Closed Circuits. Immanence as Disturbance in High Definition Cinema

[…] Electronic images are in a constant process of taking and losing shape. The analogue logic of sequencing complete images one after another thus gives way to a logic of morphing, where one images melts into the other. As Garrett Stewart puts it: “In post-filmic cinema, no image precedes the one we see – or follows from its sequence. All is determined by internal flux [of the single frame]”. Paradoxically enough, it is precisely this internal flux that ensures the immanence of the electronic image. Since the electronic image is in a constant process of change, it can become everything. Never complete, the electronic image shows (potentially) everything at once. The outside is always already included in the fluctuating inside of the image.

While these internal fluctuations were strikingly (and often painfully) visible in early TV and video experiments, as for example in the art installations by Nam June Paik or the films by Steina and Woody Vasulka, the advent of more detailed digital film images, shot and viewed in high definition, lets us forget the digital image’s fundamental instability. While video experiments, such as those mentioned above, highlighted the fractures and disruptions inherent to electronic imaging, the vast majority of contemporary commercial movies use high definition digital images, not to disrupt but to enhance and stabilize cinema’s illusionism.

However, I would argue that high definition in fact intensifies the disruptive aspect of digital imaging, precisely by trying to conceal it. There is an inherent paradox to the fact, that for rendering the digital image more detailed, one has to increase its pixel density. The extremely sharp images thus produced are in fact more pixelated, more fragmented and cut up than ever. Similarly, higher refresh rates of modern computer monitors, TV screens, or digital projectors, which make the images appear sharper, are in fact interrupting the flow of signals at an even higher rate: the faster you turn the image on and off, the crispier it looks. Be it pixel density or refresh rates, the price for the illusion of stability is an increase of fragmentation, and of transformation. […]

Michael Mann’s underrated magnus opum Miami Vice (2006), despised both by critics and audience for its un-filmic digital look, has probably gone the farthest in terms of investigating the disruptive aspect of high definition. The film’s jarring visual appearance is ultimately matched by its storyline. Like the digital images, which consist in a continuous transformation of data, so too are the movie’s protagonists, the two undercover police detectives Sonny Crockett and Riccardo Tubbs, constantly on the move. It is not just that they are always driving around in fast cars, speed boats, and private jets, but their personalities also seem completely unanchored, always adapting to the different situations they find themselves in. Even when they are not passing themselves off as drug traffickers or pimps, but revert to their supposedly true identity of vice cops, they are nothing but simulations. The tragic irony of these undercover agents is thus that underneath their cover there is nothing at all. Or as Riccardo Tubbs phrases it: “There is undercover and then there is ‘Which way is up?’” By playing their roles as well as they can, they have lost themselves within the make-believe. The “internal flux” of the digital image, which Garrett Stewart talks about, also defines the characters and their ever-shifting identities. For Crockett and Tubbs there is no kernel of identity, hidden behind their masquerade. Like the images, the characters have no “outside.” What you see, is what you get. But what you get is never a whole, and rather only a simulation.

As Lev Manovichs has pointed out, in digital cinema „the very distinction between creation and modification, so clear in film-based media (shooting versus darkroom processes in photography, production versus post-production in cinema) no longer applies […], since each image, regardless of its origin, goes through a number of programs before making it to the final film.“ So too, the characters, as seen in Miami Vice, presented in a digital format, become indistinguishable from these avatars, which were completely designed on a
computer. And in fact, they are. Simply by the capturing and storing of their image digitally, the characters have become victims of what Fredrick Kittler highlighted as the fundamental process of the computer per se: “the successful reduction of all dimensions to zero” […]

> complete essay as pdf

in: Lars Koch, Tobias Nanz, Johannes Pause (Ed.): Disruption in the arts. Berlin/Boston 2018, S. 171-185. ///