Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter is a bad movie, even an awful one. Many critics will write brilliant, funny words about why. Few will discuss the fact that its footage has been processed and projected digitally. But this is by far and away the work’s most fascinating aspect. You can tell that Hereafter print you’re watching is digital for at least three reasons: The camera’s continual speed and agility, the way actors keep melting-streaking in and out of focus while walking, and the ubiquitous white-blue-and-gray color scheme, which differs from the bleached-out look of a printed-on-film film like Minority Report in that the shades are less delineated. You stare at actors’ faces, and see pixels.
This is not to say that film is good, digital bad. Film usually reveals itself to audiences with splices and scratches, while Eastwood has shown how DV printing and projection can look pristine. Both Gran Torino and Invictus made handsome videos, in both cases because he used a more medium-friendly darker color palette, with lots of greens and browns (no overexposure), and because he used actors and situations (Clint scowling, Morgan considering) that lacked vibrant, dynamic motion, meaning technicians didn’t have to worry much about keeping the image in focus. When the action did kick up, like in Invictus’s rugby games, the running camera and recurring blurs added to the thrill by making viewers feel like they were chasing the scene.
An early Hereafter scene in which characters try to outrun a tsunami is similarly exciting, and points to how DV can succeed where film might fail. The script, acting, and editing would still be terrible in either medium, but the quick proximity of digital turns the run into a visceral sprint. The overly bright bodies dissolving, though, don’t play as well for scenes at the London Book Fair.
Yet Eastwood’s choice of look for the film is understandable; the movie is a ghost story, and any TV show can tell you that the path to the other world is a white light. But the technology he’s using doesn’t serve the narrative’s ambitions. This is a film about people connecting, and it’s hard to convey that when actors blob out of view.
Yet the film raises larger issues than how to digitalize visuals. This major film from a major studio by the currently most acclaimed major studio director seems to understand very little about technology. Consider the way that Hereafter fails the Internet, as a character switches from one YouTube clip to another without loading time or a different capsule description appearing. Good and bad reference points immediately leapt to mind. The bad was Aaron Sorkin’s claim at the press conference for the New York Film Festival’s highest-profile film, The Social Network, that he knew nothing about Facebook before writing the film’s screenplay, and created an account as research; the good was the moment in Film Socialisme, the festival’s most hotly debated film, when a cat becomes a low-res YouTube image and the woman watching it meows. The contrast suggested that Film Socialisme has more insight into social media than The Social Network has, and that Hollywood studio films are less with it than other parts of the world’s films are.
Both The Social Network and Hereafter use cellphone conversations primarily to advance plot, with incidental commentary on how people communicate without actually connecting. This differs from how Kiarostami handles cellphones in Certified Copy: A critic giving a lecture interrupts himself to answer his mobile, talks, hangs up, and addresses the crowd again, an incident that does nothing to advance the narrative but everything to advance Kiarostami’s demonstration of how this man (or anyone with an iPhone/iPad/iPod/Blackberry/laptop) can turn the outside world on and off at will.
In fairness, The Social Network knows that people toggle between technology and nature, but the movie’s look ignores this. Unlike Hereafter, David Fincher’s video flows so cleanly that if you didn’t know better you might think you were watching film. This is also the case in his earlier Zodiac. A work like Michael Mann’s Public Enemies declares itself revisionist by shooting a traditionally filmic story, the gangster saga, on self-evident DV; by contrast, I’ve frequently referred to Zodiac in my festival coverage this year because I regard it as the great video film, in the sense of a video trying to pass for film—video’s hunt for film mirrors the characters’ hunt for the killer. (Gyllenhaal doesn’t encounter the Zodiac in the film’s tensest scene, but a film projectionist.) That approach doesn’t work for The Social Network, though, because it’s wrong to say that the wired-in world and the wired-out world are indistinguishable. Rather, people can tell the difference, but more people more often now are choosing to stay wired in.
Both The Social Network and Hereafter try and fail to depict how a technology-based culture looks, sounds, and behaves; the two films’ visual styles contrast, but neither ultimately suggests that their characters are more than images. The festival’s worst movies, both film and video, followed suit by failing to add any self-awareness to their proceedings, keeping them stuck in genres ranging from thriller (The Robber) to prestige epic (The Tempest) to mash-up (the multiple old movie remixes that showed at Views from the Avant-Garde). Many of the best movies, by contrast, made their self-awareness a focal point: The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu stuck with as much ceremonial film footage as possible to leave you aware that you were being bullshitted about the real world; Carlos blended both 35mm color fictional and black-and-white TV news footage to suggest neither version of history satisfying; Jonathan Caouette’s short All Flowers in Time, the trippiest fiddling with DV that I’ve seen since Inland Empire, gave its characters orange eyes, scaly skin, deep, scary voices, and split-open faces to show how hideous TV characters might actually look if they stepped off the screen—and, conversely and subversively, how hideous people look when they imitate TV.
More so than at any other New York Film Festival I can remember, the notable films from this year’s lineup made the very form they took a key part of their meaning. Mysteries of Lisbon, Robinson in Ruins, and Black Venus used DV to suggest the present trying to learn an unknowable past. Shooting on film, by contrast, became a radically archaic choice, with the old-school tricks filmmakers used—Kelly Reichardt filming Meek’s Cutoff in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Manoel de Oliveira employing primitive magic tricks in The Strange Case of Angelica, talented film and video artist Apichatpong Weerasethakul shooting the Super 16 Uncle Boonmee in as many different genre styles as he could manage—further suggesting that their movies were past artifacts flowing upriver towards the future. Certified Copy towered over the other new releases by enfolding both film and video within itself, and in the process both old world and new. In blending film and digital stock into one coherent visual whole while blending modernity and the past into a coherent thematic whole, Certified Copy nailed our current moment, conveying how people are always simultaneously themselves and images of themselves better than any other movie I know. (Many Film Socialisme defenders would argue that their picture achieves the same goal, and after another few viewings I might agree.)
All of which leads us back to Hereafter, the festival’s closing night show, a ghostly video that I mistakenly identified several weeks ago as a film. My error was telling; even Eastwood is printing on digital now, and few filmgoers have probably realized this, showing how ubiquitous the ongoing switch has become. That even Eastwood hasn’t figured it out yet suggests how few artists actually have. But this is a good thing: It’s been nearly 25 years since artists first started using DV, and the medium is still surprising them. Place Hereafter and the other works all in a row, hit PLAY, and wire into possibility.
The 48th New York Film festival runs from September 24 to October 10. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.