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Cinema at the Century's Dawn

By Clint J. Froehlich, Crimson Staff Writer

As this is my last column for the glorious school year of 2004-2005, it’s time to prophesize. Or at least mindlessly throw more drivel on the page, which you have been so sadly hypnotized into reading by my consistently incisive, yet completely contrived, wit.

It’s necessary that all “ironically” narcissistic Harvard students, like you, be sent home to the suburbs for the summer with something to think about. With that in mind, let’s ponder the future of cinema.

Digital technology is taking over: DVD has become the profit-king in the industry; people are watching movies on their laptops; and Tom Hanks was morphed into a plastic nightmare in “The Polar Express.” With Sony’s recent announcement that their entire backlog of films will be digitized and stored on high-capacity hard drives, the signs that we’re entering a new era of the filmic imagination are all around us.

It could be an exciting phase for the medium—one of freedom, fascinating new directions, and incredible technological availability—or it could propel us towards a cultural apocalypse in which we all experience the world as pure cinema through transplanted computer chips. Naturally, the latter would be controlled by an evil cyborg named Rupert who feeds us propaganda from his control room in Beverly Hills. Take your pick.

In all seriousness however, the 100-year-old art of film is bound to experience some serious changes. I personally believe that the most basic experience of film exhibition will not radically change any time soon, but the increasingly powerful markets of DVD, online delivery, and mobile technology are already creating cracks in the century-old medium.

Pioneers like George Lucas are campaigning for the eradication of analog technology and the introduction of digital production and distribution that will make room for a fully 3-D cinema. Mr. Lucas is already planning on releasing the “Star Wars” trilogy in 3-D, possibly as early as 2007.

Forget “Star Wars” though. George Lucas won’t be around forever, unless the billions of dollars he’s sucked out of the collective American wallet have made him immortal. More important things are at stake, like cinema’s powerful relationship to the world around us.

Will the film spectator turn completely away from the present and towards a cinema that consists entirely of a post-modern pastiche of found cultural objects and old media, thrown together in an all-encompassing digital orgy? Will technologies like Virtual Reality take off and morph human subjectivity into a fantasy-land of deceptive “mobile space?” Do you care?

Maybe you shouldn’t. Cinema is a representational art anyway—what is on screen has only a causal, chemical parallel to corporeal reality, and film itself is nothing but miles of celluloid, or zeroes and ones. Its fascination for a century of viewers and scholars lies primarily in its powerfully subjective unmasking of human conscience, memory, and history.

Can’t a digital cinema, defined by falsehood and haphazardly compounded cultural elements, achieve the same kind of meaningful perspective? Is the world today so disconnected and sterile that the problematic, deeply symbolic coding of new cultural interfaces can only be approached meaningfully through assimilation with them?

But how will we find symbolic meaning in the cinema if we can’t attach it to our day-to-day existence? The sun will not get an upgrade that makes grass and trees digital.

The boundary between the old and new cinematic forms, however you define them, is the face. The human face will never disappear from cinema. It is this prioritizing of the facial that may keep cinema as we know it alive.

We cannot accept a cinema without the face in a visually realistic form. The addition of interactivity or the third dimension cannot change the face. Its purity as an image cannot be fundamentally enhanced from its two-dimensional cinematic incarnation.

The face, connected to a real person, possesses an infallible being. Who can say with any conviction that audiences will ever get in line for a digital actress—a starlet built of code that can’t attend movie premieres or David Letterman? We may hide Batman behind a mask, but we know its George Clooney’s amazing chin we really love.

If everyone was a media studies professor, we all might care about these sorts of issues. Movies may just be a social ritual, and their apparent social meaning lost on those that have other things to worry about than the effect of digital culture on 21st century human interaction.

Frankly most of us are probably more concerned about whether or not Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s chemistry in the upcoming “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” sheds light on their alleged affair. Oh wait. I just made my point. Those two are real.

—Staff writer Clint J. Froehlich can be reached at

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