Digital Nostalgia

I’m finding Vivian Sobchack’s work useful in trying to unpack the tension between the cinematic apparatus I’m wishing to celebrate, and the “new media” through which I am attempting to do this, particularly her writing about the embodied relationship to technologies, particularly ‘Nostalgia for the Digital Object‘ (2004):

“Each technology not only differently mediates our figurations of bodily existence but also constitutes them. That is, each offers our lived bodies radically different ways of ‘being-in-the-world’. . . . Each differently and objectively alters our subjectivity while each invites our complicity in formulating space, time, and bodily investment as significant personal and social experience.” Trying to recreate the excitement of the communal cinematic experience through the (arguably solipsistic?) interface of the iPhone is always going to be problematic.

There’s also something about digital technology and the project of the “archive” which draws into relief questions of mortality and memory.  Writing about Pixar Animation Studio’s WALL-E, Sobchack (2009) acknowledges the nostalgia for the mechanical through the digital: “facing not only our own mortality but also that of photochemical cinema as we once knew it, it often takes a great deal of effort (and bravado) for a certain foundational generation of academic film scholars to remind ourselves that both we and cinema are not so much ageing as always becoming”.  Sobchack goes on to write about the scene in which WALL-E watches a videotape of Hello Dolly (Gene Kelly, 1969), arguing that “sitting centrally as it does in this computer-graphically rendered mise-en-scene, the videotape functions not only narratively as a remainder/reminder of a once vibrant, long-gone humanity capable of song, dance and romance, but also formally as a remainder/reminder of a once live-action but long-gone photochemical cinema capable of an indexicality that exists even when its subject is a fantasy … the videotape effectively serves, both narratively and formally, to overwhelm signs of ‘new media’, and of WALL-E’s own digital mode of animation.”

This tension between old and new media is something that Pixar seem to have been consciously invoking both in their mise-en-scene and thematically since the beginning of the Toy Story trilogy. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been watching Toy Story 2 (1999) on a daily basis (my small boy is obsessed with Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl), but the whole nostalgia for old media thing seems to permeate the film on almost every frame, from the tape cassettes strewn across the table at the yard sale to the old vinyl record player and VHS machine in Al’s apartment.

Indeed, the very premise of the film seems to be about the tension between old and new, and the anxiety of things wearing out, a theme that reaches its climax in the refuse dump scene in Toy Story 3.

This dialectic between old / new is linked to another dualism between the real / and its simulation. Having come to terms with his status as a toy, rather than a “real” Space Ranger, in the first Toy Story, it is Buzz who reminds Woody that he is a “child’s plaything” just as he’s reconciled himself to spending eternity behind glass in a toy museum – i.e. the function of a toy is to be played with, not “archived”.  In Toy Story 2, then, there is also a tension between the present moment and its preservation, the nature of liveness and the archive which keys into current concerns about the digital artefact and the task of future-proofing it. Ironically, as the very movie that signaled the first completely digital film (i.e. the first computer-generated and digitally projected movie), Toy Story 2 is incredibly nostalgic for residual, analogue audio-visual media. The irony is that with the conversion to digital projection the last bastion of celluloid, the 35mm release print, is under threat and with it one of the most stable forms of film preservation, even for digitally generated cinema. According to Bill Kinder Head of Editorial and Post Production at Pixar they still back up on film archival separations as there is no stable digital storage medium (in forthcoming personal interview to be published in PostScript). I am currently grappling with these concerns in a half-written article on ‘Cinema Distribution in the Age of Digital Projection’, and have also reflected on them in a previous publication, ‘Digital Decay‘.

Not sure how all this relates to the Curzon project, if at all, but just wanted to jot some rambling thoughts down before they slip away – maybe I’ll write about this in more depth one day.

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2 Responses to Digital Nostalgia

  1. Pingback: Locative Rephotography | The Curzon Project

  2. Pingback: Projection Hero | The Curzon Project

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