Friday, December 26, 2014

Self Theorizing Nostalgia, redux

Revisions are winding down as I prepare for the new year, and new quarter of teaching. Here is another pass at the central thesis of the forthcoming project on film nostalgia and digital cinema, the heart of the book's introduction:

[. . .] The unresolved paradox [of nostalgia for film in the digital age] is that nostalgia for celluloid can be (at the very least) a powerful ally in highlighting and questioning, from an economic standpoint, the necessity of the digital transition–even while that same nostalgia too often serves as a fully complicit co-conspirator in the industry’s relentless rush to a new era. This intense reflexivity—cinema’s knowing homages to itself—in so many recent nostalgia movies should be read less as some kind of radical creative innovation in a new age of technological possibility and more as Hollywood’s further appropriation of the reflective potential which a more progressive (mostly unfulfilled) nostalgia might offer—with the intention of shutting down any challenges to the kind of forward-thinking consumerism which defines post-industrial late capitalism. Thus the question is not just aesthetic but primarily economic. It is not a coincidence that so many of the movies mentioned above are in some sense industrial histories—which both highlight and conceal, through their respective nostalgic hazes, technological and studio histories past. 

This kind of self-theorizing nostalgia involves Hollywood media and their paratexts’ lovingly explicit foregrounding of its own pastiche past in reflexive but uncritical ways, celebrating the relationship between film’s past and cinema’s future through reassuring narratives that promote the imagined inevitability of aesthetic and technological change. Yet moments of this kind of self-aware nostalgia block off the possibility of resistant space for doubt, critique and alternatives regarding the messy economic realities of a digital transition which contains more troubling questions than answers beneath its self-referential surfaces (thus, is it the least bit surprising that so many “future-oriented” blockbusters consist mainly just of the nostalgic recycling of past franchises as Hollywood itself is largely built today around the self-sustaining economic and aesthetic value of nostalgia?). 

 There remains room, of course, for a more fragmentary and individualized kind of a truly “reflective” nostalgia, one somewhat outside the “official” channels of contemporary Hollywood—perhaps in the form of independent movies such as Escape From Tomorrow, film archives with a different perspective on the transitions throughout movie history, or even in rethinking the past self-theorizing of older films about the impending digital transition (to name only a few). But they all remain dependent upon active and idiosyncratic impulses which are separate from, but hardly oppositional to, the present cycles of consumption, while their ultimate value remains generally unclear, particularly in a postmodern culture that too often rewards the kind of ignorance and passivity that further feeds the market imperatives and de-historicizing logic of such self-theorizing impulses in the first place.

Many scholarly discourses on the innovations of digital cinema, while otherwise plentiful, have still not fully come to grips with disturbing questions regarding the negative impact on labor forces and economic conditions which are in large part intensified by the digital transition—what does it mean to be a post-industrial, information-based economy? Film is (was) a labor-intensive medium. Yet while it is fair to celebrate some of the money saved as a result of the cheap economics of DV cinematography, internet distribution, and even perhaps digital theatrical exhibition (for some), it seems fair to ask at what cost? As just one example, the trade paper Variety—hardly a bastion of anti-Hollywood rhetoric—reported in 2013 that “once the digital transition is complete . . . [this] could put 10,000 theatre staffers out of work.” This, meanwhile, only scratches the surface of economic changes at stake. Most every aspect of making movies with the medium of film costs more than it does with digital, yet that’s also because more people were employed (from film developers to union projectionists)—a shift which has generally been so overwhelming few seem fully willing to acknowledge it.

Dystopic self-theorizing anxieties over technology’s imminent replacement of human beings is of course nothing new, especially in movies in some way narratively about computers. One is reminded of the otherwise utopic TRON’s (1982) ominous, but not entirely inaccurate, suggestion that “pretty soon the computers will start thinking and the people will stop.” Moreover, we can trace this all the way back at least as far as 1957’s Desk Set, a movie not incidentally supported by an IBM Corporation invested in allaying such anxieties. In this late Kathryn Hepburn-Spencer Tracy romantic comedy, a giant computer is installed in the research department of a New York City television network. Its function is to store all the information and data contained within the vast archives of the department, so that it can be retrieved instantly. Understandably, the women working there, led by Hepburn’s character, become convinced the computer’s primary role is to replace them. 

Thus we see one of the earliest examples of an anxiety that increasingly pervades discussions regarding the value of labor in digital late capitalism today. Of course, the reassuring twist at the end of the movie is that the computer cannot adequately work without significant human oversight, and that its job there is not to replace the women, but to “free” them up to devote even more time to do research on the clock. In 1957, no doubt, this seemed plausible—and the dystopic future it briefly envisioned was so far off that any real question on the matter was probably far too abstract to seriously consider.

Yet, reflecting back on the film today, it seems that there was a great deal of truth in those anxieties, as we can reasonable assume that in real life computers did contribute to a great deal of down-sizing, and even the elimination, of research staffs (and other forms of “redundant” labor) at countless companies, since all their work could now be stored. It is equally interesting too that we don’t see such self-theorizing narratives about the potentially negative effects of technical innovation on labor out of Hollywood anymore (other than ones, such as The Artist, safely isolated in a nostalgic past), most likely because such naïve optimism today would cut too close to home. To be very clear, I’m not at all suggesting that we will ever be entirely (or even mostly) replaced by computers. But there are longer term questions here that are worth pursing, and that movies such as Desk Set, in retrospect, provided only a short-term solution to, or even a deflection from, these questions by exaggerating otherwise legitimate concerns in such a way that negated them. In short, the movie’s utopic depiction of a world where computers and a large scale workforce could possibly co-exist creates a less reassuring feeling today.

The transition from a manufacturing to an information-based economy does necessitate more specialized jobs, but for fewer people. At the same time, even those highly skilled jobs suffer from the decreasing value of labor in the late capitalist marketplace, as indicated by the 2013 Oscar protest around the treatment of effects artists and animators working on Life of Pi (2012), and since repeated at the 2014 Academy Awards. Studios saved money by transferring to digital production and distribution, but this has not translated to lower ticket prices (quite the opposite in an age of IMAX and 3D ticket inflation). And what of the audience’s own labor (often itself anchored by nostalgic fandoms) in an age of participatory culture and crowdsourcing, when studios increasingly rely on uncompensated fan production (blogs, videos), the free hype of social media, and other digital avenues to promote movies at minimal cost? 

Moreover, there are still other disturbing long-term economic questions in the age of digital cinema which people are only beginning to ask—how does the digital transition affect the economic viability of film archives, celluloid manufacturers, and independent movie theatres, all of whom risk extinction under the crushing financial burdens which only rise as film itself becomes increasingly rare and thus more expensive? Yet Hollywood’s solution so far has not been to idealize a sustainable future still to come, so much as to romanticize the industrial changes of the past, to pin hopes on the idea that economic problems will work themselves out because, such nostalgic logic goes, “they always have.”

John Caldwell has noted the intense reflexivity built into Hollywood rhetoric today--how it positions and sells itself in ways that both promote and conceal modern labor conditions in the industry. In his book, Production Cultures, Caldwell combs through various trade publications and other kinds of industrial discourses to articulate the ways in which communities within Hollywood theorize themselves—“self-theorizing talk"—rhetoric which is readily distributed to the larger public as a means to frame larger perceptions of the primary text (Derek Johnson, meanwhile, has also followed this line of inquiry in his insightful discussion of media franchising, while Colleen Montgomery has noted this in relation to Pixar’s own hyper-reflexivity). 

“Film and Television today,” Caldwell writes, “reflect obsessively back upon themselves and invest considerable energy in over-producing and distributing this industrial self-analysis to the public.” There is, in other words, no “authentic” reality inside or outside the industry and its production (textual and metatextual), when all information is carefully managed for demographic and advertising ends.

This then has profound implications for the traditional scholar seeking to analyze such texts—it is not enough to suggest that cinema’s tendency to theorize itself offers up new reading strategies for a more active viewer, as that risks overlooking both Hollywood’s relentless ability for market adaptation while also championing the myth of an active spectator who somehow stands in consistent opposition to this consumer onslaught, instead of serving as its generally reliable ally. “Critics and theorists have traditionally hyped reflexivity and deconstruction [. . .],” he adds, “as indications of vanguard cinematic agitation or critical audience resistance” despite increasing evidence to the contrary.

The industry’s self-aware theorizing of nostalgia in the digital age follows a similar logic—as Hollywood is intensely aware of, and invested in, the promotion and maintenance of such nostalgia as a central sustaining economic force, as well as a stabilizing aesthetic presence that conceals the arbitrary nature of such changes. And the many textual moments of the industry’s self-awareness about its own (and its audience’s) nostalgic investments are hardly the sites of an active resistance to its aggressively protean capitalist sensibilities, even as they may on occasion offer the unexpected line of flight.

For its part, Flickers of Film confines such industry analysis to textual readings of the inherently reflexive nature of the films themselves (how their visions of industry and technical innovation reflect a self-awareness of an industry in a period of transition) and to the textual analysis of paratexts—namely, some attention to trade periodicals, viral videos, trailers, and more or less official biographies of the companies and figures at the heart of the project. In particular, my research tends to gravitate towards the kind of rhetoric which emphasizes a “reductive” and a “pre-emptive" form of rhetoric. The former stresses a kind of inherent “magic” to how the films are made, while the latter emphasizes the often hyperbolic celebration of these newest innovations. Both, meanwhile, stress the natural manifestation of good old fashioned hard work and artistic vision over the messy complications of technical details and collective efforts. And thus both seem closely attuned to “explaining” the elaborate developments of the digital age through a self-conscious nostalgia for its past.

Importantly, though, the industry itself is outwardly in a form of resistant denial at the moment about the centrality of such nostalgia (or of nostalgia for itself). In a review of The Artist, Variety film critic Peter Debruge actually suggested that “today’s [audiences] demonstrate little nostalgia for cinema’s roots,” despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary within and outside the industry. Similarly, colleague Timothy M. Gray framed the phenomenon slightly differently, suggesting that the continued fascination with film was not about nostalgia at all, but rather “the pleasure in looking back should not be a fake comfort in recalling ‘simpler times,’ but an avenue for research, learning and inspiration.” 

This suggests, at a minimum, that even the industry is conscious of appropriating nostalgia’s potentially more reflective forms, while also being aware of nostalgia’s usually negative connotation when explicitly addressed as such. The most intensely nostalgic people can be the ones most in denial about it—preferring to see such romanticizing as simply the “way things were.” Part of Hollywood’s self-theorizing trick here then involves maximizing nostalgia’s economic and aesthetic power at the same time the industry disavows any direct acknowledgement of it—given the knee-jerk assumptions of its creative laziness and of its potential resistance to the inevitability of change so otherwise inherent to late capitalism. “Nostalgia isn’t nostalgia; it’s something else . . .”—even as it is.

In trying to understand contemporary cinema’s peculiar relationship to its past, history is always thoroughly intertwined with nostalgia. This is not to say they are the same perspective at all, but that it is practically impossible to separate one from the other in understanding how popular culture mediates our relationship to the past in increasingly self-aware ways. In regards to the ubiquity of nostalgia then, I argue that some iteration of postmodernism remains a viable mode of analysis in discussions of our present cinematic historical consciousness. The question here is not merely representational, or indexical, regarding the ontology of digital media—Rosen, for instance, has argued that “recent arguments for the radical novelty of representational and epistemological fields often involve claims that ideals of indexicality have been displaced [in the transition from analog to digital]. ‘Postmodernism’ is only one widespread code word for forwarding such a position in theories of culture and representation.” But I would argue that the postmodern—when pulled back from its often admittedly broad, populist usage—can continue to work as one possible framework for digital cinema within a very specific intersection of late capitalist culture, nostalgia movies and a elusive sense of historical consciousness (for the industry and for audiences).

The “nostalgia” mode of films refers to the ways in which cinematic depictions of the past relied more on stylistic clichés than with attempting to understand the contradictions and ambiguities of history, as Fredric Jameson argued. Equally important, however, is that this was an aesthetic and cultural reflection of economic changes in the post-industrial era, where the idea of “historical consciousness” was defined in part as an (in)attention to dialectical questions of market changes and labor practices which create a deeper context for images too often de-rooted from such historical origins in the postmodern age. Such cinematic visions of history—both old films still circulating, as well as contemporary depictions of the past—are undoubtedly affectively rich (meaning, they possess the potential to provoke any number of possible responses from the viewer). But these same images are inherently meaningless as representations of the past—simulacra, pastiche—without the too-often-neglected contexts beyond the surface which might create historical consciousness.

At the risk of misunderstanding, it’s also important to acknowledge how our access to some sense of “history” still remains, in spite of this kind of nostalgia, through enough time, research and labor. As a film historian myself, I certainly believe in this ideal. As Dixon and Foster have noted too about the supposed ubiquity of movie titles and information available in the digital age, “there’s much, much more out there for those willing to take the time to troll the web for diversion or enlightenment—though there’s also apparently more of the former than the latter.”

More importantly, it’s equally true that such intensive work, the taking of one’s time, is very rarely done in a moment of popular culture when quick, superficial feedback to queries online is too easily accessible, where personal interpretations of old films become equated with studying movie history (as my previous work on such de-rooted fan defenses of Song of the South sought to demonstrate, and where the audience appeal of mainstream narratives is so often precisely in the desire “not to have to think” for a few hours.

So where might another kind of nostalgic “access” to media history possibly reside—or more to the point, what can it offer? In The Future of Nostalgia (2001), Svetlana Boym put forth the provocatively useful concept of “reflective” nostalgia—a messier, more idiosyncratic and self-aware, vision of a fractured, incomplete past which uses that knowing sense of yearning for yesterday to construct a dialogue with the present (and future). Such nostalgia “reveals that longing and critical thinking are not opposed to one another, as affective memories do not absolve one from compassion, judgment or critical reflection."

Yet this utopic ideal of reflective nostalgia is also always in tension with more “restorative” forms that imagine and seek to preserve a simplistic, collective vision of an idealized, stable and self-contained past that never quite existed in the first place—the kind of nostalgia more in line with Hollywood’s loving sense of its own history, with most mainstream audiences’ affection for media’s past, and with Jameson’s polemical notion of nostalgia in the postmodern age. Restorative nostalgia “proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up memory gaps,” Boym adds, and “does not think of itself as nostalgia, but rather as truth and tradition.” Any meaningful account of nostalgia in popular culture today must keep these two approaches—reflective and restorative—in productive struggle with one another.

That said, however, Boym also recognizes how, by its very peculiar and individualized nature, such reflective nostalgia is the rare exception, and perhaps is ultimately inconclusive, or at least ephemeral, in what progressive or oppositional value it offers. “At best,” she writes, “reflective nostalgia can present an ethical and creative challenge” to the constant obsession with newness and progress. Restorative nostalgia, in this context, resides in the cultural dominant that is Hollywood’s hegemonic economic and aesthetic ideologies; reflective is that fleeting flicker of something else which somehow slips occasionally and briefly outside those otherwise all-consuming perimeters—that something which is frustrated (and frustrating). 

Thus, this book remains attentive to (if also usefully skeptical of) this ideal held out by Boym’s less common form of nostalgia, since yet another form of “self theorizing” in Flickers of Film would be the ways in which this project follows its own idiosyncratic, unapologetically autobiographical and deeply ambivalent engagement with the last thirty years of digital cinema. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Self-Theorizing Nostalgia

With grading and syllabi (for the moment) mostly behind me, I'm spending the next three weeks finishing revisions on Flickers of Film. At the core of revisions is fleshing out the primary idea of what kind of nostalgia is at work (beyond regurgitating Svetlana Boym's reflective and restorative modes, or simply following the Jameson/Hutcheon/Dyer debate over pastiche). The idea in progress is one I'm calling "self theorizing nostalgia" (with a knowing node to both Caldwell and the book's inherently autobiographical nature). Here's a possible thesis paragraph I came up with this afternoon:



 . . . This reflexivity—cinema’s self-referential homages to itself—in so many recent nostalgia movies should be read less as some kind of radical innovation in a new age of technological possibility and more as Hollywood’s further appropriation of the reflective potential which a more progressive (mostly unfulfilled) nostalgia might offer by questioning the necessity of the kind of forward-thinking innovation for its own sake which defines post-industrial late capitalism. This kind of self-theorizing nostalgia involves Hollywood media and their paratexts’ lovingly explicit foregrounding of its own pastiche past in reflexive but uncritical ways, celebrating the relationship between film’s past and cinema’s future through reassuring narratives that promote the imagined inevitability of aesthetic and technological change. Yet moments of this kind of self-aware nostalgia block off the possibility of resistant space for doubt, critique and alternatives regarding the messy economic realities of a digital transition which contains more troubling questions than answers beneath its self-referential surfaces. There remains room, of course, for a more fragmentary and individualized kind of a truly “reflective” nostalgia, one somewhat outside the “official” channels of contemporary Hollywood. But they remain dependent upon active and idiosyncratic impulses hardly outside the present cycles of consumption (indie movies, archives, rethinking the past self-theorizing of older films), while their ultimate value remains generally unclear, particularly in a postmodern culture that too often rewards the kind of ignorance and passivity that further feeds the market imperatives and de-historicizing logic of such self-theorizing impulses in the first place.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Flickers of Film / Nostalgia in the Time of Digital Cinema

I'm happy to announce that my next book has been contracted with Rutgers University Press, entitled Flickers of Film / Nostalgia in the Time of Digital Cinema. I suspect the plan is to have it out by the end of 2015, but I can't confirm that for sure. I'll be spending most of the next month on revisions, with the deadline of having the final manuscript to Rutgers by mid-January.

Flickers of Film is an ambivalent polemic about the uses of nostalgia for the fading medium of film in an cinematic age where the production and distribution of movies are increasingly dependent upon digital technologies. Although the dependence on nostalgia can serve as a reassuring aesthetic guide through this period of profound technological change, it can also cloud many of the distressing economic shifts within the movie industry that are representative of larger changes in the post-industrial era of late capitalism. I'll have more to say about it in the next few weeks.


Material from Chapter 2 will be appearing in the forthcoming issue of Jump Cut, probably as early as the end of this month.



Table of Contents

             Introduction /
                        Self Theorizing Nostalgia

1)      I’ll (Always) Be Back /
                  Virtual Performances, or the Cinematic Logic of Late Capitalism

2)      They Saw No Future /
New Nostalgia Films and Digital Exhibition

3)      Digital Decasia /
Degrading Film, Database Histories and the Value of Reflective Nostalgia

4)      Going Home . . . For the First Time /
Pixar Studios, Digital Animation, and the Limits of Reflective Nostalgia

5)      TRON Legacies /
Nostalgia Blockbusters and Disney in the Age of Transmedia Storytelling
 
6)      Game (Not) Over /
Videogame Pastiche & Nostalgic Disavowals in the Post-Cinematic Era

Conclusion /
      On Clouds and Be Kind Rewind