Assemblage, Constellation, Image: Reading Filmic Matter
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Assemblage, Constellation, Image:
Reading Filmic Matter

Films are, indisputably, objects. Archives are devoted to the painstaking and costly work of preserving and storing films, and countless reels have been lost to the ravages of chemical decay and physical neglect. Films are materially reproducible, duplicated into an ever-increasing array of analogue and digital formats. And yet debates about the ontological status of film tend toward generalities about the medium as a whole, often limiting their scope to the screened image rather than the physical mechanisms by which those images are stored and conveyed. And formal readings of individual titles rarely consider the nuanced distinctions between their competing, physical manifestations. One could easily imagine writing about the text Rear Window (1954) as a singular filmic object of study, for example, but it would be quite unusual to make reference to the streaming platform, file format, and model of video monitor used to conduct that study, to devote attention, in other words, to the specific material qualities of that particular Rear Window object.

In short, film’s object status, in both colloquial discussions and in the field of film theory, is highly unstable and rife with contradictions. There are reels of film rusted into cans in deep storage that have never been and will likely never be projected. There are films whose celluloid incarnations have been destroyed that continue to circulate via video and digital duplicates. Other films no [End Page 215] longer exist in any format but can be studied through their inter-textual traces via scripts, production notes, stills, storyboards, press kits, reviews, advertisements, and accounts of spectators. Nearly all contemporary films exist only as digital files, edited, enhanced, rendered, and distributed as code but still prone to deterioration, file corruption, and format obsolescence. Production processes are equally marked by their material histories, manifest in the peculiarities of film stock, gauge, grain, pixel, and compression algorithm. The material status of each of these examples is distinct, yet in every case the works would be referred to as “films” by most audiences and scholars (although in the case of digital works, “film” might remain in scare quotes). If film is an object, then, it constitutes an object category with an enormous range of physical and virtual characteristics. This range expands exponentially when we further consider the vast theoretical complications attending the screened-image-as-object, or the diversity of approaches we might take to objects and forms as they are captured and mediated cinematically.

Volker Pantenburg points to three primary registers via which we might distinguish “cinematographic objects”: “(1) objects in film; (2) objects of film; and (3) film as an object.”1 Yet while these registers are clearly mutually inflected, established discourses of film and media theory make it vexingly difficult to shift between them in a single study. Some scholarship, particularly in the field of video studies, has been exemplary in overcoming this challenge.2 Yet as a whole, studies of filmic ontology have centered disproportionately on the status of the moving image as an ephemeral screened object, a privileged state or process through which object-images attain new material presence. While the case study that follows focuses much of its attention on films as physical objects, a larger set of unanswered questions motivates my query: Can film theory attend to the aesthetics and ontology of the image object while paying equal attention to the fragility of its individual manifestations and to the conditions of its production and reception? Can theories of spectatorship be reconciled with archival work on diverse reception practices? Can we historicize more explicitly the interventions and politics of various modes of film and media theory?

My thinking about the object status of film has been recently complicated by several archival encounters with a series of 16mm pornographic peep show loops produced in Seattle in the late 1960s: the Starlight films. Over the course of the past eight years, I have studied these films, viewing and projecting them in a wide variety of archival, academic, artistic, and domestic spaces, sometimes blindsided by serendipitous discoveries. Each encounter was [End Page 216] accompanied by a shift in knowledge regarding the historical resonances of these works...