Author ········· Sam Wilkin
Published ······ February 11, 2020
Language ······· English

First as Tragedy, Then as

The Mirror, Film, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (Russia: 1975)

   Does a low quality recording access reality differently than a high-quality recording? As the crow flies, the contrast between cinematic film and candid digital video may be rather conspicuous. The great specimens of the moving image, whether they be of the theatrical or the documentative nature—are all deposited onto the blessed kinetic substrate of photochemical film or the purity of HD digital video. Hold this condition in contrast to low-quality digital video: its large shuffling pixels considered a phenomenon solely a product of our incessant impulse to document. The film negatives that documented the apex’s of cinema seem to share not even the most remote kin with the 5MP recordings of high-school locker room fights. The inability for low-definition to capture the intricate details of life seemed not to inhibit its pieces from capturing atrocities with a forensic remove.
    After the advent of digital consumer video cameras, the technical capacities and resolutions of the moving image began to diverge, the capacities of the long established film negative rose inits capabilities of documentation, development and restoration; while the resolutions of digital video began to plummet. Digital technology became incumbent upon the downscaling and affordability of physical hardware required to expose the most base digital recording. By the time of my entry into the 5th Grade in 2007, even most 11 year olds came equipped with flip-phones that sported a primitive lenses. Poor quality digital videos became ubiquitous—no longer was video relegated to the content deserving of a 35MM negative, instead, everything began to be documented. Low-Quality video became increasingly worthless not only through their poor quality, but through their omnipresence.   

The 240p Experience

    Within the stratum of images, each image is unavoidably assigned a space within its register. As Hito Steyerl noted, “Resolution was fetishized as if its lack amounted to castration of the author.”1 For indigent video to ascend from the putrid dregs of the image economy into the stream of the orthodox—to defy the caste of image-detritus—an image must provide ajustifiable commodity to the total flow of images. For a pixelated video to make itself upwardly mobile, it must depict something shocking: the most effective being exceptional displays of sex and violence. Within conventional avenues, images bankrupt of quality must make up fortheir inadequacies through corroboration of foul depths of human nature. This perception has no doubt varied through changing formats—but one fact remains uniform: that popular channels of media consumption do not openly welcome pixels into their broadcast—whether that be the televised news in the 2000’s, or the contemporary total flow of social media feeds, unless they are depicting something shocking.
    This is evidenced by the kneejerk initial reaction of fear or nervous excitement when a major news outlet broadcasts a shaky 240P video. To flip on the screen and to awaken the image to a shaky display full of artifacted blurry video is to have the content prefigured by the form. Recordings of this type are usually disseminated with the apology of “Breaking News” as to compensate for both the graphic content and the state of the video: which is customarily provisional until an instrument capable of higher caste of video documentation arrives on the scene of the incident, furnished with a newscaster and the appropriate emergency personnel. Within the raceways of traditional channels of media consumption—this is almost undoubtedly an image’s sole 15 second opportunity to be amongst the big shots of respected video formats.

Benny's Video, Film, directed by Hanake Michael 1992).

    This is not to say that the immaculate sensors of the upper echelon recording hardware are somehow slated with an inability to document atrocities, but rather, that the low quality image is only incapable of representing beauty. To posit the compressed 240P video into a dialectical opposition would be to present it across the 35MM photo-chemical exposure. While low quality seems suitable for documenting atrocities, its impotence seems disproportionate towards beauty. Whereas the 35mmm, rather than providing an effigy of reality though blurredpixels, ennobles the image to a degree higher than that of first-hand eyewitnessed reality—everything privileged enough to enter its cannon of light is ennobled to a timeless sublime. Where low-quality degrades reality, high-quality enriches it.

The Candid and the Theatrical

    A motorized passerby, glimpsing the sight of laundry animating itself in the wind from the view of their car window, decides to record it on their iPhone. This process —now almost ubiquitous contemporary culture, can be called “candid recording.” Its main purpose stems from the impulse to document—whether that be for personal use or to share with others, otherwise, no ulterior motives towards any formal production of narrative through the independent creation of the video its compiling with other similar segments. The candid documenter captures reality in the act—there is no fictitious set.
    We can then compare this to that to the production of the cinematic image. The cinematic image is rendered possible by the “Film Set”, or the technical apparatus which surrounds the camera by way of an artificial backdrop, lights, meters, viewing tables, microphones and the like. What the film set seeks to accomplish is not recreation of reality—as anyone acquainted with the filmic medium knows the cinematic image is necessarily fake. What is retained from the filmic experience is not believability but rather invisibility2. The camera, the crew, the lights, the microphone, the hair and makeup—they are not seen. In fact, their existence within the film set is exactly what renders them invisible. The lights, for instance: by lighting a set that emulates that of the outdoors via large towers with beating LEDs attached: we —the non-peripheral viewer bounded by the confines of the aspect-ratio of the camera —are offered a view of the outdoors graced by beautiful sunlight in a quaint rural Austrian suburb, rather than an artificially lit studio in California.
“the equipment-free aspect of reality here has become the height of artifice, the sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology ... The shooting of a film, especially of a sound film, affords a spectacle unimaginable anywhere at any time before this. It presents a process in which it is impossible to assign to a spectator a viewpoint which would exclude from the actual scene such extraneous accessories as camera equipment, lighting, machinery, staff assistants, etc.—unless his eye were on a line parallel with the Lens.”3

    What this technology also affords the image is the presupposition to dramatic and aesthetic appeal. Beauty—via the dramatic, rich, life-like creation rendered possible by the film production, is offered to the viewer for appraisal. Compare the rich image of the summits of the cinema of modernity: Citizen Kane, 2001 a Space Odyssey, Stalker,and attempt to translate that image into the Samsung Galaxy S1. The dramatic appeal of low quality images is apriori obviated by its form. The buttress of cinema: emotional appeal, is allergic to low quality video. The digital valley only depicts the raw mechanisms of light; the emotional or dramatic potentials of the moving image are absent from its capabilities.

   Benjamin’s essay was written in 1935, where the video recording technology was expensive, and only accessible through the production of dramatic films, long before the popularity of consumer video recording devices. His theory also predated the digital valley by 50 years, before a clear distinction could even be made between the popular usage of dramatic and candid video. And yet, his inquiries into the reality created by the film set still remain relevant. The further the moving image distances itself from reality by imposing extra technology into the production of the image, the closer we feel to its simulation of reality.

Reality and Exposure

    Is there more violence in the low quality image? Or is the low-quality image, through its rejection to beautification, and its capturing only the most mechanical interactions of light: is not the low quality image more honest? The most free from subjectivity? The most documentative? Maybe this underpinning, our unconscious belief that low-quality is untainted from romantics is what allows the image to hold weight only when it's encumbered with shocking, violent material. “Photographs that depict suffering shouldn't be beautiful.”4 In this respect, the low resolution image becomes a vessel incapable of beauty, yet especially suitable for displays of violence. A cursed image, no doubt.
    By only depicting only the most base, surface levels of light—the digital valley becomes a vessel, free from subjective motives. Its allergy to beauty renders it incapable of being the vessel for politicization. It's an image of forensics, not an image of hope.5

Postmodernism and the Digital Image

    The pixelated image of the digital valley represents a condition more emblematic of Jameson’s conception of postmodernism than any other formal medium currently in existence. Jameson pronounced video over film as the pinnacle incarnation of postmodernism, and yet even then, the time in which his book was published in 1991 predates the true degradation of video into its truly frail manifestation in the 2000’s. Through its severe decline in visual coherency, the digital valley potentiated the depthlessness, and flatless that Jameson pronounced as the “supreme formal feature of all postmodernisms. This depthlessness is also potentiated by the erosion of authorship through the atomized digital cannons in which low-quality circulateed. There is an anti-foundationalism within the digital valley, which evades any sort of deeper logic or digestion that can be found in industrial cinema, or even the candid high-quality. There is no ability rumination in the low-quality: and if it is true that the digital valley is only merited true transactional value when it bears testimonials of violence- it becomes the bearer of tragedy without the ability for contemplation on tragedy. The pixelated atrocity is not the image of hope, the symbol of revolution: there is a ceiling to its ascension—the pixelated video is provisional, sensational. It transforms the empathy of disaster into a surface sensationalism, the memories of horror into the granular swarm of attention currency. “The greatest horrors have a roll to play in the building of civilization” and yet, the low-quality atrocities are not memorable, they evade empathy, they are seen and disposed of.

The Brechtian Image

    It’s interesting to consider the potentials for the digital valley within dramatic production. A view that does not rely on the invisibility of hand, or camera, but instead, clutches onto this visibility, making it as emphatic as possible. This visibility is not accomplished through, say, the recording of the crew and set, breaking the fourth wall, etc.—but rather, the raw substrate of the medium to be always visible.
    Brecht’s concepts of alienation pivot around the notion ripping the audience from their emotional viewing position, and instead placing them at a remove from the drama; this distance would allow the viewer to view the work more critically rather than dramatically oremotionally. This viewpoint offers the audience to analyze the events within a theatrical production as symbolic—in a way returning the events and actions to their allegorical elevation through imbuing them with remote meanings, rather than mere imitations of reality.6
    I propose that the most truthful accommodation of Brecht within contemporary mediums lies in the digital valley. A new Brechtian language in which the distancing from the material is done not through theatrical or thematic devices, but rather one that posits itself in omnipresence within the raw material of the viewing experience itself. By being incapable of beauty, the digital valley is an image that restricts the viewer from losing themselves in a drama—it positions the viewer in a brechtian state of distance. The digital valley only accommodates the raw mechanics of light, the surface, the topical depiction of reality. The underbelly of emotion, of drama, is immune to the digital valley. The rich filmic images of modernism were succeeded by digital consequences of postmodernism. But through this impotence, it equally distances us from the events it depicts, it allows for interesting variations of dramatic production that don't rely on the invisibility of the camera.

New Forms

    What’s the potential of the ugly image? The digital valley will never be stilted to the level of industrial cinema, but does it retain a different kind of meaning by being inextricable from the dregs of the image economy? By dramatizing resolutely undramatic forms—a new form iscreated—one inextricable from a contradiction. Through that contradiction, new modes of meaning production—operating not against —but within the postmodern space are formed; one that seeks not to navigate around the overwhelming depthlessness of postmodernity, but instead seeks to encumber itself with the exact language of the postmodern condition: arming itself with the debris of an era in order to sail through its center.

  1. Hito Steyerl, "In Defense of the Poor Image - Journal #10 November 2009 - E-Flux," Eflux, no. 10 (November, 2009).
  2. There are obvious divergents from this rule, Cinema Verite, and later Dogma 95 experimented with both the dissolution of the film set, and in some of its more divergent examples, the role of HD video.
  3. Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936), 13.
  4. Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.
  5. Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late CapitalismDuke University Press, 1991)
  6. Bertolt Brecht and Eric Bentley, "On Chinese Acting," The Tulane Drama Review 6, no. 1 (1961)

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