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“It’s Alive!” Theory and Terror in Cinema in the Digital Age

By Ali Raz.


Nicholas Rombes, Cinema in the Digital Age: Revised Edition(Columbia University Press, 2017)

In Nicholas Rombes’ novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing, a hapless reporter travels to a motel to interview a librarian—who has, among other things, destroyed a trove of never-before-seen, single-print films by the likes of Lynch, Antonioni, and Jodorowsky. What emerges in the course of their conversations is not so much a list of reasons as a sense of severe threat, an abiding fear of their monstrous power. The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing samples noir aesthetics to posit a theory of film that would understand the cinematic image as viral: nonhuman, pernicious, capable of subtle transmission. In order to escape destruction at their hands, some films must be burned alive (like the cursed videotape of The Ring.) This vision of filmic power runs through Rombes’s work, spilling over from The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing into several other, formally distinct projects.

The most recent of such projects is a revised edition of Cinema in the Digital Age, a work of film theory that takes the form of a glossary of keywords. Cinema in the Digital Age addresses a perceived waning in the vitality of film theory, and is in this sense an attempted revitalization of the terrain. Rombes locates both the threat and the promise in “the digital turn” within cinema. “If media tends to theorize itself today—and that is a central premise of this book—then what is the role of the critic, of the academic?” Rombes asks early on, and then at multiple points throughout. If film theory is dead—dead because outstripped by the pace of change and the particular forms of digital media—how do we revive it? The largest ambition of this book is to offer one possible solution, a solution it performs rather than states.

What’s in a name? (Or, why words matter.)
“Film theory as a creative act: this may very well be its greatest legacy,” Rombes muses in the preface to this revised edition. Charting a lineage through Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, and André Bazin, Rombes situates Cinema in the Digital Age as a continuation of such experiments in the creation of film criticism that is as rigorous as it is creative, or as academic as it is artistic—while committed to a weakening of exactly these oppositions. Cinema in the Digital Age is a glossary of key terms, a textbook of keywords similar to what one might be assigned in a Film Theory seminar. The entries, however, do not sit comfortably within the usual notions of what a conceptual glossary should look like. Entries on “Punk,” “Love in the Time of Fragments,” and “The Real You,” sit alongside stalwarts such as “Interfaces,” “Realism,” and “Sampling.” It would be a mistake to understand Rombes’ experiments in style as a mere flourish, a form of literary window dressing beneath which the concepts remain unchanged. The power and charm of Cinema in the Digital Age lies precisely in its commitment to the idea that how a concept is constructed has deep implications for the concept itself. The manipulation of images made possible by digital media—pausing, reversing, enlarging, etc.—has enabled metric-driven, quantitative modes of analysis (Rombes cites studies of Average Shot Length and such entities as the Cinemetrics Database) which, while valuable in themselves, have meant a corresponding shift in the status of language as theory’s primary vehicle. Film theory, though “freed from the tyranny of language,” has perhaps “lost something as well.” It is Rombes’ project, in this sly index-cum-codex, to write through this loss: to see what can still be done with language as carrier of concepts. To this end, Rombes, self-consciously constructs a book of theory that can be skipped, skimmed, flipped through, doubled-back on, and opened at random without loss of sense. It can do this because of its style, because of the way Rombes writes it, for the non-linear, non-cumulative, fragmented prose blocks that nonetheless trace larger, unobvious lines of connection.

At this point, we might well ask: what is a concept? Here, I am drawn to the formulations of anthropologist Bhrigupati Singh, who traces the ways in which concepts contain intensities of thought, or even moods. In his stellar ethnography Poverty and the Quest for Life in Rural India, Singh asks: “Can we receive moods in knowledge, as we do in poetry or music?” Later in the same book he makes a spirited claim: “Concepts are spirit mediums.” What might this mean? How would concepts carry moods; and what paths would this open for scholarship?

Cinema in the Digital Age, though coming out of a different tradition of knowledge production, offers some possible responses to Singh’s provocative formulations. Through its disconnected entries that rely on associative leaps and a free-play of reference, Cinema in the Digital Age creates precisely a mood. It enables a reading experience that is as spastic and chance-based as digital media (in thumbing through the book, as Rombes suggests we do, we enact an earlier sense of the digital as well). Thick with literary reference, it makes a forceful claim for the primacy of literature in understandings of the digital. Through its own construction, it performs an argument for the relevance of how texts are built—from the smallest units up—to what those texts are talking about.

The image in an age of perfect reproduction. (Or, the horror.)
Why does Laing destroy those films? The novel doesn’t render a clear answer, beyond the sense that they were “dangerous.” The films presented a risk as radical as “love among consenting holograms,” to quote an offscreen voice in one of the novel’s many imaginary films. Laing’s destruction of films recalls the destruction of cursed videotapes in The Ring, one of Cinema in the Digital Age’s frequent points of reference. The Ring, as Rombes deploys it, is a vision of the horror of reproduction—of bodies, viruses, and images. Given the perfect reproducibility of digital images, “surely there is no escape from the tyranny of images now.” The  Ring becomes  a metaphor for perfect reproduction, and—more intriguingly—for the threat of this potential.

Why threat? For Laing, the answer is never made apparent. The force of the threat is only implied, through the gradual increase in the narrator’s vulnerability, his descent into personal wells of trauma/horror. There is a sense that even to engage with Laing and his descriptions—his verbal reproductions—of the films is to be tainted by them. Cinema in the Digital Age makes the case that the potential for perfect reproduction of digital images erases the mark of the maker. An image that logs reality perfectly denies the reality of the hand that holds the camera, the hand that shakes. This leads Rombes to one of his main claims in Cinema in the Digital Age: the nostalgia for the analog that marks first-wave digital cinema (the grainy images of The Blair Witch Project; exaggerated close-ups of faces in Inland Empire) is an attempt at reinscribing the human within the digital. “The introduction of “mistakes” into movies—which basically amounts to a human signature—is the most humanistic, the most tragic of things,” Rombes says at one point—a line of thought that finds filmic expression in such movements as Dogme95, another of Rombes’s returning references. The Dogme 95 group of filmmakers (which included Lars von Trier and Richard Martini, among others) rejected digital perfection in favor of “humanistic” efforts such as shooting on location, purely diegetic sound, and story that was small and human-scale (rather than, say, the spectacular of superhero or action movies.) In this formulation, the horror of the digital is a displacement of the horror of the nonhuman. Doubling down on this mirroring: the entity that is the cursed videotape of the The Ring violently rejects digital treatment. In a scene that Rombes references in his book, two characters attempt to zoom in on a detail in a corner of the frame.  When they try to stretch the alignment, the tape breaks.

bodies, pixels, or grains?

If the horror of abject, nonhuman forms finds a metaphor in the digital and must be exorcised by a renewed commitment to the human, what should we then make of a project such as Lost Signals? Lost Signals is a website attributed to Laing (with Rombes as its “temporary supervisor”) wherein a mysterious group of archivists log found footage—or, in their own words, “The Lost Signals Collection is an archive of speculative texts, images, sounds, and moving pictures lost to history.” In the short textual accompaniments to each post, Lost Signals obscures the origin of the files (the fictional characters behind their creation and transmission) as well as their destination, except to emphasize dizzying scale. We are told that a file marked “Slt. Wtr. 181890-87675108-09 – J. Kristeva,” for instance, will be stored in “the vast, temperature-controlled, deep-sediment vaults of the American Midwest.” These are chillingly nonhuman terms—and they offer a refreshing counterpoint to what can sometimes feel like romanticized notions of “humanism” in Cinema in the Digital Age. Sampling the entries in Lost Signals, I receive a sensation not of alien distance but of the excitement and potential of digital play. Mistakism and Dogme 95 enact one understanding of a human signature, but by no means exhaust the possibilities. In the weird, short, stubbornly opaque clips of the Lost Signals archive, the digital is mobilized not as a “nonhuman,” alien force but—within the crispness and particularity of its images, and their apparent ease of production—as a powerful medium for nonsense, fun, and play.

In setting up the mistakist humanism discussed in Cinema in the Digital Age, Rombes draws on Barthes’s concept of “the grain of the voice.” The grain of the voice, or the viscerality of certain artistic forms—“the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs”—can be found, says Rombes, in the deliberate errors of early digital cinema, where pixilation and shakiness trace a human imperfection and frailty. But there is another side to Barthes’s grain, and that is the side of the recipient: the body in the eyes that see, or the ears that listen, fingers that touch. Barthes’s project in The Grain of the Voice was the unabashedly personal one of tracking down the source of a particular pleasure, the formulation of “the impossible account of an individual thrill.” In identifying the grain, Barthes was also identifying the forms that gave him pleasure—the grain constitutes the audience as much as the creator/performer of an artwork. The grain is apprehended as much as it is articulated. Digital media that do not inscribe humanism in the manner of Rombes’s examples need not for this reason be understood as “cold,” “distant,” or “alien/nonhuman.” The texts of Lost Signals become important here, restoring complexity and nuance to Cinema in the Digital Age’s apprehension of digital media, performing an intertextual revision that aligns Rombes’ works with and against each other.

To end where we began
Cinema in the Digital Age, starting from the premise that media (having become ‘meta’) now increasingly perform their own theory,  stakes a claim to a new, reanimated film theory, one that generates concepts largely through association, experience, and intertextual reference. The serendipitous association, enabled through a particular textual formation, opens up new avenues of scholarly thought. The richness of reference in Cinema in the Digital Age is no accident. This is a text designed to be generative, to suggest lines of exploration rather than precise statements of conceptual “truth.” One of its main achievements is the sense, upon closing the book, that film theory is as alive, as vital if not as pernicious, as the tapes of The Ring. Theory as mood; theory as mode of encountering media; theory, itself, as grain.


Ali Raz‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tupelo Quarterly, Plinth, Occulum, Journal 69, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and elsewhere.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 15th, 2018.