The Virtual Life of Film.
By D. N. Rodowick
Harvard University Press, 2007. xiv + 193 pp. $24.95 paper, $55 cloth.
Like the self-contained narratives of the classic Hollywood structure, the ontology of film would be neither terribly interesting nor engaging were it not in a perpetual state of crisis.
For film scholars, the plot is always the same--film comes under attack from the outside influences of newer technologies (sound, television, video) and must strive to overcome the threat, reaffirming its way of life. All the while, film undergoes a deeper transformation of its own identity that makes it stronger in the end. It then seems a familiar refrain to ask: How does new media and our emergent, even dominant, digital culture--where movies can now be captured, edited, manipulated, reproduced, and distributed entirely on and through computers--affect what we once called "film"?
D.N. Rodowick, film theorist and professor from Harvard University, articulates an answer to this ambitious question in his newest book, The Virtual Life of Film. His work reminds us that what matters perhaps is not so much the repetition of the hypothesis but the differences in how the story unfolds. Despite the seeming familiarity of the premise, The Virtual Life of Film stages an original and convincing narrative of the cinema, one likely to endure in the years to come. Rodowick's book is a genuinely provocative and satisfying account of how film remains relevant in the digital age.
While the ontological underpinnings of the medium seem to have been cut loose by digital capabilities, the study of film in academia also at times seems to have disappeared. Yet as the author himself notes, such "gloom-and-doom" is hardly novel--any more than new media itself is truly "new." Various theories of media and digital culture are becoming increasingly attuned to how developments in technology are not so much original, but rather still very much part of larger historical trends and developments. Thankfully, Rodowick's achievement is no exception.
The Virtual Life of Film historicizes discussions of the ontology of the digital image within a larger discursive tradition of film (and image) theory that includes Noel Carroll, Roland Barthes, Stanley Cavell, Andre Bazin, Gilles Deleuze, and others. Still, Rodowick emphasizes that something has changed. With digital technology, images no longer bear any necessary indexical relation to the thing they transcribe. Whereas film was dependent upon light reflecting off a subject and onto photosensitive chemical material, computers translate images into numbers and equations, which are then retranslated back into images. Such a development is a radical departure from the automatisms of photography and film, promoting a careful consideration of the ontological differences between cameras and "logically, [...] a computer with a lens as an input device" (121). The result is not a single moment of duration in time and space captured on film but rather a series of isolated digital events recombined to simulate the illusion of image and time. However, such technological developments should not preclude us from seeing the presence of film's continuing influence.
Using a largely implicit Deleuzian methodology, Rodowick articulates what he calls the "virtual life of film." The book's title and central premise is a clever play of semantics, likely to evade the casual reader not versed in the theoretical traditions of the term. Particularly in the discursive context of film and digital culture, "virtual" typically connotes an artificial or hyperrealistic simulation of an object, world, and so forth. We often refer to the virtual worlds of the latest science-fiction commercial blockbuster. However, Rodowick's use of the term fits more closely with the Deleuzian version emphasizing a medium's potential--something waiting to be generated, waiting to be represented, waiting to be (using the proper theoretical term) "actualized."
The virtual life of film manifests itself every time a video game actualizes, say, the use of a shot/reverse-shot, establishing shot, or other "cinematic" narrative device. Deleuze's notion of the virtual is much like a specter, haunting the text--something which we can sense but not see, something which has clear effects but which resists easy taxonomy or categorization. Without a clearer sense of Deleuze, Rodowick's "virtual life" here is a tricky concept to pin down. Employing Deleuze without much reference to the noted French theorist is part of a common theoretical movement: Deleuzian film theory does not "apply" concepts to a text but rather remains adamant that the text (movement-image, time-image) itself reveals ideas, possibilities, and creative redundancies.
What, then, is the virtual life of film? Rodowick argues that the automatisms of cinema--habitual modes of production, common in film to the point of an unthinking redundancy--remain in television and new media, heavily influencing how these newer media shape our perception of reality. One of Rodowick's central tenets is that newer technologies imitate an image of reality that is itself inseparable from cinema's influence. His use of the term "automatism" here is derived from the earlier work of Stanley Cavell, a hugely influential film theorist who, as Rodowick rightly notes, fails to receive proper attention amongst scholars and critics these days. "Automatisms, in this sense," writes Rodowick, "are forms, conventions, or genres that arise creatively out of existing materials and material conditions of given art practices. These in turn serve as potential materials and forms for future practices" (42). The virtual life of film, he argues, is the continuing persistence of cinematic automatisms in newer media. However, the influence works both ways, wherein the automatisms of computers affect the cinema as well. As Rodowick summarizes late in the book:
The idea of cinema persists as a way of modeling time-based spatial forms with computers, but cinema is only one of myriad functions that computers can simulate or model. Understanding digital cinema, then, means defining and evaluating the automatisms that computers make possible. These may be automatisms that create filmlike effects, but they are no longer filmic automatisms. Our audiovisual culture is currently a digital culture, but with a cinematic look. And cinema, too, is increasingly just another element of digital culture. (133)
There is no question that digital culture is ubiquitous, and how images appear are inseparable from the digital technologies that actualize them for the user. However, the automatisms of film linger to this day--"a cinematic look"--even if film long since disappeared phenomenologically within a wave of electronic and digital media.
Another automatism of photography, carried over to film, was the capturing of time, of a single duration, in the image. "In the ontology of photography, the past is felt as an ontologically distinct and often unbridgeable temporal dimension [...]," writes Rodowick. "Digitally captured images, rather, shape a past felt to be historically present with us and to which we feel embedded; in other words, they express an immediate, cumulative past that remains part of our historical present" (146). We do not look to digital images, immediately processed and instantaneously transmitted, for traces of the past but rather to capture and change the perpetual present. Such a conundrum is compounded by the analogical ability to capture duration in a way that the digital's mathematical formulas cannot.
One area of tension appears to be nostalgia for the photograph, acknowledged in passing. Can we yet criticize the digital for falling to capture an "ontologically distinct," "unbridgeable" past world when we are discussing a technology hitherto without a past? Other reservations arise: Perhaps too much time is spent rehearsing past theoretical arguments (especially, Carroll and Cavell) at the expense of specific, illustrative discussions and a more thorough exploration of digital culture. Such qualms are minor, however, amidst the larger championing of the continuing need to revisit film's past. Hence, the book is ultimately a love story of the cinema's return home to film theory: How it does, or should, endure in an age where various manifestations of film (the medium, its academic iterations) not only seem to be rapidly fading but may have long ago ceased to be. In these regards, The Virtual Life of Film works towards a satisfying and memorable denouement.