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From Lynch and Godard to Larraín: How Film Directors Have Handled the Transition to Digital

Photo of Steve Greene By Steve Greene | Indiewire March 1, 2013 at 12:18PM

Disappointed about the decreasing presence of film? See how a pair of filmmakers fared in their first digital video efforts and what one recent film holds for film's historical use.
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Laura Dern in David Lynch's "Inland Empire."
Laura Dern in David Lynch's "Inland Empire."

At the time of his most recent feature-length release, David Lynch had just turned 60. For his polarizing, mind-bending epic (descriptors that could be applied to a sizable portion of Lynch's filmography) "Inland Empire," the director turned to digital video as a way to tell his story. It's the kind of late-career switch from film that has since or will soon befall many of Lynch's peers. Still, it's the ways that some limits-pushing filmmakers chose to adapt their digital debuts, even after a significant body of work, that define their transitions to newer technology.

One of the helpful ways to approach what can easily come across as a moldless narrative jumble is to realize that "Inland Empire" is, in many ways, an extension of Lynch's output from the decades before it. The film features a laundry list of thematic and visible hallmarks, not the least of which is the Hollywood backdrop for Nikki Grace's (Laura Dern) personal saga of disillusionment and slipping grip on "reality." 

Worthy of note is the first recognizable image we get from "Inland Empire": a record player, furiously spinning a vintage radio play. In addition to that opening, the record makes a comeback, right before the fairly straightforward plot becomes irrevocably fractured. By bringing in a symbol of analog media to begin a first major tale told through a digital medium (and then bidding it adieu when all narrative hell breaks loose), Lynch makes peace with his decision and lunges forward emphatically through a web of puzzling-but-engaging sequences.

In an interview with the AV Club around the time of the film's New York premiere, Lynch remarked that this new format was "more like 1930s 35mm, in that there's not so much information. There's something about not seeing everything perfectly." Not one to ever shy away from showing imperfections, there are cracks in the façade that enhance Lynch's indulging in slightly-off. One particularly disturbing moment from the film's final minutes is Dern's bulging, distorted face superimposed on another character's body, oozing out of Nikki's subconscious. But another telling slice from the post-record-player segments of "Inland Empire" is when a ketchup bottle explodes over a man's stomach, leading Nikki to momentarily imagine (remember? plan?) a murder wound of her own. As Lynch zooms in on the man's chest, the reflecting light of the condiment almost reveals the camera capturing the action. It's a mirroring that highlights Nikki's anxiety, but is also a momentary reminder of the man calling the shots.

Even though most of the film is devoted to exploring some dark psychological trauma (either of an individual or of a society, depending on your interpretation), Lynch does offer a ray of hope at the end. Where his "Mulholland Dr." ends with a foreboding, enigmatic declaration of the word "Silencio," the last line of "Inland Empire" is a decidedly more optimistic intonation: "Sweet," says one of Nikki's hallucinatory companions. You can almost imagine Lynch, in a moment of candor or dry deadpan, watching footage during post-production and making the same remark. Through the single word of a twentysomething of difficult-to-determine origin, we get a cinematic statement of a respected filmmaker discovering his new canvas.

Film Socialisme
Jean-Luc Godard's "Film Socialisme."

One director, no stranger to filmmaking risks himself, who may not have had as positive a reaction to his initial experience with digital is the legendary Jean-Luc Godard. From the opening credits of "Film Socialism," it's clear that this is a collaborative effort -- Godard is not facing this transition to video all by his lonesome. "Film Socialisme" utilizes many of the Godardian flourishes (layered, mismatched audio, etc.) while adding some new tricks. The extended first act of the film, which ends up serving as the eventual framing device, involves tourists of all types on a European cruise ship. The way that the digital footage captures these passengers ends up taking on the feel of a found footage movie, charting intimate conversations on this Floating Hotel and Casino of Babel. 

When the disjointed narrative switches to land, we get a scene of Godard filming an actress filming another subject. This layered peek behind the camera, a technique utilized in "Inland Empire," comes across as an acknowledgment of that shift. The jarring piano slams and overlaying of Hebrew and Arabic text in between scenes draws the viewers attention away from a collection of moving images and causes comprehension to be cleaved from a conventional marriage of sound and image. Although this isn't a new concept for a Godard film to push forward, the digital video aspect allows the picture to become more easily distorted, blindingly overexposed in many cases.

In similar acts of defiance, both "Inland Empire" and "Film Socialisme" specifically target language as a way to enhance the effects of their digital excursions. Lynch presents extended sequences and conversations among secondary characters with no explicit indication of what's being discussed. Instead, the attention is pulled to visual cues, all bathed in the DIY-evoking lighting scheme. It's no coincidence that early on in "Film Socialisme," Godard gives us a character tracing hieroglyphics. Then, in a subtitle convention that's drawn out throughout the entire film, the audience gets only words, sentence fragments patterned after the limited visual information Godard offers through the grainy video footage.

Because of their tendency to poke at the established conventions of moviemaking, perhaps Lynch and Godard are unusual examples to showcase this changeover. One other source for varying opinions on how the choice between film and digital has affected late-career filmmaking, the recent documentary "Side by Side," features devotees in both the preservation and adaptive camps. Digital proponents argue for its versatility, convenience and cost-effectiveness, while champions of film put forward celluloids organic, tactile universality and visual crispness. But if we're looking at how this division may evolve in the future, one recent festival film and awards season nominee has shown that adapting format choices for an individual project rather than subscribing to one style or another.

Bernal Larrain No

Pablo Larraín's "No" has garnered acclaim from critics around the globe for its ability to visually immerse the audience in the times and circumstances of its central struggle. Telling the story of the advertisers and filmmakers charged with spearheading the public campaign to democratically oust General Pinochet from power in late 1980s Chile, the film is shot on period-specific quality tape. Larraín, 36, hasn't quite reached the volume of output of the aforementioned distinctive stylists. But in crafting a film whose success owes so much to the seamless integration of archival footage into a story told nearly a quarter century later, Larraín has shown that using this type of shooting format can tap into a historical authenticity that works as an asset, not a hindrance. 

In this space over the past few months, we've talked about how filmmakers, actors and stories reach back through generations to either find common ground or further explain what changes have transpired in the meantime. Here, we get the final component of this process, a literal connection to the past. Whether in the streets of Chile, the waters near European shores or the winding mental pathways of passersby on Sunset and Vine, the very method of capturing those images has the power and potential to evolve, but strengthen the way we observe people of all ages.

Through February 2013, Indiewire is taking a closer look at how the over-60 audience is served by the movies made for them as well as profiling the actors and filmmakers who are their peers. It's part of a partnership with Heineken, which is sponsoring the "Heineken 60+ Challenge" that reaches out to the creative community to film, photograph or write their observations on the lifestyles and preferences of the 60+ age group. The goal is to help Heineken create innovative products to suit this golden
generation.

This article is related to: Heineken 60+ Challenge, Jean-Luc Godard, David Lynch, Pablo Larrain, Filmmaker Toolkit







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