Digital Planet

Nick Pinkerton on “This Is MiniDV (on 35mm)”

Jeff Tremaine, Jackass: The Movie, 2002, 35 mm, color, sound, 98 minutes.

THE FILMS THAT WILL BE PLAYING at Anthology Film Archives in “This Is MiniDV (On 35mm)” are collected according to a simple principle, but for this viewer they conjure up a complicated welter of feelings. In keeping with recent (and welcome) developments following the DCP changeover catastrophe, which have raised awareness of projection format and brought us festivals and programs dedicated to nitrate film and 3D restorations, ultra-niche “This Is MiniDV” looks at a brief moment in the late 1990s and early aughts when the digital revolution was only partially complete: almost totally in postproduction, an outlier in production, and in distribution not at all. With 35 mm still the standard for theatrical projection, this meant that even films shot on the wave of consumer-grade standard-definition DV cameras would have to be printed on celluloid if they were to reach a wide audience, and the reels unspooling at AFA are the remaining artifacts of this bygone era.

The program comes courtesy of rep film-listing site Screen Slate, the only website that actually gives me pleasure in checking daily, and it has a particular poignancy for one of my vintage. This comes from the fact that their heyday happens to approximately correspond to my film school undergraduate years, when I was an Earnest Young Man fired with enthusiasm for the cinema—they are a Proustian madeleine of murky palette and digital artifacting. It was a moment where one might still be taught editing by cutting 16-mm stock of a Gunsmoke fistfight on a flatbed Steenbeck while being told in class that the future of the medium was a movie shot by a young Dane on a Sony DCR-PC3 Handycam: Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration (1998).

Vinterberg’s film, which makes flashy use of the Handycam’s lightweight mobility and ability to burrow into the smallest crevasses, is key for several reasons. Concerning an eldest son’s determination to torpedo his father’s sixtieth birthday by letting all those assembled know that the grand old man molested him, it was an early augury of the relationship between the “raw” aesthetic of early DV and touchy subject matter. The return of the (sexually) repressed was hot stuff at the time, hence Miguel Arteta’s Chuck & Buck (2000), which reunites two preadolescent fuckbuddies as very different adults. The movie’s bouncy, twee sound track cues, awkward-pause comedy, and “I’m okay, you’re okay” resolution set the stage for a thousand Sundance abominations to come. Digital was also meant to confer authenticity, something that Michael Winterbottom toys with in his glib Manchester music-scene panorama 24 Hour Party People (2002), intermixing stock footage with original DV material to recapture the immediacy of this period’s incredible creative ferment, as well as to convey the drab gray-brown cruddiness of northern England in the 1970s. (The film’s stations-of-the-cross treatment of Ian Curtis’s suicide is still leering and ghoulish, though this time through I did appreciate the subtle hints of Alan Partridge that star Steve Coogan brings to the character of Factory Records cofounder and Granada Television presenter Tony Wilson.)

The Celebration is also distinguished as the first film to earn “Dogme 95” classification. The term refers to a manifesto signed by Vinterberg and his countryman Lars von Trier that puts forth a list of “Vows of Chastity”—only location shooting, handheld camera, no special effects, and minimal lighting—which, if followed, would supposedly detoxify a film culture corrupted by artifice and filthy lucre. Von Trier is represented at AFA by his Dancer in the Dark (2000), a gallows musical starring Björk that wasn’t Dogme-certified but which did stage its seven production numbers live, capturing them warts-and-all with something like a hundred cameras running simultaneously. When the movie arrived in theaters, its star was coming off as good a three-album run (Debut, Post, Homogenic) as any solo artist has ever had, and Dancer in the Dark is of interest in the sense that any document of a once-in-a-generation talent at her prime must be. Though it should be said that while something like “Hyperballad” has given me insights with lifelong application, there’s little worth mulling over in this dour reworking of the Dennis Potter/Herbert Ross Pennies from Heavens (1978/81), which contains perhaps the silliest courtroom scene in film history and can barely conceal its snide superiority to showbiz razzle-dazzle. (It takes courage to enjoy it, Lars.)

Lars von Trier, Dancer in the Dark, 2000, 35 mm, color, sound, 140 minutes.

Like Protestantism and so many reformative movements, Dogme 95 mostly came down to an excuse to cut corners and not do tiresome things under the guise of purification. It was enormously influential for a spell among young men looking for a creed, as were the jeremiads of blowhard academic and John Cassavetes biographer Ray Carney, but vows of poverty look a little less appealing when the visual impoverishment of cinema is a rule rather than exception. Still, back then Dogme quickly went international, and its challenge was taken up by alleged wunderkind Harmony Korine in his Julien Donkey Boy (1999), an alarming combination of desperate, fraudulent performances and inspired ideas for what to do with a DV camera. Take, for instance, the scene in a thrift store with Chloë Sevigny––not for a moment believable as a working-class Queens girl––given a measure of veracity by the fact that it’s caught with a glasses camera.

The hidden-camera aesthetic is also essential to the two legitimately great American films in the series. The first feature-film spinoff of the MTV show of the same name, Jackass: The Movie (2002) was the apotheosis of a decade-plus of suicidal backyard stunts and skate video culture, specifically the tapes produced by Big Brother Magazine and Bam Margera’s CKY contribution. The Jackass films, which move between pranking passersby and testicular trauma– or vomit-inducing stuntwork, have sometimes been classed up by comparisons to silent comedy, but they have no story lines to speak of, just a series of ingeniously idiotic vaudevillian blackout skits presided over by the deadpan emcee/punching bag Johnny Knoxville. The knockabout American tradition is likewise drawn on in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000), which has Damon Wayans’s adenoidal Ivy League–educated television writer developing a wildly offensive minstrel show in anticipation of being released from his contract in the ensuing fracas, only to wind up with a massive hit on his hands. While weighed down by some rote dramatic passages in its latter half, the movie at its best is a volatile and highly inappropriate piece of gonzo filmmaking with something to offend everyone. Contemporary reviews were tepid—Roger Ebert found the film “perplexing”—but Bamboozled is alive precisely because it gives a sense of being at war with itself: Wayans’s character is persuasive and cuttingly articulate even as he argues against the film’s apparent thesis, while the scenes of the studio tapings of “Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show” express the depths of Lee’s misanthropy, an outright contempt for the gormless masses. And unlike the ham-handed satire of Lee’s Chi-Raq (2015), the movie is a sick comic riot, from Michael Rapaport’s blowhard wannabe ’hood network exec to Wayans’s over-enunciated voice-over reading, “Needless to say, the Mau Maus did not fit into our plans.”

DV gave access to young filmmakers—AFA’s program includes The Forest for the Trees (2003), the debut of twenty-six-year-old Toni Erdmann director Maren Ade. It also acted as an agent of rejuvenation for those not so young. When Agnès Varda made The Gleaners & I (2000), she had her career’s worst debacle just behind her, the woeful, cameo-studded cinephile nostalgia trip A Hundred and One Nights (1994), but the ability to operate as a one-woman crew seemed to refocus and rejuvenate her. Some will also claim Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (2002), a film consisting almost entirely of dashboard-mounted views of the driver (the excellent Mani Akbari) and passengers in a small coupe moving around urban Tehran, as among the Iranian filmmaker’s supreme accomplishments, though it seems to me, while occasionally quite moving, basically a formal experiment exploring DV’s capacity for long takes, particularly suited to shooting with nonprofessional performers without fear of burning through precious film stock.

David Lynch, Inland Empire, 2006, 35 mm, color, sound, 180 minutes.

Pedro Costa was working along not entirely dissimilar lines beginning with his 2000 In Vanda’s Room, shooting hundreds of hours of material on DV with the residents of Lisbon’s since-bulldozed Fountainhas slum. With Colossal Youth, Costa established himself as a trailblazer in digital cinematography, not mimicking the effect of film but exploring the new medium in its own right, while, somewhat atypically in this company, keeping his camera locked down on a tripod. Ventura, a retired Cape Verdean construction worker, is at the center of Colossal Youth and appears in every scene, whereas the sunlit sky appears in almost none—a sliver of blue here, a blown-out window there. Costa gets ravishing low-light images, deep blacks in his chiaroscuro compositions, and a remarkable sense of the patina of rooms which have seen so much hardship, contrasted to the immaculate walls of the new housing project, which have seen none, free of ghosts but also without a soul.

Colossal Youth was released in 2006, by which time digital had begun to make significant inroads in Hollywood productions—take Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, shot with the high-end high-def Thompson Viper FilmStream—and it forms an outlier in the series with David Lynch’s Inland Empire from the same year. Lynch had for years been an analog holdout, cutting films on a reel-to-reel Kern when the rest of Hollywood had long since gone Avid, but when he went digital he did so with the zeal of a true convert, and in a 2006 Wired interview, he can be found rhapsodizing about the computerized future with characteristic “gee whiz” wonderment. (“If we keep our thinking caps strapped on, we could find something beautiful out there in the ether.”) Always attuned to texture like the painter-cum-director that he is, Lynch used his SONY PD-150—formerly a professional-grade camera, which, by that time, had become affordable to consumers—to pursue the possibilities of pixelated impasto, while filtering the tropes of B-noir through an appropriately chintzy-looking twenty-first-century aesthetic. From this breakthrough a straight line can be drawn to Lynch’s ongoing Twin Peaks: The Return, a program that suggests the artist, like the rest of us, has seen something altogether more malevolent emerge from the digital ether in the past decade.

“This Is MiniDV (on 35mm)” runs through August 22 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.