except insofar as the message may be entropically distorted by noise — the medium changes the message that goes through it.
And so, the shift of film that is currently in process of completing itself as I write this, from celluloid strips which will soon cease to exist, to the binary and ghostly realm of digitized 1s and 0s, is tantamount to a shift in the very ontological status of cinema itself. As it becomes more and more non-local and globally dispersive, film becomes more and more a set of moving images “painted” as it were onto the walls of the electronic cavern that has come to enclose the entire planet in a sort of electromagnetic cocoon. We no longer go inside the theater to see the film; rather, we are now inside cinema as an all-encompassing and totalizing environment that can no longer be escaped. We are surrounded and captured by the global Theater Without Walls.
[i] Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 65.