The cinema has well and truly entered the digital age. Ever since Spielberg’s computer-generated dinosaurs first crossed the screen in Jurassic Park some twenty years ago, the invention patented by the Lumière brothers at the end of the nineteenth century has gradually undergone a technological mutation which, at least for the time being, appears irreversible. But this wasn’t the first time the cinema experienced change and it won’t be the last: the transition from the shorts to multi-reel features, from silent films to sound films, from black and white to Technicolor, from celluloid to magnetic tape or from 2D to 3D all came about before this new and apparently much more fundamental transformation in what we call twentieth-century art.
The digital cameras of the twenty-first century have made film production a democratic business. In an age when all you need to make a film is a smart phone and access to YouTube, the traditional product’s days are numbered. In 2015, the standard format for film projection in cinemas will be the Digital Cinema Package, a collection of files compressed on a hard drive to carry all the information it once took five reels of 35 mm film to store. DVD, Blu-ray Disc or the digital platforms accessed from a computer terminal or mobile device are becoming domestic formats which reassure us that any film is within our reach. But although many more films are now available to the public, 70 % of the world’s market still lies in the hands of half a dozen multinational media corporations. These corporations use the highest grossing films as luxury showcases to sell their own wares, from videogames and comics to merchandise and theme parks, and this is the most "visible" face of cinema today. And while it prospers, the auteur cinema that saw its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s languishes: the cinema of figures like Bergman, Fellini or Godard, who were intimate with writers, painters and musicians, has lost its cultural gravitas and been relegated to the periphery. And there, it occupies a cult position but survives as best it can in festivals, cinematheques, museums and cultural centres.
Other changes have also occurred. During the 1950s, television began to supplant the cinema as a form of mass entertainment. Since then, the advance of home video, PCs, mobile phones and also the growing practice of video piracy have encouraged people to adopt an increasingly individual style of media consumption which, curiously enough, acknowledges in retrospect the value of a motion picture device that predated even the Lumière cinematograph but lost the commercial battle precisely because it could only be used by one viewer at a time: Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope Peephole. One hundred and twenty years later, local cinemas still manage to stay open but many people would rather enjoy films privately through the peephole of their iPhone, tablet or PC.
Then there are the films themselves. Commercial cinemas are still patronized by the cinema-going public but the strain is beginning to show. Accustomed to new technologies that pare information down and to WhatsApp and the e-book, which are replacing the phone conversation and the printed book, respectively, many viewers acquire their film culture in bite-sized clips on YouTube; and the result is that they do not have the power of concentration to sit through the entire ninety minutes of a feature film. So it is that film makers employ an increasing number of shorter takes in their editing, forgo the long shot for the close-up and direct our gaze towards a spectacle in which the senses overrule the intellect and eclipse our notion of real life. It’s no coincidence that the genre currently dominating the industry is the fantasy film, whose particular universe is populated by virtual beings from the outer galaxies of Star Wars, the bygone age of The Lord of the Rings or the savage world of Avatar. In that cinema, life is ordered by Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, its complex shades of meaning are reduced to the black and white truisms of Matrix and its players are mutant versions of our human selves in the form of terminators and spidermen. If in its origins the cinema breathed life into still photography to heighten its realism, in the digital age it is bringing us closer to the unreal or irreal and to worlds that are impalpable and physically inaccessible.
Perhaps our notion of the first-run cinema as the most popular location for film watching will not cross into the twenty-first century. It used to make sense because a ticket to the cinema is considerably cheaper than the price of entry to a theatre, concert hall, sports stadium or theme park. But the uncertainties of the digital age are leaving the responsibility for preserving this form of mass entertainment on the doorstep of the cinematheque. This institution, which first appeared in the 1930s with the mission of saving silent films from extinction, may now be facing a new challenge.
On the one hand, we could argue, the mutation of analogue, photochemical celluloid film into bits and bytes should be accompanied by a commitment to preserve our film heritage in its traditional format, especially when the evidence shows that celluloid which is properly stored in cool and dry conditions will last over a hundred years. What the experts still won’t say is whether our digital film will withstand the wear and tear of anything beyond the next fifteen years. For the moment, certainly, digital technology is perfect for restoring celluloid when and where this is used, in institutions like our own, to recover films in that medium.
On the other hand, there can be no doubt that digital film is particularly suited to reproducing pictures in motion. And DVD, Blu-ray Disc and digital platforms have not only enhanced the film buff's experience —note the satisfying shift from "been there, done that" to "been there, have that" —but have also shaken out of the specialists’ bag an array of products that are now available for popular consumption: restored or remastered films, deleted scenes and outtakes, multiple cuts of the same feature and on the sets and interviews with the cast and crew. In terms of picture quality, the average DCP screening easily holds its own next to 35 mm film, even while the difference between the two is essentially a matter of degree rather than of kind.
In the end, it appears, our cinematheques are destined to complete two different missions. Very soon, not only will they be the main archivists of our film heritage in its traditional analogue format, but they will also become the custodians of the cinema-going experience as it was conceived in the twentieth century. They alone will provide the public spaces where people gather to see a film in its original medium in what will be simultaneously an exercise in nostalgia and an act of homage to the art of the cinema. But at least that art will endure. After all, the fact that we can now summon up practically perfect digital reproductions of paintings on our tablets has not stopped us from visiting museums and galleries, which are the only places we can contemplate the originals themselves.