Experimental art is flourishing in the digital era. As I mentioned previously, celluloid stands out as tactile and authentic in comparison with digital films. But recently, digital and celluloid have also made for great aesthetic and intellectual partners. While celluloid and digital remain discrete cinematic formats, they can nevertheless speak to each other and create new, original meanings. Intellectually, digital media and other technologies have offered new ways to think about older texts. For instance, using a word algorithm computer program, scholars have found that Steinbeck wrote shorter sentences than Hemingway. While that may not be particularly interesting, it opens up new avenues of inquiry, most prominently: why do we think of Hemingway as the ur-example of succinct writing? At its best, new forms create new aesthetic questions and overturn old habits.
Film scholar Kevin Ferguson, for example, has augmented his interpretations of (celluloid and digital) films by creating film visualization, or what he calls “sums of films,” collapsing the frames of film together to make one still image. These images are aesthetically pleasing in themselves and an interesting experiment into duration, but they are also significant methods for looking at classic films with new eyes. With these summations, scholars and critics compare films and notice unique features that may not be quite so visible while in motion.
Perhaps even more so than still images, moving frames speak to cinematic histories and current changes. Contemporary experimental films can join celluloid and digital to interweave meanings and aesthetics. Malena Szlam’s Chronogram of Inexistent Time (2008), still 35mm photographs become a moving collage, which captures and mutates traditional notions of film duration. The images stutter across the screen, pulsate around each other, and turn into negative afterimages. In so doing, Chronogram explores memory in motion, a metaphor that has aptly described cinema.
Chronogram of Inexistent Time (Malena Szlam, 2008)
The artful collage of Films to Break Projectors (Tim Grabham, 2017), on the other hand, reanimates old films to create ambiguous, faltering stories. Grabham physically distorts 35mm filmstrip, cutting, gluing, and reorganizing movies images, then capturing them digitally. Turning old footage into something resembling a silent Carol Reed thriller, the artist creates a sense of distance between the viewer and film, leading the audience into the story while simultaneously distancing us from its immediacy, making it more of a found object.
Films to Break Projectors (Tim Grabham, 2017)
Trans/Figure/Ground (Lauren Cook, 2016) and In, Over and Out (Sebastian Brameshuber, 2015) likewise meld celluloid footage with digital shots to create a new sensory experience. Trans/Figure/Ground creates a newly developed monster—a film that is neither analog nor digital. The painted, recreated, remastered cels use mixed media to play with texture and depth. These textures are not wholly analog, however, and embrace the glitches and pixilation of current formats. We’re left with what the filmmaker calls an “uncanny valley”—this time not the human kind but the uncanny valley of historical visualizations. Likewise, In, Over and Out plays up that uncanny valley as it juxtaposes a series of shots using different film techniques, including analog and digital formats.
Trans/Figure/Ground (Lauren Cook, 2016)
In, Over and Out (Sebastian Brameshuber, 2015)
The converse—that analog films can affect digital technologies—is highlighted in Jack Gallant’s video essay, Semantic Decoding from Movies (2018). In the piece, which is an accompaniment to a research article in Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, the research explores how imaging studies using an fMRI machine can decode the semantic content of visual images. On the left of the screen, the video shows a series of different film clips—including Hollywood films—while the right shows the decoded semantic content as a word cloud. This, of course, shows the utility of the fMRI process in making thoughts into clearly articulated language, but it also shows how film’s plethora of meaningful imagery can help illustrate how the brain functions.
About the author
Kirsten Strayer is a writer, curator, and film scholar who has published in academic journals, anthologies, and pop culture magazines. Her recent anthology, Transnational Horror Across Visual Media: Fragmented Bodies, was published in 2014 by Routledge Press.