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Reviewed by:
  • The Virtual Life of Film
  • Paul X. Rutz
D. N. Rodowick. The Virtual Life of Film. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2007. x + 193 pp.

Digital technology is fast replacing film as the main means by which people make movies. That fact has already had a growing effect on motion pictures over the past two decades, changing many aspects of their construction and the fundamental experiences they provide. Working from that premise—and the concern it elicits in the minds of film scholars everywhere—D. N. Rodowick has written the first of two books attempting to situate the fate of film theory in the digital age.

The disappearance of celluloid as the primary mode for watching movies is a palpable concern for anyone who grew up assuming the mechanical whirr of the projector, the skip of the image during a reel change, and the sheer size of the silver screen are essential to the theatrical experience. Moreover, for film theorists, the loss of film poses a career problem. Since the mid-1980s, Rodowick writes, "Film theory has fallen on hard times, even within the field of cinema studies itself" (3). The likes of Christian Metz and Roland Barthes have been pushed aside in favor of media theory and cultural studies, approaches rooted more in sociology than in psychology or semiotics.

Rodowick argues that the key to keeping film theory relevant is to separate "film" from "cinema" in academic discourse. The cinematic model as worked out by classical film theorists, from Hugo Munsterberg through André Bazin has directly influenced all sorts of so-called "new media," especially video games. Therefore, Rodowick contends, scholars eschew film theory at their peril. Not only that, film's place as the dominant cinematic mode has been regularly challenged in waves of technological innovation since 1950 thanks to the inventions of TV, video, DVD, the internet, and more, yet all of these forms share a cinematic affinity.

With the advent of the digital theater, Rodowick writes, "we find ourselves pushed to examine something new in this experience that [End Page 411] has already happened to us . . . and so we must revisit some familiar questions of classical film theory in a new context" (98). These questions as they relate to film have already been debated for nearly a century, and the methods should be applied to new media just as rigorously: "Film theory, and the history of film theory, remains important for the range of concepts and methods it has developed for defining the 'cinematic,' no matter how variable the concept, and for evaluating both the spectatorial experience (perceptual, cognitive, affective) and the range of cultural meanings that devolve from films" (22). Here it should be noted that although he mentions cognitive study here, Rodowick does not take the opportunity to discuss the growing popularity of cognitive and ecological film theory in this book.

Instead, he shows his view of the digital problem in theory by laying out an ontology of the photographic image as worked out by Bazin, Barthes, and others. While "photography's principle powers are those of analogy and indexicality" (9), Rodowick argues that we tend to view digital imagery in terms of photography rather than in terms of other ways of making images. If a digital image looks like a photograph, then it has succeeded (11), but the digital—a binary code only discernable by a computer—has no indexical nature.

This does not mean that to investigate the cinematic output of the future we should shun the theoretical modes of the past. Classical film theory's "phenomenological emphasis" opens a path toward a "qualitative self-examination" of the sort Barthes championed in his later work (75). Rodowick embraces Stanley Cavell as an example of the kind of film theory that should be practiced in the face of film's disappearance. He connects Cavell's work with that of Barthes (in its investigation of photography chiefly as a medium of time rather than space) and with that of Gilles Deleuze (in proposing an ethics of cinema). He writes that "for Cavell cinema appears in response to a long and complex trajectory in the history of philosophy" (66), following from the death of God...


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pp. 411-413
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