Spielberg the Luddite?
Steven Spielberg says he is a Luddite. (Economist 12-02) Though he shares his stoney beard, this isn’t an indication of any Kacyzinski sympathies. No, Spielberg is actually speaking of an issue that is near and dear to my heart, as a cinephile and analogue-geek. He is speaking, to the (clearly unsympathetic) market fundamentalists of the Economist of the spectre of digital film, digital delivery, digital projection and the like that, with the help of its unsavoury crypto-fascist weirdo spokesperson, George Lucas, will take over the industry. Of course the Economist writes him off, and, Karl himself, predict that nothing can stop the revolutionary forces of digital.
Spielberg, unquestionably a great artist and businessman in the world of cinema, is a romantic. He – and I and most film buffs, prefer the intangible, incongruities that can only be found on 70, 35, 16 or 8 millimetres of film. In this case, he was being faithful to that which the Luddites actually professed. Technology and machinery, the Luddites said, were not in and of themselves dangerous. A Bamboozled (which used the medium spectacularly) here, a Dogma film there, George Lucas acolytes everywhere. But the image of “the movies” being nothing more than a digitally created film downloaded and watched solipsistically as the dominant means of film delivery scares Speilberg. It should scare us, cultural workers and participants, too. As a Journalism school initiate, I was taught both to edit tape, and later, when some right-wing think-tank funding got us digi-equipment, to use what is known as Avid. What was amazing to me was what was once pain-staking effort – in this case in the service of utility – creating a radio broadcast – could now be down within minutes. Of course, the beautiful spontaneity of editing was also undercut by the advent of digital. A hodgepodge of meticulously connected sounds simply lost its meaning when it could be put together on an avid or Pro-Tools or some-such thing. Similarly a hip-hop DJ of the old school once complained about the proclivity of using DATs live while the DJ pantomimes manipulation of the wheels of steel.
The other day I showed my sister some of Eisenstien’s early experimental montages that are collected on a Russian film known as Eisenstien Autobiography. A terribly over-educated private high school student who knows more about Marx, Malthus and Marcuse than I, she immediately assumed it was done on a computer. This then begs the question, can digital be at all be construed as progress, considering that it has been internalized among young filmgoers as inevitable? If after all, today’s equipment renders the hours of work still done by the majority of film technicians as obsolete, will this not make digital attractive both to studios as being non-labor intensive and film-makers as a cheap alternative? Can it be partly yes and partly no?
Pandora’s boxes are great to open as long as what comes out of the box doesn’t threaten us. But the question is far more than aesthetics. Film does look better than digital. Even the crispiest overpriced wall-mounted plasma screen doesn’t look like film. Slavoj Zizek laments that modern film buffs, used to DVD – which masks film’s inconsistencies, often complain that when they see a film that they are used to as a home video, claim that it does not “look right” in a cinema. But film does look better. LPs sound better than CDs. It is not just nostalgia, I would argue it to be subjective, and somewhat even gnostic-ritualistic. Incidentally, industry types who are looking to a digital transition compare it to when music started to sell on vinyl. There is a big difference between the transference of pre-recorded material from vinyl to compact disc with the complete re-routing of the means of production to the non-human, digital sector.
I have to say that I find it particularly admirable that Spielberg has gone out on this limb. For all of his participation in the corporatization of Hollywood, Spielberg has quietly become perhaps the most arcane and speculative of America’s filmmakers. He seems to even display some Red tendencies in his last two films, one of which (AI) shows environmental and capitalist crisis as an inevitable by-product of post-post-modernity, the other – Minority Report (my pick for film of the year of 2002) is a sublimely ethical – and gorgeously shot warning of humanity’s built-in propensity to fail in its subconscious efforts to destroy itself.
While Spielberg seemed sympathetic and even patronising towards authority, technology and (American) power in his earlier films, it seems that he has recently, after making some harrowing, if over-rated World-War 2 films, found his finest calling late in his career. I remember being offended, as a Jew, by Schindler’s List–it was after all, one level a tribute to a capitalist who saved Jews just so he could get by. So what if he was redeemed? 6 million still died right? The genius of Schindler’s List is its ambiguity, and its none too subtle anti-capitalism. Schindler is not a hero at all. The heroes are the unnamed women and men marched off to the gas chambers.
It seems that of all of the late-sixties film-makers who became marketed as the new-wave, the only one who is truly carrying on that duty is also the one who has collaborated quite spectacularly in the capitalism that they all once despised. Francis Ford Coppola added some scenes to Apocalypse Now to pay his rent. Martin Scorsese is still interesting but nothing special. George Lucas is like a L. Ron Hubbard-Howard-Hughes figure. Steven Spielberg is chillin’ out with Fidel, exhibiting his films in Havana and fighting for the artistic integrity of film, “the movies” as an art form. Way to go, Comrade Spielberg. Keep it comin’.
JORDY CUMMINGS can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org