Digital Cinema

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Scott McQuire
Millennial fantasies As anyone interested in film culture knows, the last decade has witnessed an explosion of pronouncements concerning the future of cinema. Many are fuelled by naked technological determinism, resulting in apocalyptic scenarios in which cinema either undergoes digital rebirth to emerge more powerful than ever in the new millennium, or is marginalised by a range of ‘new media’ which inevitably include some kind of broadband digital pipe capable of delivering full screen ‘cinema quality’ pictures on demand to home consumers. The fact that the doubleedged possibility of digital renaissance or death by bytes has coincided with celebrations of the ‘centenary of cinema’ has undoubtedly accentuated desire to reflect more broadly on the history of cinema as a social and cultural institution. It has also intersected with a significant transformation of film history, in which the centrality of ‘narrative’ as the primary category for uniting accounts of the technological, the economic and the aesthetic in film theory, has become subject to new questions. Writing in 1986 Thomas Elsaesser joined the revisionist project concerning ‘early cinema’ to cinema’s potential demise: ‘A new interest in its beginnings is justified by the very fact that we might be witnessing the end: movies on the big screen could soon be the exception rather than the rule’.1 Of course, Elsaesser’s speculation, which was largely driven by the deregulation of television broadcasting in Europe in conjunction with the emergence of new technologies such as video, cable and satellite in the 1980s, has been contradicted by the decade long cinema boom in the multiplexed 1990s.2 It has also been challenged from another direction, as the giant screen ‘experience’ of large format cinema has been rather unexpectedly transformed from a bit player into a prospective force. However, in the same article, Elsaesser raised another issue which has continued to resonate in subsequent debates:

Scott McQuire, ‘Impact Aesthetics: Back to the Future in Digital Cinema?', Convergence: The Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, vol. 6, no. 2, 2000, pp. 41-61. © Scott McQuire. All rights reserved. Deposited to the University of Melbourne ePrints Repository with permission of Sage Publications .


Few histories fully address the question of why narrative became the driving force of cinema and whether this may itself be subject to change. Today the success, of SF as a genre, or of directors like Steven Spielberg whose narratives are simply anthology pieces from basic movie plots, suggest that narrative has to some extent been an excuse for the pyrotechnics of IL&M.3

Concern for the demise, if not of cinema per se, then of narrative in cinema, is widespread in the present. In the recent special ‘digital technology’ issue of Screen, Sean Cubitt noted a ‘common intuition among reviewers, critics and scholars that something has changed in the nature of cinema — something to do with the decay of familiar narrative and performance values in favour of the qualities of the blockbuster’.4 Lev Manovich has aligned the predominance of ‘blockbusters’ with ‘digital cinema’ by defining the latter almost entirely in terms of increased visual special effects: ‘A visible sign of this shift is the new role which computer generated special effects have come to play in the Hollywood industry in the last few years. Many recent blockbusters have been driven by special effects; feeding on their popularity’.5 In his analysis of Hollywood’s often anxious depiction of cyberspace in films such as The Lawn Mower Man (1992), Paul Young argues that ‘cyberphobic films overstress the power of the visual in their reliance on digital technology to produce spectacle at the expense of narrative’, and adds this is ‘a consequence that [Scott] Bukatman has argued is latent in all special effects’.6 A more extreme (but...
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