Film – and Film Study – in the Age of Digitilisation

I want to thank you for including me in the inspiring and energetic life of film studies here in Australia. In my public talk for Monash (11 August 2016), I noted how, when I came to Australia now three decades ago, I was struck most by the intensity of engagement with cinema culture (and theory more generally). As an outsider, I attributed this first, and rightly or wrongly, to distance – a geography that impelled Australian scholars to a curiosity to know what was happening elsewhere. (One example: Bordwell/Thompson/Staiger’s Classical Hollywood Cinema had just come out but was too expensive to purchase here, and so I found myself often serving as a rapporteur on its stakes and many virtues.)

Second, and conversely but also in a way concomitantly, I saw the high energy of discussion here as perhaps a resistance to risks of cultural imperialism: one wanted to know about ideas from elsewhere, but they had to be rigorously interrogated rather than slavishly accepted (one example: Jean Baudrillard had evidently come a while before my visit and his tour was polemically preceded by an indigenous publication, Seduced and Abandoned, which took on Baudrillard from a position quite critical of top-down French gurus). [1]

Another thing that struck me on my 1986 trip, and that continues to do so as I serve on Australian dissertations and keep track (to the extent I can) of local film culture (for example, Senses of Cinema and the Melbourne Cinematheque program notes) is the extent to which films themselves, their textuality, their viscerality, the close and careful criticism of them, is central to the project of so many scholars here. Film theory and film criticism seem intimately connected. I think of the work of those who in particular have become over the years my special Australian friends: Lesley Stern with her veritably haptic invocation of the films of Martin Scorsese; Adrian Martin with his fine-tuned attention to the details of meaningful mise en scène; Noel King and Deane Williams with their mastery of American film’s intermedial specificities with literary culture; George Kouvaros and his capture of the particularities of performance in post-studio American film; and so on.

Now, to the extent that these observations about distance, localism and the essential role of film criticism have any validity as a foreigner’s description of the Australian scene – and I do worry about outsider condescension – then what happens to a film culture of this sort in the age of digitalisation, and in regards to film’s place among other media and other moving audiovisual platforms? Let me start with an obvious point: the digitalisation of film is not the same as the digitalisation of film studies, even though the former may have consequences for the latter. For instance, the digitalisation of film can seem to imply the greater availability, across greater spaces, of greater numbers of films. We can have the sense that very little of what exists, or exists outside private collections, is not available somewhere. This is both exciting and a change in the very conditions of scarcity that often drove film study and appreciation. Any cinephile, for instance, is likely to have had the experience of finding some film they have been questing after, constituting as their veritable Lacanian petit objet A: the thing you desire but that can never fulfill your desire, especially when it becomes achievable – this elusive, lusted-after film ceases to have its must-have aura once it comes out on DVD or in streaming.

Beyond increased availability, a second impactful consequence of digitalisation for appreciation and study of films has to do with what I might term increased possessability: it is not merely that we have more films than ever before to watch, but also that we have many platforms on which to watch them, and the scale of some of these platforms perhaps inevitably changes our relationship to images and sounds as we take them in. This is something that increasingly intrigues me: what does it mean that we can hold films in our hands (not just DVDs but iPads, iPhones, etc.) so that it is no longer a case of screens that we watch from a distance, but ones that we are close to and lord over.

For instance, I am of that generation of cinema scholars that venerates a golden age of challenging 1970s auteur films by the likes of Stanley Kubrick, Hal Ashby, Robert Altman, Paul Mazursky, Roman Polanski, and so on. It mattered that we saw these films theatrically: you went into the theatre not knowing what to expect but guessing, often rightly, that you might come out a different person from the exposure to new ideas and new uses of cinematic language. Such films were masters of their spectators (and there was no doubt a gendered dialectic at work here between these overwhelmingly male directors and overwhelmingly male cinephiles). With the scaled down i-screen, in contrast, the viewer becomes the master of the experience. I think this changes the very status films can have for that viewer. When a director like Quentin Tarantino demands Ultra Panavision 70 for The Hateful Eight (2015), that is a way of returning cinema to a position of power over the spectator. But so is his filling up of the large-scale image with large-scale violence and rough sexuality, as if only such extreme content can now shake up spectatorial complacency.

To speak anecdotally, I had no worries on the flight over here with re-watching Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959) on my iPad, despite the salaciousness of the dialogue (I had headphones on) and the lasciviousness of Lee Remick’s performance – but I would have really worried about my seatmates had my viewing choice been, say, The Hateful Eight. What possession, scaling down, and so on do to our critical relations to media is something I plan to work on more. Here, I would simply note, that I have been much inspired by Theodor Adorno’s Current of Music, which essentially offers what we might term an apparatus theory of media (he uses the German term for apparatus) way before the French, and with very direct attention to the technologies and machinic materialities of apparati: what it means, for instance, to use and listen to a phonograph versus using and listening to a radio versus going to and listening at a live concert. [2]

Another aspect of the digitalisation of films brings them closer to the affordances of digitalised film study: specifically, the images and sounds of film and the words of critical study end up on the same platform and can interact directly. If, as Adrian Martin puts it, the traditional relationship was one in which study “turn[ed] films from the medium of recorded image and sound into the medium of readable language”, [3] we now can have written language and audiovisual forms as one single medium, digital bytes. Words can overlay images, images can cut into text as hypertextual clips. Hence, the rising importance of the so-called audiovisual essay where the films discussed are actually part of the discussion rather than apart from it. Indeed, the just quoted lines from Adrian come from his introduction to an audiovisual essay of his on [in]Transition, the important website of audiovisual investigations into cinema.

There is a potential drawback, similar to the older one of simply showing clips alongside a talk (what, in reference to my Melbourne lecture, we might term the challenge of “can any lecture stand up to Ann-Margret dancing in a white feather dress?”). Specifically, the power of moving images can set them up as a seductive rival to, or detour from, the words of critical analysis. Images, we know, can be cool and fascinating and fun in and of themselves; it is easy to start putting visual display into critical discourse just because it looks great. I think, for instance, of some of the embedding of GIFs in scholarly texts, where whatever point the content of the repetitive image was intended to make is quickly exhausted, and the repetition itself becomes uncannily hypnotic in its own right.

At the same time, the digitalisation of critical discourse puts it on the same platform as the digitalisation of primary written documents. It is not just films that increasingly we can embed in our texts, but also print materials. I just spent much of the last month reading about the Media History Digital Library, over a million scanned pages from trade press, fan press and technical press in the history of cinema before the 1960s, and about Lantern and Arclight, the search mechanisms for producing big data from that collection. [4] One can easily imagine that such venues as this will expand that aspect of cinema studies known as “the new film history” which sees itself beyond films themselves, “looking past the screen” as the title of one new film history anthology puts it. [5]

I want to end with a few quick observations about the first question asked of presenters in this workshop, which also connects to the second one: “what place does film studies have in contemporary media studies? How can scholars bridge the cinematic emphasis of their research and training with the amorphous structure of both contemporary media and media studies?” First observation: even if it calls itself “film studies”, the study of cinema has always been the study of inter-media too, and it has always been amorphous. To take one example from my own current work on 1939, how can one study, say, the opening of Gone with the Wind apart from the other arts behind this film so thought to sum up a golden age of movie-making: just in the first few minutes, there is the symphonic and the theatrical (from the list of players to the ways the Tarleton brothers move away like curtains opening to give us our first glimpse of Scarlett), there is literature of course (not only Margaret Mitchell’s novel but medieval saga, epics of knights and courtly society), there is classical painting, and so on. And one contribution of the new film history has been to challenge the very idea that film is ever seen as one single thing: hence, the heterogeneity of film showings (as Steve Higgins’ recent book on the 1930s reminds us), or the blend of old and new (as Eric Hoyt’s study of re-releases confirms – as he notes, by the late 1940s, one out of every four films was a rerelease and viewed as such for nostalgia value). [6]

And if film has always been a mixed medium, part of a mixture of media, film study has been no less heterogeneous: as I found in my research for my book on the beginnings of US cinema study, it was from the start a blend of literary studies, sociology (especially of the impact of movies on potential delinquents), art history, philosophy, and so on.

True, there are in the US (and I do not know if there is a comparable process going on here) debates about the naming of a field that increasingly is self-aware of this heterogeneity: is the answer to add on, through “and” or hyphens or slashes, all the things cinema seems most allied with (in other words, Film and Media Studies Film/Radio/TV, etc); or is the answer to find some more encompassing term (hence, University of Michigan’s program in “Screen Arts and Cultures” or various programs in “Moving Image Studies”).

One caution, though. We often talk, in relation to humanities disciplines, of ‘crises’ that seem to threaten to change this or that field forever. But disciplines are also places of inertia, business as usual – the name may change but little else. Or, as Gerry Graff argued in Professing Literature, his important study of the discipline of English: to the extent that disciplines ever do change from within, the process is more one of accretion rather than revolution. [7] That is, often when a field encounters a new paradigm, it hires someone to handle that while leaving everything else the same: for instance, my department hires someone in digital media while, in a manner, using that to dispense with the need to rethink any other part of the curriculum (such as auteur courses which include figures, such as Scorsese, whose career is intersecting with digital cinema in consequential ways).

There are drawbacks, then, to the rhetoric of “crisis in the humanities”. It overstates the impact of new paradigms that, actually, are often easily added to the inertial structure. Also, the rhetoric makes crisis into a fundamental, and therefore naturalised condition, rather than something that might have historical specificity – not crisis per se but this or that crisis rooted in a particular time. In this respect, I would say, I do think there currently is a crisis of the humanities, but it only quite indirectly has to do with the digital and new media. It is an external crisis: an increasing demand by governments and granting agencies and parents and students and areas known as STEM – science, technology, engineering, mathematics. To the extent that we are indeed out of the recession of 2008 (and I am not convinced we are), the effects of economic downturn endure in academia well beyond possible recovery in other domains. Belt-tightening allows the sciences (and, to a degree, social sciences) to enact revenge on humanities, especially newer areas, in funding, program-provisionment, hiring, and so on.

To some degree, the turn in the humanities to the digital represents accommodation to pressures of marketisation and monetisation: it allows humanists to imagine that they are as pragmatic as scientists, and it gives students the impression that media study, even cinema study, is preparation for information production in the new economy. Barrett Hodsdon, who first brought me to Australia in the 1980s, writes me from Sydney with an extreme version of this: “I fear film studies in Australia is in severe decline and displacement at the tertiary level with all the hype over the digital revolution”. Of course, digitalisation bears complicated relations to any crisis of humanities knowledge; but we do need to question its role in a moment when humanities are increasingly, and quite literally, being called to account. I hope my varied comments here can contribute to our ongoing conversation.

[1] André Frankovits (ed.), Seduced and Abandoned: The Baudrillard Scene (Sydney: Stonemoss, 1984).
[2] Theodor Adorno (ed. Robert Hullot-Kentor), Current of Music (London: Wiley, 2009).
[3] Adrian Martin, “The Inward/Outward Turn”, [in]Transition, Vol. 1 No. 3 (August 2014),
[4] Media History Digital Library,
[5] Jon Lewis & Eric Smoodin (eds), Looking Past the Screen: Case Studies in American Film History and Method (New York: Duke University Press, 2007).
[6] Eric Hoyt, Hollywood Vault: Film Libraries Before Home Video (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2014).
[7] Gerald Graff, Professing Literature: An Institutional History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

About the Author

Dana Polan

About the Author

Dana Polan

Dana Polan is a professor in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. He is the author of eight books in film and media, including The Sopranos (Duke University Press, 2009), and The French Chef (Duke University Press, 2011).View all posts by Dana Polan →