Digital Cinephilia: Terminal Velocity

Curator's Note

I work at Binghamton University, and my peregrinations often bring me through the hallway where Ernie Gehr shot Serene Velocity (1970). My passage through that passage always prompts a shiver, and occasionally a question of whether I am even moving at all.  But also a sadness.

Speaking of Gehr’s History (1970)—but equally applicable to Serene Velocity—Tom Gunning writes, “An almost ascetic paring down of means can yield a nearly infinite return in perceptual riches.”  My students do not always appreciate what Gehr’s camera conjures out of a bleak corridor—but at least they have the opportunity, due my department’s possession of a worn but serviceable 16mm print.  Each time I screen it I become more aware of its finitude and fragility, in contrast to its evocation of timelessness and placelessness; and I wonder when this singular film—and its perceptual riches—will be unavailable to me, to students, to the future.

Serene Velocity and Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967) both have been recently restored, and so seem relatively secure.  But amid the celebratory tone that accompanies much digital cinephilia—triumphal assertions of the democratization of cinematic culture, despite the stranglehold that Netflix, Apple and a few others maintain over distribution and selection in the digital domain—it needs to be said that Serene Velocity and Wavelength will never stream to your phone, for aesthetic and economic reasons.  Although Serene Velocity is available on YouTube, it’s not even a poor substitute—it’s a parody, evacuating the sense in which this film is, finally, about film. Hilariously, Tony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone (1973) is also on YouTube, its monolithic sculptural volume squashed like a bug. These are emphatically medium-specific works, and Snow for one has rejected outright the transposition of his films to digital formats.  And if these canonical films have merited restorations, there remain hundreds of equally vital films that have gone without—not even to speak of digitization, which might be welcomed in many cases—because the money and the potential for profit, however construed, are not there.

Digital cinephilia celebrates how film travels across immaterial networks, but Serene Velocity, Wavelength and so very many more are not going anywhere, left behind because of their intransigent and intrinsic status as films.  Whatever the benefits of the digital, whatever pleasure accessibility brings, my own affect in response to digital distribution and access is a sadness for what will be lost.


Thank you for the insightful post, Brian. I share your sadness about the dismal prospects for distribution and access regarding "untranslatable" films like Serene Velocity. It makes me fantasize about a future in which this kind of film is in fact digitized properly, with all due attention to the specific qualities that the 16mm apparatus demands (I'm picturing software and hardware designed specially to simulate the mechanical action of camera/projector/filmstrip as closely as possible, rather than altering/eviscerating the film to fit the commercial standards). Sadness aside, I would frame this as a great challenge for digital media technologies in general: Serene Velocity is one film (among many others) that demands just the right kind of attention to inspire innovations that could be advantageous for the goals of digital film preservation in general, if not digital film production as well. What your post highlights, of course, is how hard it is to imagine the necessary resources ever being channeled toward films that are neither easy to digest nor easy to digitize.

Rene, I think your reply (especially your raising of the question of "software and hardware") points to an important subject that is also latent in Brian's post: the materiality of the digital. Though it is fashionable to joke about the internet as a "series of tubes," the Arab Spring has taught us that the materials that we use to access the immaterial world of the digital are significant. The same could be said of the materials of digital cinephilia. In addition to a lament about what is lost (like "Serene Velocity") with the increasing turn to the digital, perhaps what we need is a call to digital artists to attend as carefully to the digital and its material possibilities as Gehr does to the analogue 16mm apparatus. Such works might have the salutary effect of bringing increased awareness to the material properties of analogue cinema (and one hopes, a renewed interest in its preservation).

Brian, I think Serene Velocity is a particularly interesting choice largely for the reason that prompts you to write it: place. Along with issues of selection and distribution, film and aesthetics, there is another texture that film demands: the restraint of sitting and watching the moving images in a designated space. One of the questions concerning cinephilia in the digital age is the opportunity to watch on-the-go because our computers and phones liberate us from the restraint of sitting and watching. This is also to say, we dictate the terms to the images, often ignoring any sense of how watching them in a dark, quiet theater might change our viewing experience. This is less a concern for mainstream movies, perhaps, because they dominate theater space generally and are less sensitive to the place in which they are viewed. This also suggests to me, though, how right Rene is concerning the difficulty to digest such a text. With such an emphasis on making viewing easier, quicker, less cumbersome it seems equally right to suggest that the new ethic of easy also has taken something away from films like this simply by making them available away from a theater space in the first place.

In response to all of these thoughtful comments, I thought it might be useful to note that SERENE VELOCITY has indeed been digitized to Gehr's specifications at the current show on American experimental film in the 60s at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (which has a long history of exhibiting experimental film, largely due to Sally Dixon, whose own donated collection supplied the films for this show). There, in HD video projection, SERENE VELOCITY is built as an installation, albeit in a dark gallery (so a kind of black cube). An a/v archivist and researcher who worked on the project told me that Gehr was initially apprehensive of showing his film as an installation, but he agreed to it after the Walker met a few conditions: 1. that the print be restored and that the digital copy struck from that print be used only for the exhibition, not to be loaned out or copied. 2. that they install a bench in the gallery and that the screen, which was hung from the ceiling, be kept relatively small. 3. that the film be screened, on film, in the museum's cinema. This last condition was something other filmmakers in the show required as well -- I'm told that Marilyn Brakhage agreed to the installation of MOTHLIGHT in the gallery, and run off a 16mm loop projector, so long as there was also a theatrical viewing. So while in many cases something is lost in the digitization of works such as SERENE VELOCITY, there are cases, here being the Walker's very careful cooperation with Gehr, where the old persists alongside the new. What the Walker curators did so well, I think, was to put these two forms in dialogue with each other, and invite viewer comparisons through their material and spatial juxtapositions. Gehr of course is working primarily, if not exclusively in digital video these days, and I remember his elegiac tone when he first made his medial switch, presenting SHADOW in 2007 at Views from the Avant-Garde at NYFF: introducing the film, he wiped away a tear when he described it as being about "returning to New York, aging, and things disappearing." By contrast, his more recent digital works, which bring the same structural rigor and perceptual attentiveness to the screen, are energetic, visually promiscuous (e.g. applying filters and superimpositions), and even sometimes humorous. So, like many experimental filmmakers whose work concerns the specificities of the medium, Gehr's practice persists in digital formats as well, lending considerable depth to our understanding of what that kind of practice, or aesthetic inquiry, entails.

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